Writing Lessons From Reading Ann Bishop

November 10, 2009 at 5:11 am (Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , )

This year I have become a huge fan of Ann Bishop’s Dark Jewel’s Trilogy.  It contains some of the most interesting characters I have read in a very long time and the world she has created is incredibly believable (though not one anyone would want to live in).  I’ve read through the trilogy from start to finish at least twice this year and even though it has only been a few weeks since I last finished, I’m already eyeing book one to read again.  As a writer I was naturally curious as to why these books stand out to me over all of the other books I have available to read.  I sat down and began making a list of things that appeal to me about these books and from this I found some very good points that I will keep in mind as I go on my own writing journey.  Here are three things I learned from reading Ann Bishop:

Sorry if there are spoilers below.

Lesson 1:  It is alright if your heroes are ruthless and, at times, cruel as long as the villains are worse.

If you have read the Dark Jewel’s Trilogy you will know that nobody in the story could be considered nice.  However there is an ensemble of characters that are supposed to be the heroes and band together to defeat the evil crossing their land and these characters stick to a few basic rules and laws of honour (the fact that this allows them to injure, destroy and torture if necessary doesn’t take away from their heroic stature when compared with what the villains are getting up to).  The bottom line is, the reader wants this group to succeed.  There is sufficient contrast between them and the villains that the reader cares who comes out on top.

I think this one is important because I’ve never really liked heroes who are just good people doing what is right, because it is right.  I find these characters dull and unrealistic.  Allowing your hero to be a bit nasty can make them more real – to an extent.

Lesson 2:  If you have stated that there will be a cost for an action, then there has to be a cost.

How many stories have we read, or watched, where the heroes have an ultimate weapon but they won’t use it because… (it will cause damage, the hero will die, someone else will die, it will explode, etc, etc, etc)?  Fill in the blank however you wish.  Then, at the last minute, they have to use said ultimate weapon and somehow, they manage to contain the damage, save the person who was supposed to die or whatever.  The cost that is stated, and the reason they haven’t taken out the villain in act one, never eventuates.  That always bothers me.  Why have we followed this person through all this other peril if they were just going to whip out a solve all right at the end and not even have to pay for it?

Ann Bishop makes her characters pay.  And pay.  And pay.

This works because you understand why Janelle doesn’t solve everyone’s problems in book one.  You genuinely feel for these genuinely horrible people because everything they do comes at such a high price.  The resolution is shattering and yet fantastic.

This is very different from the second Sailor Moon Movie (and this is an old rant but quite relevant).  First Sailor Moon Movie she gets to the last straw, draws out the Silver Crystal. We’re told she can’t use it because she will die.  The villain, who has reformed by then, intervenes and helps to protect her so she can use it safely.  Fair enough.  Second movie, out comes the crystal.  Don’t use it or you will die.  Zap the villain.  Oh, she didn’t die.  Why not?  Everyone is happy but they could have ended the movie about ten minutes in if that was what she was going to do.

Lesson 3:  Just because two characters are friends with a third doesn’t mean they need to also be friends.

Or, in the case of the Dark Jewel’s Trilogy, it doesn’t mean they have to even tolerate each other.  Tempers flare as easily between allies and families in this story as they do between enemies.  At times it seems likes there won’t be anyone left by the time the final showdown occurs because they are just as likely to kill each other as to remember who the villains are.  This makes for some very interesting side stories, and some excellent character development.  Also, because there is such a large cast of characters, it is inevitable that there would be minor misunderstandings and arguments along the way.  It is unreasonable to assume that such a large group of people would all get along all of the time, particularly given their volatile natures.


  1. Elizabeth Spann Craig said,

    Great advice, Cassandra! I like it when protagonists are multi-faceted and not just *good*. I haven’t read this series, but it sounds like I need to pick it up–thanks for the tip!


    • Cassandra Jade said,

      The series is fairly dark but it is really well told and I think Ann Bishop has created a really solid fantasy world here.

  2. Carol Kilgore said,

    These are excellent points to remember. For me, personally, especially where my protagonist is concerned. Thanks.

  3. Simone Benedict said,

    Great advice. Lesson Two will be helpful to me as well. I got some great ideas for character development from this, thanks!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I think lesson two is one I need to remember as well. After writing the blog I realised one of my current MS’s has a character who doesn’t pay enough for some of her actions and she was getting around the complications too easily. Thanks for the comment.

      • Simone Benedict said,

        That’s interesting. My current protagonist in one story has paid too dearly but seems too accepting of everything. She doesn’t seem like the type to seek revenge. Right now she reminds me of a grownup female Charlie Brown and it’s driving me nuts!

      • Cassandra Jade said,

        She wouldn’t necessarily have to seek revenge, but she could be a bit upset about everything.
        Thanks for commenting.

  4. Simone Benedict said,

    That helped a lot. If I were her, I’d drown my misery in Salty Dogs, but my character isn’t a drinker. I suppose for her spending her energy on making everything as right again as she can is her motivation. I’ll keep working on her. Thank you for your help!

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