I don’t write about heroes.
Fantasy and science fiction are chock full of heroes—people who wield lightsabers and conquer kingdoms and raise rebellions. These heroes are legendary, larger than life, the kind of people we all aspire to be. They are chosen by fate and they rise to the occasion.
And while I enjoy those stories, I have little interest in writing them.
I enjoy writing stories about choices. It’s part of the reason I’ve always been drawn to young adult literature: these are the coming of age tales, when young adults decide who they would like to be.
I’ve always been a little iffy on that last question. When I try to describe myself, I often grasp for accomplishments or occupations. “I’m a bookseller,” I’ve said. “I’m a writer.” These are things I’ve chosen to be, and there’s some reassurance in that.
The day after the 2016 election, I’m in a haze.
I spend most of the night sitting sideways on my grandmother’s old sofa, my laptop cradled between my legs, my phone tucked between ear and shoulder. I keep hitting refresh on several webpages: Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, Twitter, and NPR. I watch as a map of the United States turned from a neutral gray to red—with small pockets of blue on either coast. When the morning comes, I’m operating on about two hours worth of sleep.
But I’m scheduled to work at a book fair, so I pull on clean clothes and get into my car.
The book fair is at a nearby kindergarten through eighth grade school, and my boss is there. She looks about as rested as I do—and the usual pleasantries give way to exchanges of how everyone is doing. I learn one of my coworkers spent part of the day sobbing in the bathroom; another is in denial.
“How are you?” my boss asks.
I give her a smile that I hope comes off as self-deprecating. “I picked the right day to go back on anti-anxiety medication.”
That earns me a laugh.
“What are we supposed to do?” I ask. I ask, because the question has been burning inside of me for the last twelve hours. “What are we supposed to do?”
There are no answers, so I get to work.
I help straight books, recommend titles to parents, and write down special orders for the popular books we run out of. There’s always at least one book that goes a little bit viral among the middle schoolers. This year, it’s Trust Me, I’m Lying by Mary Elizabeth Summers. I write down the title again and again, handing off blue cards to the students so they can pay for them at the counter.
As I wind my way through the non-fiction section, I come to a halt. There are a few junior biographies, and my fingers alight on one for Hillary Clinton.
I pick up the book, running my fingers over the spine. Carefully, I place the book on a stand so that the cover is displayed.
This was what I’m going to do, I decide. I’m going to face this book out.
In every story, the narrative is driven by choices.
I’ve forgotten who said it, but I remember a writer once said that character development was a character making a decision at the end of a book that they wouldn’t have made at the beginning. It’s a statement I’ve tried to follow in every one of my novels. For some characters, it’s choosing to be seen when all they want is to be invisible. For others, it’s to trust when they want to pull away.
But it always comes back to choice.
My words are spent on other things: letters to my representatives. Tweets trying to encourage others to do the same. Texts to family.
At the bookshop, we have a table for Indie Next titles. These are the monthly bookseller picks, the best of the best, the ones we heartily recommend. The table sells quite well, and it stands at the front of the store. In the weeks after the election, we take down the Indie Next titles.
Instead, we take out books on activism. On protesting. On historical marches.
The table sells constantly. And while we eventually replace the Indie Next titles, our display for new and notable nonfiction remains dominated by books on the current political atmosphere. Customers turn to these books for answers, for direction, and for hope.
And yet, part of me doesn’t want to write. There’s an insidious little voice at the back of my head saying that fiction won’t change things.
I try to silence that part of myself, because I know it’s wrong.
Fiction helps people cope. For some, it’s a shield, and for others, it’s a lens with which to examine the world. For me, fiction is a cocoon: a safe place from which I emerge a slightly different person.
In the summer of 2017, I choose to write again.
I’ve given feedback on a lot of writing.
When I was in college, I worked as a writing tutor. From there, I went on to beta fellow writers’ novels, and then to work as a bookseller—and on my own books. I like breaking plots down, examining what makes a book work and what doesn’t. One of my favorite things is when a friend emails me their manuscript and says, “Do your worst.”
I do. Nicely, of course.
And the most common feedback I’ve given is this: “This character needs more agency.” Or, “Why are we reading about this character in particular? This other character seems to be doing much more.” Or, “This character is all reaction instead of action.”
It’s a common thing to hear; I’ve been on the receiving end, as well.
A main character isn’t just the person we’re reading about—they are the person from which the narrative must revolve. Their choices have to matter.
At this moment, my line edits for The Bone Houses are sitting on my laptop. It’s a book I never expected to write: a gravedigger who wants to end a zombie uprising so she can save her family and get back to burying the dead. It’s an unabashedly weird book, and I love it. Not because it was easy to write—rather, it was probably the hardest novel I’ve ever created. It was born in a time of pain, when I was physically and emotionally at my lowest. I could have walked away, but I didn’t. I decided to stay the course.
Sitting beside me, on a green coffee table, is another choice. And one I’m also proud to make.
It’s a ballot.
I’ve heard some people say that they’re not voting. “It’s a rigged system,” they say. “I’m too busy. And both candidates are bad. So I won’t choose.”
I want to shake these people. To tell them that by not voting, they are making a choice. They are ceding the power to change things for the better. If this were a novel, I’d been scribbling in the margins with red ink. “Needs more character agency,” I’d say.
The truth is, we’re all a series of choices. What we choose to act on, what we choose to refrain from. We’re all main characters of our own stories, and every choice we make defines us.
So please, make this choice. Don’t let it be made for you.
I think part of the reason I don’t write about heroes is because I want to believe we don’t need them.
We have people.
I’d rather believe in them, instead.