Sunday, March 24, 2013

Things to consider in paranormal novels

I attended several excellent panels on YA literature yesterday as part of the NYC Teen Author Festival. The panel of paranormal authors* didn't have time for audience questions, but below are some questions I would have liked to ask, along with some of my own thoughts on them:

--If you write the kind of paranormal book where an afterlife is revealed to living characters, then how does their knowledge of the afterlife change the characters' views of life and death? Do they lose all fear of death, and if not, why not? If they no longer fear death, then what is there for them to fear; what are the stakes? And how does the knowledge of this afterlife change the way they live?

It seems to me that so much of how we decide to live depends on the two things we can say for sure about death: that it is inevitable, and that the exact nature of "afterward" is unknown. We have beliefs about what comes next, but we don't know for sure. If we did know--if we could see with our own eyes exactly what happens--it would certainly affect how we handle this life.

Neal Shusterman handled this well in his Skinjackers trilogy. While some of an afterlife was revealed, there was much that the characters did not know about other parts of the afterlife--much that they never knew. And in one of the books, Shusterman introduced the idea of a fate worse than death, which gave the characters something new to fear.

--If you write the kind of paranormal book where characters have special powers, what limits do you place on those powers? Since books are usually about a main character wanting something and not being certain s/he will get it, how do you get around the fact that a too-powerful character can control people and situations and just get what s/he wants through magic?

Some possible limits include:
uncertainty: for example, a spell might not work all the time, or might work in unintended ways;
range: for example, the character can only affect certain kinds of people or events, or can only work within time or distance limits, or does not have sufficient power to enact the outcome s/he wants;
opposing forces: as the main character exerts magic in one direction, others exert it in the opposite direction;
vulnerability: powers could have gaps or points of vulnerability, such as Superman's kryptonite or Achilles's heel;
cost: the price of using the magic might be high (as in, for example, Holly Black's Curse Workers series, where the use of a memory curse also affects the memory of the curse worker).

If we change the rules of our world, then those rule changes have ripple effects. If we remove our normal human limitations, then there must be other (plausible) limitations, or else the story becomes boring because there is no risk and no uncertainty. It would be unrealistic to have characters treating their magical worlds the same way we treat our own nonmagical world. (For example, if you could fly, why would you ever sit in traffic again?)

*By which I mean authors of novels about paranormal phenomena. The authors themselves do not claim to have paranormal powers. As far as I know.


  1. This was really helpful, Jenn. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Now, you see I always thought it was the authors who had those powers. :-) I don't write paranormal, but I like to read good paranormal books, so I appreciated the behind the scenes info.

    1. Maybe they do have these powers, and they're all part of a secret society! ;-D