Friday, February 26, 2010

Hearts, flowers, and the occasional death ray

Full disclosure: I don’t read romance novels. I don’t, as a rule, watch romantic movies. I get as weepy as the next geek-girl over Simon and Kaylee or Odysseus and Penelope, but I’m basically there for the explosions and the swordfights and the witty banter and the odd theme smacking me upside the head. And yet, in the dozen or so conversations I have per week about my book, I always come back to the same statement.

“Well, fundamentally, it’s a love story.”

I always feel I have to qualify the statement—“but a lot of stuff blows up”; “but it’s really funny, too”; “but most people remember the aphasic cyborg”—and yet the sentence keeps slipping out. Masks is a love story. Not that you can tell from the plot outline.

On paper, Masks is about two teenage superheroes (or, depending on your definition, superhero wannabes) thrown together by a piece of forbidden information. Rae (Peregrine) witnesses the internationally renowned superhero Cobalt trying to murder an unarmed villain. She saves the villain’s life, but Cobalt runs her down and tries to kill her before she can talk about what she’s seen. It looks pretty grim for Rae until Trevor (no codename because he lives off-grid) steps in and saves her life, blowing his cover in the process. They’re stuck with each other until they can find out what Cobalt is up to and stop him more permanently. The trail leads them from the depths of a supervillain pub to the shining corridors of a superteam’s airship, soaring above the city. There are several large fights and many more small ones, a lot of snarky banter, and a sideways look at what it means to be both a teenager and a hero, including how to sneak out of fifth-period civics to stop a bank robbery and what happens when your high school’s queen bee sets her sights on your cute but oblivious superhero pal. Somehow in all of this, the world gets saved. Mostly.

I joke that Masks is a cockeyed combination of Batman and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This makes people laugh and nod and say they want to read it. All well and good. But how did a wacky superhero romp by someone who doesn’t even read romance turn into a love story?

The short answer is: completely by accident. As I’ve said in previous entries, I created Trevor as a throwaway character—he was supposed to die in his first appearance, which I wrote when I was 17. He got a last-second reprieve because I felt sorry for him, and as I wrote more stories, he forced himself into them with increasing frequency until he finally developed a full-blown crush on Rae, who was unfortunately seeing someone else at the time.

But when you put one teenage girl and one teenage boy in a novel, and they’re both het, people expect things to happen. And in this case, naturally, the characters refused to cooperate.

Trevor was charmingly mushy in the series, but now that I’d made him a damaged ex-sidekick living in the shadows and on the run from dark forces, and now that the novel was so heavily about all that, he had more immediate things than romance on his mind. (I knew I shouldn’t have made him so smart.) And in order to write Rae as someone who constructs elaborate cover identities so as to avoid involving civilians in her life as a mask, I had to build walls high and strong around her real personality. I shouldn’t have made her so smart, either.) Try as I might, I just couldn’t get to the gushy-declarations-of-love scene. Rae and Trevor wouldn’t do it. The characters in my head broke scene and turned to me, scowling, arms crossed and feet tapping, waiting for me to write something that was worth living out. (Some people have told me that characters who have minds of their own and take over their own stories is a sign of vivid, fully developed writing. Others have told me it’s a sign of mental illness. I say there’s a fine line between the two, and I am merrily erasing that line and replacing it with the proverbial trout.)

Finally, I recalled why I don’t read straight-up romances. I find them dull. You want me to read 150 to 300 pages just to find out whether the two pretty people on the cover end up together? Assuming I even like them, I’m well aware that they’re on that cover together for a reason. There’s no pleasure in waiting for them to figure out what I already know, especially if they’re going to be mushy about it. Where’s the suspense in that? I treasure my friends, but after two hours of blather about a perfect new boyfriend, I’m ready to stick a spork in my eye. It’s been said that the dullest story ever written was, “He loved her and she loved him and they both lived happily ever after.” I love seeing my friends happy, but I prefer conflict in my entertainment, and that requires a certain amount of mystery, and a certain amount of misery.

I had plenty of conflict in my main plot—several major parties merrily getting in one another’s way, often with violent and surprising results. So if I was going to have a romance, as people insisted I should, why on earth should I make it so eye-sporking easy?

So Rae and Trevor dance around each other in Masks, and the relationship that develops between them is more complex than the typical happily-ever-after. Forget crushes—neither of these people has had a friend in years, and which makes it extra hard to adjust to having someone depend on you for immediate survival. Plus they’re living together—messing up the same hideout bathroom, arguing over strategy, driving each other berserk. Add in the adrenaline-fueled emotions of people in mortal danger, and you’ve got a dangerous mix. So neither Rae nor Trevor really knows what’s going on until it’s well underway. Weird things happen when two strangers suddenly become each other’s best friends, and even weirder things happen when life and death and destiny get involved.

The thing people forget when I say that Masks is about modern mythology is that the old myths were stranger than anyone realized …

[Sketch by Nicole Le]

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