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Monday, August 31, 2015

GUEST POST: "Why A Nice Dragon" by Rachel Aaron

One of my biggest rules as a writer is that once you figure out what a book’s about, you never mention it explicitly again. Silent themes should be just that: silent. This isn’t to say you can’t write a book that has a definite and clear message, just that you should never stop and draw an arrow pointing to it. The moment you say “this is what my book’s about,” you’re writing a sermon, not a story.

This rule always applies inside my fiction, but I try to obey it outside my books as well. I could write a thesis on the themes of free will and choice in the Eli books, but I prefer to let the text speak for itself. That way, if you don’t want to bother with the bigger questions of meaning and what it’s all about, you’re just left with a fun story, which isn’t a bad thing at all!

Today, though, in the spirit of “Talking about things Rachel cares about a lot,” I’m going to break my rule a little bit. Nearly a month ago, my new book, One Good Dragon Deserves Another, was released with much hoopla (I am a giant fan of hoopla!). The reception so far has been overwhelmingly positive, and I can’t say how happy I am that so many of my fans are enjoying a book I worked so hard on. But the release of OGDDA has also kicked off a kind of unique phenomena.

Recently, I’ve been getting emails from my young male readers. These are not bad emails at all! They’ve actually been almost entirely positive except for one repeated complaint where the reader wants to know when Julius is going to “grow a pair,” grab a sword, and start kicking butt. “All the lady dragons are super badass,” one reader pointed out. “When is Julius going to get his turn?”

If you are at all familiar with Nice Dragons Finish Last (and if you’re not, here’s Mihir’s excellent review), then you probably understand why these emails left me scratching my head. Invariably, I write these people back thanking them profusely for reading, but explaining that, unfortunately, the thing they want is never going to happen. Julius is never going to be an ass-kicking dragon like his sister Chelsie or brother Justin, because to have him pick up a sword and smash his enemies would negate the entire point of his character and the series as a whole.

When I sat down to write the Heartstriker series, I set out to do a lot of things. Some of these balls are already in play, and some have yet to be served, but the overarching theme tying them all together is a simple question:
1) do we need to be cruel to get ahead?
2) Is it possible to be both kind and successful in the long term, or will you just be hopelessly taken advantage of?

Throughout the Heartstriker novels--starting with Nice Dragons Finish Last and continuing with One Good Dragon Deserves Another—I pose this question from as many different angles as possible, but the instigator and primary example is always my main character, Julius. He is the titular Nice Dragon. He’s meek, he’s non-aggressive, he’s kind, and he doesn’t enjoy hurting others for any reason, even if they arguably deserve it. He is, in short, exactly the opposite of everything a ruthless, magical, cunning apex predator should be.

Right from the very first chapter of the first book, these undraconic traits make Julius’s life hell. In Nice Dragons Finish Last, I went out of my way to make sure every single dragon makes fun of or actively torments Julius for being like he is. At any point in the book, Julius’s life would have been made infinitely easier if he’d just “dragoned up” and done something ruthless or cruel, but he never does. Even when he actively tries to buy into the ruthless dragon ideal, he just can’t make himself do it, both because it feels wrong and because acting that way would make him just as bad as the dragons who’ve been bullying and taking advantage of him his whole life.

This active refusal to join the cruel, ruthless, dog-eat-dog brawl that is dragon culture is the core of Julius’s character, and in the books, it is the unique reason he succeeds where bigger, stronger, meaner dragons fail. Julius wins not because he is strong or has special powers, but because he is clever and compassionate, and an actual friend in a culture where friendship is considered nothing more than a set up for future betrayals. Even when he does eventually get power over other dragons, he refuses to put his boot on their necks and instead treats them with respect and compassion. He is nice, and in my books, that’s what makes him interesting enough to be worthy of being the main character.

This is not to berate or make fun of the readers who wrote me wondering when Julius will get a chance to kick butt. I absolutely understand where they’re coming from. Kicking butt is the standard path for a genre hero. My own books (especially my Paradox series) are full of ass kickers and badasses of every stripe, but not Julius. He was created to be fundamentally different, because in these books, he’s more than just the main character. He’s my answer to the question “is it possible to get ahead without hurting others?” because that is exactly what he does over and over again.

This isn’t to say I make it easy on him. Julius actually has had the hardest ride of any of my main characters to date, and we’re only two books into the Heartstriker series. There’s still three more of these suckers to go, and it’s no spoiler to say that I intend to test Julius’s commitment as hard and as cruelly as I can in each one. I don’t do this because I enjoy watching characters suffer (or, at least, not just because I enjoy it), but because I want to show people in the most brutal, absolute, and inarguable way possible that the “dragon” way of doing things---which, no coincidence, is very similar to the hyper-masculine, violence worshiping, alpha-dog culture modern men are still expected to conform to—is wrong.

All throughout the series, dragons are constantly telling Julius to “be a dragon” or “grow some fangs.” These comments are very similar to the reader questions I got about Julius growing a pair,” and my ultimate reply to both is the same: never. Julius will never act like that. Not because he is weak or cowardly or effeminate (and hoo boy, that’s a whole other angry-typing post about how acting nice=weak=female=bad), but because ruthlessly stomping on your enemies and pushing others out of the way to get ahead—all aspects that are held up as positive traits by dragon culture and in certain areas of our real world that I’m sure we can all name--is a fundamentally bad way of doing things that drags us all down as a species.

That’s the point. That’s the underlying truth of the whole series. That’s why I picked Julius as the viewpoint character over the literally hundreds of other ass kicking, properly draconic Heartstrikers. Because he’s not like that. He’s nice, and no matter how much I make him suffer for it, he will always choose to keep being nice because he believes all the way down to his bones that the cruel, ruthless “dragon” culture is wrong, and so do I.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I try never to come out and say what my novels are about, but you only have to read a few pages to know that I believe in Julius. This isn’t to say he’s one of those “author voice” characters (I’m much more like Marci!), but he is the moral heart of these books. I don’t agree with everything he does, and he still has a lot of growing to do as a character (we’ve still got three books left, after all), but the fundamental “Julius-ness” has been there from the very beginning. Every other character in the books calls it weakness, but the truth is that being compassionate and resolving conflict with compromise instead of violence takes a hell of a lot more bravery, cleverness, and conviction than picking up a sword and kicking your enemy’s ass. Julius might be hopeless in combat, but he has those qualities in spades, and that’s why he, rather than any of his fire-breathing, city-destroying siblings, is the hero of the story.

If you haven’t read the books yet, I hope all talk about themes hasn’t put you off the books. I swear all this stuff isn’t a tenth as in your face as I’m making it sound here! Like I said, I normally avoid talking about themes like the plague, but this subject is very near and dear to my heart. So if you like the sound of a fast paced story about dragons in a cyberpunk, Shadowrun-esque future Detroit and you can stomach the idea of a main character who wins through the power of friendship and civility rather than violence, I hope you’ll give the Heartstriker series a try. Do it to find out what all the Bob comments are about, if nothing else. ;)

Thank you for reading, and thank you as always to Mihir for letting me come on the blog!


Official Author Website  
Order “One Good Dragon Deserves AnotherHERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "One Good Dragon Deserves Another
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Nice Dragons Finish Last"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "The Spirit Thief
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of “The Spirit Rebellion” 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of “The Spirit Eater” & “Spirit’s Oath” 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of “The Spirit War” 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Spirit's End"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Fortune's Pawn"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Honor's Knight"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of "Heaven's Queen"
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Interview with Rachel Aaron
Read Eli Monpress series completion interview with Rachel Aaron
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Interview with Rachel Bach
Read Paradox Trilogy completion interview with Rachel Aaron/Bach
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Heartstrikers interview with Rachel Aaron

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Rachel Aaron is the author of ten novels, including Fantasy fan favorite The Legend of Eli Monpress and the bestselling Nice Dragons Finish Last. She also writes action packed, romantic Science Fiction under the name Rachel Bach. When she’s not holed up in her writer cave, she lives a lovely, nerdy, bookish life in Athens, GA with her five-year-old son, very understanding husband, and obese wiener dog. Other than her own books, the internet knows Rachel best for writing very fast. To find out exactly how fast (and to read sample chapters from all her books), visit her website!

NOTE: Dragon art by J. S. Rossbach.


Unknown said...

Well, of course, that's what makes Julius INTERESTING. The obvious way to solve the problem is to wave a sword around. We don't really know how Julius is going to solve the problem. Plus, Julius' way involve more risk (=suspense), and it makes it a more interesting story to see how the story is going to work out.

Jim Munro said...

Absolutely. The really fascinating thing about this series so far is how the story lulls us into forgetting that Julius' human aspect is literally only skin deep and something which (if unsealed)he can and does shed. Then, suddenly, we get a reminder that under this is an immortal apex predator who can be a very scary character indeed - as the thugs discover in the early chapter of NDFL. Its a splendid way of making sure he's nice but never nauseatingly so. Interesting to see if (or should it be how?) this complicates his relationship with Marci. Roll on number 3

KeriLynn Engel said...

Love this so much! We need more heroes like Julius :)

I just read Nice Dragons Finish Last recently & have the second book on my wishlist.

Also, I just submitted the book to - it definitely qualifies as feminist-friendly fantasy :)

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