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Breaking the Lore: Highlights from Sydney Writers Festival

  • 6 June, 2022
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How Australia’s YA authors are challenging – and evolving – fantasy tropes

Tropes! Love them or hate them, they’re a huge part of YA literature.

At Sydney Writers’ Festival, fantasy writers Alicia Jasinska (The Midnight Girls), Vanessa Len (Only a Monster) and C.S. Pacat (Dark Rise) discussed how they have written themselves into literary tropes and fantasy traditions, which have typically been dominated by white, heteronormative viewpoints.

Here, #LoveOzYA’s roving festival reporter Emma Hollifield brings you their stimulating insights about tropes (using them, challenging them, reclaiming them), as well as some behind-the-scenes information about their writing processes.

On tropes

“I love tropes. Enemies to lovers, found family. Give it all to me. Writing is such a stressful thing. I want to play with the tropes I love and have fun with it and tell the tropes I love from a queer perspective.”
– Alicia Jasinska

“I love tropes. I made a giant list of them before I started writing. I was interested in creating a character who is not the chosen one. I love a twist and making you think you know where the trope is going and changing it.”
– Vanessa Len

“I love subverting reader expectations whilst still fulfilling them. Tropes can help you pull the rug out and give them something they’ll like more hopefully.”
– C.S. Pacat

On enemies to lovers

“I wanted to have a villain-to-villain romance, rather than hero-to-villain romance as I’d already done that before. I love rivals. I’m a big plotter so it feels like puzzle pieces all fitting together.”
– Alicia Jasinska

“They need to be obsessed with each other. That’s what draws me to rivals to lovers. When they realise that obsession doesn’t come from hate.”
– Alicia Jasinska

“I always wonder, if you two met in different circumstances you’d love each other.”
– Vanessa Len

“The basic components of story creation is that you start with the characters at the furthest point to what they’ll become. There’s something delicious about two characters who hate each other, and the reader can’t understand how they’re going to change their feelings for each other. I love the slow burn.”
– C.S. Pacat

On identifying with villains

“Villains are more fun to write. There’s an element of challenge with a character doing unlikeable things and getting the reader to relate to them.”
– Alicia Jasinska

“Growing up queer I identified with a lot of villains in media as they were queer coded. Instead of making me hate myself, it made me really love villains.”
– C.S. Pacat

“I read a lot of English fantasies for escapism. I wanted to exist in those worlds, but I didn’t. I re-read Lord of the Rings and it surprised me how modern it was. But I was interested in what if an orc could help you and an elf could betray you. So, I took the traditional, even old fashioned, and twisted it.”
– C.S. Pacat

“I was interested in how a narrative makes a character sympathetic. Through backstory, family. What if I did this with the bad guys and made them empathetic? How much we respect a hero is often to do with how well a villain has been crafted.”
– Vanessa Len

“Very often the narrative plays out with the hero reacting to something the villain does. So, the villain has all the agency and is actually more interesting.”
– C.S. Pacat

On representation – of a lack thereof

“I didn’t see myself represented and it’s interesting that many monsters, like vampires, don’t have reflections. When nothing in culture is reflecting you, it can make you feel monstrous. So, there’s a revenge aspect to my writing. I was constantly being asked to identify with heroes who are not like me, so I wanted to force the reader to identify with a villain who is like me.”
– C.S. Pacat

“I didn’t see myself represented in media. That feeling of erasure was horrible. In my own experience, it was worse than any negative representation. I wanted to contribute a narrative where a character like me goes on an adventure.”
– Vanessa Len

On queer people in literature

“There’s a pressure on queer writers to write ‘good’ or ‘perfect’ queer characters. Readers judge queer characters more. We have straight characters who are emotionally messy. Why can’t queer characters be like that?
– Alicia Jasinska

“I feel very liberal with queer people writing. I want them to make art and exist in this space and get published. That’s what queer rep is.”
– C.S. Pacat

On oppression in fantasy worlds

“I want my worlds to feel real and lived in and relatable. I read for escapism, so I won’t include homophobia in my books. I deal with it in real life, so I don’t want it in my books.”
– Alicia Jasinska

“I deliberately removed some of the racism from the nineties in my book as I didn’t want to deal with it. I was more interested in presenting it in an abstract way.”
– Vanessa Len

“If the purpose of a story is escapism, I want my readers to be able to escape equally. In books from the eighties and nineties they take oppression from the real world and put it in fantasy worlds. There can be dragons, but queer people will still be oppressed. I try and include as little of these real-world oppressions as I can get away with.”
– C.S. Pacat

On magic systems

“I spent a couple of years just world building. I knew I wanted monsters, but I didn’t know why they were monstrous. And time travel was something high on my list. So, I ended up mashing up all the things I love to create something different.”
– Vanessa Len

“I world build slowly through different brain storming techniques. For Dark Rise I wrote down a list of magical worlds I’d seen before and put a circle around all the things that link them. And then I worked out what was outside the circle. I remember writing down the word ‘extinct’ and then it was a case of figuring out what it means for a world to be extinct.’
– C.S. Pacat

“When I was five my father died, and my home situation was extremely stressful. When your home life is like that, you want to step outside. I couldn’t relate to realistic stories. But big, fantasy stories offered a level of escapism.”
– C.S. Pacat

On plotting

“We are all plotters. I do not have books in me that just gush out. That’s so mysterious to me. I need structured, targeted brainstorming techniques. I then use the three-act structure to bring a beginning, middle and an end to those ideas. Then I choose a genre and the main points of the story.”
– C.S. Pacat

“I love beat sheets. I need to know how the story is going to end and the plot points.”
– Alicia Jasinska

“Only a Monster was my first story, so I didn’t know what I was doing. I wrote down what I thought the implied scenes and beats were and from there came the character dynamics. I wrote the plot twists first as they were alive to me. If something is really alive, I write it.”
– Vanessa Len

On where they find inspiration

“I first had the idea of Dark Rise visiting the Louvre. I’d never written a book before, and I could feel it was too big for me to write at that point. So, I wrote a practice novel which ended up being Captive Prince. Telling myself it was just for practice gave me permission to not take it too seriously and put in all the things I love.”
– C.S. Pacat

“I had so much fun writing a villain in my last book, that I thought I’d make both my main characters villains. It’s so much fun writing wicked girls. I was inspired by Polish history and folklore which is such a fascinating era in history.”
– Alicia Jasinska

“I’m half Chinese and half Maltese, so I grew up between cultures. I was interested in writing a character between two worlds but make it abstract. So, I was drawn to fantasy.”
– Vanessa Len