Hey everyone! I'm Morgan York, a former child actress and college student, but first and foremost a writer. I'm writing YA fantasy now, but also enjoy writing contemporary and adult. On this blog, I ramble about anything that occurs to me and that I consider important enough to dedicate a blog post to. Thank you for visiting, and I hope you enjoy!
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(Stamp by PixieRiot on DeviantArt)

Friday, June 6, 2014

No, I'm Not Embarrassed: Good Lit is Good Lit

When I woke up this morning, there was rage all over my Twitter feed. I couldn't find the source, but it seemed to have something to do with YA readers being shamed for, well, reading YA. What's new, right?

I went about my day normally. Later, a friend posted the link to the offending article, and I read it. It's called Against YA, with the tagline, "yes, adults should be embarrassed to read young adult books." It argues that by reading young adult literature, adults are missing out on more "important" literature, namely literary fiction. Such readers are apparently selling themselves short by choosing "escapism" over more complex, ambiguous works only found in the adult section of the bookstore.

This article reeeaaally got under my skin, for a number of reasons.

(Side note: I'm not entirely comfortable with posting the link to the article, since I know controversial articles love to generate more traffic, and I'm contributing to that by posting it. But it's not fair for me to present my argument without offering up the other side, so there it is).

If you follow this blog, you know I write YA fantasy. You might also know that I write YA contemporary, and adult contemporary, or what the writer of the article calls realistic fiction. I am interested in a variety of different perspectives and audiences, so I don't feel comfortable limiting myself to just one category or genre. Naturally, then, I don't limit myself as a reader, either.

I used to. You'll know from some of my past entries that I used to limit my reading to realistic, literary fiction, particularly classics (yet I was writing YA fantasy?? Yeah, I was still figuring out the whole read-the-genre-you-write thing...don't worry, I learned). I agreed with this woman, mostly because I considered most YA books to be carbon copies of Twilight, which I disliked. I looked down on these books because I thought people used them for escapism. I, too, thought YA limited itself to "instant gratification" and shirked the harsher realities my classics offered me.

There are so many problems here.

First off, there is nothing inherently wrong with escapism. The reason it used to give me pause is because I thought people who sought out escapism wanted to ignore the problems in their lives, and thus never deal with those problems. I thought if you wanted to escape, you were weak, and your real life would fall apart around you.

My prejudice against YA was probably wrapped up in this mindset. But how unfair is it to assume that someone who wants a little escape is going to let their world go to pieces? There's a difference between wanting to get away for a little and being seriously dysfunctional. Also, I'm a hypocrite--what the hell do I play video games for if not for the escapism? The graphics? It's definitely not the graphics.

Secondly, the generalizations about YA listed in this article make it clear that this woman has not read widely in the YA category, or at least not widely enough to appreciate its many nuances and opportunities for complexity. According to her, YA is full of hunky dory protagonists who never self reflect and always get a perfectly tied-up ending. YA is meant to be pleasurable, she says. It's fluff. It doesn't let you empathize with people who aren't like you. It's easy on the heart and satisfying.

Right. That's why The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which she mentions in the article, leaves us with a good feeling. Wait, never mind. It ends with the main character suffering a serious emotional breakdown thanks to a traumatic event from his past. The readers are left wondering how he will cope with this latest relapse, and we don't get to know. If Katsa had never self-reflected in Graceling, never confronted an upsetting emotional reality about herself, she would never have won my respect. Boy do I wish the end of The Amber Spyglass was "easy on the heart and satisfying," because then I could've avoided the overwhelming panic and indignation I felt when I realized what was going to happen (I kept flipping the pages back and forth as if that would change it). If we're counting Harry Potter, I managed to empathize with Severus Snape. Last I checked, I wasn't a bitter, thirty-something-year-old man with greasy hair and an unrequited crush he really should have let go of a long time ago (yes, I'm being critical of him here, but feeling empathy for someone does not eliminate your ability to criticize that person. I felt sad for Snape, but I could still see issues with his behavior).

Or, let's take the book I'm reading right now: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, which follows a girl in her late teens who is placed in a women's concentration camp during World War II. The narrator has a captivating voice. The characters are interesting and respond to trauma in their own unique ways. The author does not shy away from the gruesome realities of a concentration camp, nor does she give us closure about what happens to everyone (oh, look! Ambiguity!). It is frustrating and, at times, sickening to watch these characters endure what they have to endure. It is not "pleasurable"--the only "pleasure" I could think of getting out of this book is being glad I'm not the one in a concentration camp, but I wouldn't call that "pleasure." I am not reading it to feel better about life; I'm reading it because I want to see what happens to these girls.

But, Morgan, wouldn't you ultimately get more out of a piece of literary fiction? Doesn't this book pale in comparison to those classics you love? Aren't you an adult?

Ah, there you are, Ulysses by James Joyce, which I spent last month reading with a class. I knew you'd come in handy.

When it comes to literary fiction, Ulysses is about as literary as you can get. It contains made-up words, nonsensical sentences, literally hundreds of obscure references (many of which are crucial to the experience, so have fun looking them up!), confusing narrators (who the hell is talking in this paragraph?), and stream-of-consciousness prose that is sometimes impossible to follow. Also, every chapter is written in a different style. Every time you think you're used to how Ulysses operates, boom! It transforms into a different monster.

Many people who haven't studied it closely or approached it blind think the book is a load of nonsense and isn't worth it. But I loved the hell out of this book. If you have it, or next time you visit a bookstore, flip Ulysses open to chapter eleven, the music-themed chapter. The chapter has a freaking overture made out of language. What does that mean? It means it operates like a musical overture, which plays a collection of sounds that will later appear throughout different parts of the performance that is to follow. Except Ulysses does it with words. The overture is made up of of a page and a half of short phrases that, in some form or another, appear in the chapter. As you read, you find yourself playing "Where's Waldo"--"Ah, there's the reference to the first line of the overture! Look, that must refer to line twelve!" It's mind-blowing and exciting. It makes you re-think how we use language and how stories are formed.

I also love the hell out of Rose Under Fire so far. I feel a rush of anticipation every time I sit down to read it, just as I did with Ulysses. How is it possible for me to sincerely enjoy such different books, especially one on top of the other? Because I understand that these novels are aiming for different effects, and those effects are equally legitimate. Rose Under Fire places compelling characters in a terrifying situation. It wants me to feel their reality and stress over the characters' fates. Ulysses challenges my expectations as a reader and demands that I pay just as much attention to the language as I do to plot and character--probably even more attention. These are both great goals. They are both stimulating. They both make me feel something.

Of course, if the article angered me as a reader, it angered me as a writer, too. I took most issue with the writer's claim that "[YA readers] are asked to abandon the mature insights into [an emotional] perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults."

If this is what YA is about, then evidently, I haven't been reading YA. I've seen plenty of observations and epiphanies in YA literature that some adults never even think about or achieve. I have stated that there is nothing wrong with escapism already, but as someone who does not personally read for escapism, I tend to write against it. The novels I write (about and for teenagers) depend on mature insights. They feed on them. They could not exist without them. The more you follow my main character, the higher and higher she reaches for these insights, though sometimes she'll flinch away from them, too, because they're painful and she's human.

To argue that YA forces you to do away with adult emotionality negates everything I've been writing for, and negates a sizable percentage of the feelings a teenager experiences. Because many of the things teenagers feel are very real, very adult feelings. That's part of why adolescence is so terrifying--emotions aren't simple anymore. The feelings are new, but that does not make them lesser. As for adults who think reading about these "first" experiences is a form of regression, well, most of the adults I know would benefit from revisiting the roots of these emotions. That "first" feeling laid a foundation, after all.

Are you a literary novel? Give me feelings. Are you a YA novel? Give me feelings. Grip me by the heart, book, and I will love you, because feelings are the whole damn reason I'm here.

-Morgan

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Update: Why You've Been Hearing Nothing but Crickets from Me

Hey readers!

I just wanted to give you lovely people a quick update about why I seem to have completely vanished from my blog (I'm sad whenever I remember I haven't written a blog post since February). I spent a month after writing my Frozen post editing my third novel until it was in fine enough condition to have people actually read it, so my priorities during that period were that and schoolwork. During April, the finals crunch really set in. Now I'm taking a month-long class dedicated to reading Ulysses (by James Joyce) and practically nothing else.

For those of you who haven't heard of the book, Ulysses is an extremely experimental, dense, and complicated novel and takes a lot of energy to simply read, let alone respond to and discuss. For instance, last week my friends and I spent nine or ten hours reading a chapter that was eleven pages. Eleven pages. But I love the thing. I'm only halfway through, but I get the feeling it'll be up there with War and Peace for me (which is a huge honor).

I've still managed to be fairly active on Twitter, so during the next month, you can find me there (usually rambling about Ulysses). Once the summer starts, I should be back to updating this blog, which I'm excited about. Just because I haven't been updating doesn't mean I haven't been getting ideas!

See you in June!

-Morgan

Friday, February 28, 2014

My Love/Meh Relationship with Frozen

Pretty personal post ahead. But I thought it was important to share on this blog, since it is closely linked with the role fiction can play in one's life and in one's identity.

If you've been on the Internet at any point over the past three months, you definitely haven't encountered this totally obscure Disney movie, Frozen. On the off chance you do know which movie I'm talking about, be warned that this post contains spoilers.

The moment the movie came out, every other person I talked to told me I needed to see it as soon as possible. People said it was the best Disney princess movie since Beauty and the Beast. I practically knew all the songs before I actually saw the thing. Two of my college-aged friends have seen the movie in theaters five times. I thought, whoa, this movie must be Pixar-level amazing. So I walked into the theater with extremely high expectations...

...and walked out confused. Disappointed. My sister agreed with me. The movie was trying too hard to be Tangled--the Sven character was completely interchangeable with the horse from Rapunzel's film. Out of all the jokes in the movie, one made me laugh. One. Even then, it was just a little "heh." I couldn't stand Olaf (I feel so bad saying that, because he's cute and sweet, just not funny to me). Elsa rubbed me the wrong way. Much of the plot "twists" were incredibly predictable. I was glad Disney finally subscribed to a type of "true love" that wasn't romantic, but I just wish I hadn't seen it coming from a mile away. Don't even get me started on Disney's choice to make Hans evil. Why were people so crazy about this movie?

Well, big deal, right? I don't have to love a movie everyone else is, for some reason, obsessed with. I participated in the cultural phenomenon and now I can move on. I tend to be a harsh critic of movies in general, anyway, so this shouldn't bother me so much.

But then there's this:

That is a picture of me and my sister, Wendy, above the movie's sister characters, Anna and Elsa. It's great that Anna is the younger sister and Elsa older, because as far as my sister and I go, the personalities match us almost perfectly. If someone had told me, "Hey, they're gonna make a movie about an older sister who has emotional issues that she doesn't know how to control and a sweet, optimistic sister who has complete faith in her," I would have thought the scriptwriters were spying on my family.

Remember, I wasn't a big fan of the movie. But the fact that I wasn't a huge fan kept bothering me, long after I'd seen it. Part of it may have related to the fact that I felt left out, since everyone else latched onto it. But I've come up with a couple more reasons that the bitterness stuck with me:

1) I'm mad that this movie didn't come out in the 90s.

Ariel!...and Eric. Belle!....and the Beast. Kiara!...and Kovu. These are the main characters of some of the Disney movies my sister and I watched (and acted out in front of the screen) as kids. Notice something about these movies? They're running low on female characters. This meant that, unless one of us wanted to be one of Gaston's fangirls or Lion King 2's evil Zera, only one of us could be "the girl," and the other was stuck being the boy. Because I was the bossy older sister, I usually got to be the female character, to Wendy's dismay.

Sure, we could have come up with our own characters, which we did. But it was fun to pretend we were characters we could see onscreen. These movies had merchandise, soundtracks we could sing to and toys we could play with. This stuff stretched the worlds further, made the fictional playground bigger. Wendy and I had a few sister movies to choose from, of course--she was the Hallie to my Annie (The Parent Trap remake), the Mei to my Satsuki (Totoro), the Mary-Kate to my Ashley (I'm not gonna list them all). But did these movies offer toys you could play with, or outfits, or dolls? Totoro has some, but not of the sisters.

If this movie had come out when we were kids, my poor mother probably would have purchased half the Frozen merchandise in the Disney store. We would have had Elsa and Anna dolls. We would have danced around singing "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?" and "For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)" together. We would have dressed our little brother in white and called him Olaf. Heck, we would probably have started asking people to call us Elsa and Anna (we would sometimes ask people to call us by our middle names, which are close enough--I'm Morgan Elizabeth, she's Wendy Anne).

Is it immature of me to whine about how my childhood lacked Frozen? Absolutely. My childhood had plenty of wonderful things, and I'm thrilled for the little sisters of the world who get to grow up with these characters. I'm just a little jealous of them, too.

Here comes the bigger one:

2) I saw too much of Elsa in myself.

Recall how I said Elsa rubbed me the wrong way. I also mentioned that I was the bossy older sister, kind of flippantly. But I say that with some pain.

Emotions have been a big...thing for me for much of my life. If my novels are ever published, you will see what I mean. I was always the temperamental kid in the house. I had a hitting problem that I took out on my siblings. In high school, I had meltdowns. And over the past three or four years, I realized my out-of-control emotions could hurt people. I didn't know what to do about it. I tried telling myself not to explode when I felt a freak-out coming on, but that didn't help. It usually made it worse. This all leads up to the present day, when recently, a counselor told me I punish myself for feeling things too intensely.

 This scene looked familiar.

I told my friend, who is the number one Frozen fan, about this counseling session. Later on, she said to me, "If you punish yourself for your emotions, why didn't you like Elsa?"

Hm. Well, Elsa had a resolution. I'm better than I was a few years ago, but I still haven't really resolved this yet.

One thing I knew people were wild about was Elsa's song, "Let it Go" (which I now enjoy, though I don't think it's musically or lyrically strong enough to be Oscar-worthy--the best thing about it is Idina Menzel's voice). That's when she uses her icky feelings to construct her castle, which I could easily tie to my own novel-writing. I knew Elsa was bothering me, but I couldn't articulate why at the time. Some part of me must have been thinking, or rather feeling, "Let it go, huh? It'd be nice if it were that easy."

 Pictured: not me.

I kept thinking, no, she can't win. She's still hurting people. How can this song be so triumphant when "letting it go" isn't actually the answer? The whole country or whatever Arendelle is has been plunged into eternal winter because she's cursed with emotions that overpower her--I mean, ice powers. Later, when Anna tells her this, she acknowledges this herself: "I'm such a fool! I can't be free! No escape from the storm inside of me!"

I identified so strongly with Elsa that she repelled me. That happened to me the first time I read Dosteovsky, too. I pride myself as someone who is willing to look at her flaws, but sometimes, I guess it gets too close and I start pushing things away.

And I have an Anna. I have a sister who loves me even though I bossed her around and hurt her. I pushed her away plenty, especially during my last two years of high school. Sure, our relationship is great now, but I can never undo any of that stuff.

 (And she would still probably do this for me).

Is it possible to love a character and not like the movie so much? I think so. That's how I feel about Holly Golightly--Breakfast at Tiffany's is otherwise not so great (please read the book; it is so much better). After three months of not understanding my reaction to this movie, I've settled on this stance. Frozen? Meh. Anna and Elsa? Love.

And if you see yourself in a character, don't hate him or her. This goes double if you see yourself in another person you meet--I know of so many people who see their own traits in another and so decide they dislike that person. Treat that character or individual with empathy and kindness. You may learn something about yourself.

Maybe one day I will let it go. If not, I've still got that bitchin' ice castle.

-Morgan

Friday, January 3, 2014

Classics and Contemporary Novels: How Both Can Improve Your Writing

A while ago, I wrote what I now consider to be a fairly naive post about how I am at a disadvantage in the literary industry because I love to read classics, and my novels are consequently influenced by them. I couldn't understand what the literary world had against archaic language, flowery descriptions, and novels that went on forever when I went wild over them. Why must I conform? I cried to the skies. Why must I cooperate with the rules The Man set down?!

Well, I was right about one thing: limiting myself to classics did put me at a disadvantage. But I acted like this was outside my control. I acted as if enjoying classics meant I couldn't enjoy anything else.

Before I get to the point of this post, let me ask you something. Have you, as a writer (or as some other kind of artist, or even just as a human being going through the world), ever heard the same rule beaten into your head over and over, and you understood it was a rule, but you never really understood why? For instance, as a kid, you probably knew your parents wanted you to eat your vegetables and cut down on the candy. This was an accepted fact because your parents said it, yet some tiny voice in your head went, but, why? You couldn't fathom why someone would make such a rule. Candy is awesome. Vegetables aren't awesome (or maybe you were like me and you thought vegetables were awesome, but not quite as awesome as candy).

For me, there was a rule like that in the writing world: use simple language. I saw this and thought, but...I like my pretty, adjective-filled descriptions of bathroom tiles. I like sophisticated vocabulary you don't often see in the twenty-first century. You...you want me to be a minimalist, like Hemingway? But I'm not him! You people are all against me! I literally scratched my head over this rule for six freaking years.

Then, while studying abroad in Ireland last semester, I had the wonderful opportunity to read contemporary and classic novels side by side. I took a class called Contemporary Irish Fiction as well as 19th Century Irish Writing. Now, keep in mind, I'd started picking up contemporary novels again recently, so I was already starting to learn my lesson. I read a slew of YA novels over the summer, The Hunger Games series the winter break before that, etc. But this gave me the opportunity to read them at the same time. To compare. To see that--

Oh.

Oh.

There are reasons many of the qualities often found in classics are now extinct in contemporary literature. Good reasons. Suddenly, I'd lost my patience with seven-page-long monologues about the same thing, because I'd re-entered the world of contemporary works, and those authors, uh, cut those parts out. Because they didn't want their readers begging for mercy.

However. You may have noticed the title of this post. I am not here to bash classic novels. Now that I've been enlightened and have familiarized myself fairly well with both "genres," I feel like I better understand what writing lessons can be gleaned from each. Let me tell you, my prose has improved immensely ever since this epiphany. I am simplifying the hell out of my latest draft, and I am reevaluating those anachronistic words, but I'm also remembering what classics taught me.

Here's a list of why you, writer, should read a healthy balance of both classic and contemporary novels and, more importantly, why.


CONTEMPORARY NOVELS

1) Simplify your language. I'm starting with this one for obvious reasons. I was editing one night, reading over one of my overwrought sentences, and then I thought to myself, "Morgan--you're trying to get a complicated concept across to your reader. So why the hell would you use complicated language to confuse them even further?" Even worse is when your characters are performing a simple task and you write it out in the most convoluted way possible. I'll provide a sample of my own writing so you see what I mean. Here's the sentence from the unedited first draft, about a teacher's reaction to my main character asking to go to the bathroom because she's upset: "At first, [the teacher's] wrinkled lips thinned, accentuating the pinkness of her lipstick, but her features softened as she scrutinized Ama’s face, which Ama had been forced to scrunch in order to tether it to what was socially acceptable, and to prevent it from bursting like a pressured dam." Whoa whoa whoa, hold the phone, what the hell? Slow down. That is way too many words for such a simple thing. Here it is after I simplified it: "At first, the teacher’s wrinkled lips thinned. But her features softened when she studied Ama’s face, which Ama forced herself to scrunch so it wouldn’t burst like a pressured dam." There, that's better. The action remains and we still understand Ama's emotional struggle without getting beaten over the head by it. We lost the bit about the lipstick, but who cares? No one will miss a useless detail like that.

 2) Concision. Yeah, I'm still struggling with this one, but I'm getting better. Ever notice how contemporary novels tend to be slimmer, while older novels could be doorstops? There are exceptions, of course--1984 is tiny, while the Harry Potter books are famously huge. Contemporary novelists have realized that the more quickly you get your point across, the less likely you are to lose your reader's attention. The Perks of Being a Wallflower wasn't 500 pages long because it didn't need to be. It said everything it needed to say in about 200 pages and said it beautifully. Conversely, I love Dracula, but it definitely didn't need to be that long. In fact, I started to get really sick of how long it took to reach the climax. Older novels were sometimes longer because authors got paid by the word, or because the novel was serialized--the books would be released a few chapters at a time in magazines and readers would beg for more. Those days are behind us, so try not to write a doorstopper, unless it really works for your story (and, again, this is advice from someone who...writes doorstoppers).

3) Pacing. This kind of ties into concision, but it gets its own category because it's the most stark difference I've noticed between classics and contemporary novels. The first contemporary novel I picked up in a long time since my classics phase was The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (I read The Golden Compass in ninth grade but didn't finish the series until I was nineteen). For the first time in years, I found it extremely difficult to put the book down. I'm crazy about War and Peace and will recommend it to anyone who breathes, but it also drains your mental energy, so putting it away for a while takes less willpower. With Subtle Knife, I could keep turning pages and not even notice how quickly I was moving. The story drew me in, and I felt a desperate need to know what happened next. Sure, parts of classic novels can create this effect, but they're more likely to drag. Contemporary novelists know to eliminate the parts that drag, or at least minimize them as much as possible. For a slow reader like me, this is helpful.

 4) Understanding the market. This is more for writers who are looking to get published than anyone else, and part of what made me complain about my "disadvantages" in that post from 2012, because I was a snot-nosed brat. If you read nothing but classics all the time, how the hell do you expect to get published? You're not competing with Austen and Dostoevsky and Joyce. I mean, you are to some degree, since your books would hopefully be sold in the same stores as theirs are (eep!). But it's not the same. What if your idea has been done before, and you don't know it because you haven't read much past 1960? What if you thought your protagonist named Katniss had the most unique name ever, and you're not Suzanne Collins? What if you make the amateur mistake of comparing your novel to Great Expectations in a query letter? (Don't do it. Please don't.) If you know what people are reading right now, you have a better chance at making a difference. You can spot the stories that aren't being told. You're more likely to sound original because you've done your research.


CLASSIC NOVELS

  
1) Learning new vocabulary. "Morgan, what the hell?" you must be thinking. "Didn't you just say to simplify your language? In bold, multiple times?" Yeah, but sometimes, a situation calls for a sophisticated word. If you've never paid much attention to a classic novel or English class, your vocabulary will be limited. And, as a writer who will be tempted to repeat the same words no matter how expansive your vocabulary is, that isn't good. When you're stuck, say, describing how someone is feeling, and "sad" just isn't cutting it, what do you do if your arsenal lacks words? Maybe your character's sadness is really deep, quiet, and thoughtful, so "melancholy" would fit better. There is no other single word to describe that feeling, so use it. You need it. Classic novels are obsessed with the word melancholy. I can't remember any contemporary novels I've seen it in, except Because of Winn Dixie, though I'm sure there are some. If it fits, then please pull a word like this from a classic. Just don't overuse it.

 2) Creating unforgettable characters. This is not to say that all characters in contemporary novels suck, or aren't memorable. Far from it. My ears will probably perk when they hear a Harry Potter character's name until I die. But dude, think about Peter Pan. Alice in Wonderland. The Greek/Roman gods. Society has held onto these characters for decades, centuries, millennia, and still hasn't let go. Who doesn't want to create a character who millions of people take into their hearts as if that character is a living, breathing person? Readers have met characters who touched them in some personal way, inspired them to do something with their lives, even saved them. I will encourage all my children to read Jane Eyre at some point not just to see how a woman can behave against a society that dislikes her, but how admirable and courageous a person, male or female or somewhere in between, can be. I want everyone to read to the end of The Brothers Karamzov so they can sniffle at the last five pages and want to hug the hell out of Alyosha Karamazov. Like I said, this can happen in contemporary novels, but such novels can sometimes be harder to find. This is partly because there's an emphasis on plots and ideas in the literary world today--which is necessary, since a cool concept is often what will get someone to read a book in the first place. Good contemporary novelists, like Emma Donoghue and Rachel Hartman to name two very different ones, will balance well-written characters with interesting plots. But many spend more time on plot than character, and finding the gems can become a challenge.

3) Complexity. When I read the introduction to War and Peace, the translators claimed that Leo Tolstoy had taken life and put it on paper. Sensory observations, understanding of humanity, realism in general--all spot on. I thought, pfft, yeah right. Then I read it, and oh my god, were they right. It's one of the reasons Tolstoy has gone down in history. He gave us three dimensional people and a world that breathed, and breathed so truly that we could recognize that world as our own, despite the fact that we don't live in 19th-century Russia. He also layered the book with ideas, meaning, philosophies, and questions regarding life that we might never have thought about. I'm not talking about complex vocabulary here. I'm talking about complex characters, complex worlds, complex ideas, complex morality. This is, once again, something more easily found in classics, because it's usually why they're classics. To Kill a Mockingbird pointed a finger at racism, but through the eyes of a young girl named Scout, so Harper Lee couldn't quite point at it directly. The social commentary becomes clear without any character having to explicitly say, "This is wrong" or "This is racist." In the same novel, a character previously thought to be evil, Boo Radley, turns out to be sweet and sensitive, which surprises Scout. There is still clearly something wrong with him, but not in the way Scout thought--it's more complex than that. Yes, this is present in plenty of contemporary novels, and boy do I love those novels. Yet so many of them employ cookie-cutter characters, stereotypes, and black-and-white morality, so you've got to work harder to find the good stuff.

4)  Understanding what has stopped working. A big mistake I made during my classics phase was thinking that if a book won the honor of becoming "classic," that meant everything about it worked. I didn't understand why I couldn't write endless sentences when James Joyce could (other than the fact that he was actually good at writing them). Why was Melmoth the Wanderer allowed to be 600 pages long when mine wasn't? Why did F. Scott Fitzgerald get to use all those adverbs in The Great Gatsby? The answer is this: no book is perfect. No, fifteen-year-old Morgan, not even a classic. A really good book is a book with so many strong points that the weaknesses fade into the background, or at least seem to matter less. Melmoth the Wanderer's length was mostly excused because Melmoth was a fascinating character with an intriguing perspective on humanity. James Joyce was long-winded, sure, but look how unique, and often beautiful, his language is. The Great Gatsby took a jab at the corruption of luxury, and did it eloquently enough that people tolerate the excessive adverbs. By reading classics, you can isolate what made it so memorable (not necessarily to the world, but to you) as well as what made it a struggle to read. Eliminate the bad, but keep the good in your brain. Then you can strive to improve your own writing without outright imitating everything about the classics, either.

Hope this helped someone. It sure helped me.

-Morgan 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Why Video Games Are Like Novels

Because I'm dumb, I didn't bring any of my video games to Dublin with me. I figured I wouldn't have time to play them (I don't) and that I probably wouldn't miss them much, anyway (I do). But I'm surrounded by them--my brother has been Snapchatting me pictures of him playing the recently released Kingdom Hearts 1.5 Final Mix, and fellow gamers comment on my Triforce earrings when I wear them. The GameStop around the corner from my apartment taunts me, and the release date of the new Pokemon games looms ever closer.

(Note: I decided in 2011, when I turned eighteen, that I was now a Grown Up and would no longer play Pokemon games. Apparently, I forgot I was the sister of a boy whose first word was literally "Ash," as in Ash Ketchum from the Pokemon anime series, and who has more than lived up to that first word in his fourteen years of life. Let's just say that was the year Pokemon Black and White came out, my brother bought them, and I became a green-eyed monster whenever I saw him playing. So I bought Pokemon Black. Now I no longer care about being a Grown Up and will play my goddamn Pokemon games. But I'm digressing).

The point of all this is that video games have been weighing on my mind lately. It lead me to thinking about myself as a consumer of fiction. I have never been one who spends a lot of time watching TV or movies, not even when I was in them. The only shows I currently watch are Doctor Who, Legend of Korra and So You Think You Can Dance, and the latter one mostly serves as a way to bond with my family (I also started Game of Thrones a few weeks ago, but I'm not caught up and haven't watched in several weeks). People gawk at me when I list what timeless movies I've never seen (never watched a full Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movie, nor have I seen The Godfather, Bambi, Rocky Horror Picture Show, etc.).

No, my favorite forms of fiction are books and video games. This puzzles people sometimes, as if they're two categories of nerd that don't often intersect. It's as if someone who will spend hours agonizing her way through the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time and someone who will spend hours poring over a Tolstoy doorstopper cannot be the same person.

Actually, my preferred fiction mediums make sense to me, because they are very much alike.

First of all, when I think of books and video games, I think of characters, stories, and settings you must spend a lot of time with. Some books can be finished in a day, but most of them can't, and shouldn't. Even the ones you devour in a single day take several hours, at least. Their length requires you to put the book down, move about your daily life, and come back to it later. You repeat this process until the book is finished, and by the end, you've spent days, weeks, perhaps months visiting that world. It's like a portable wardrobe to Narnia that you may enter and exit at will.

As a result, books take on a kind of existence that it is more difficult for, say, a two-hour movie to achieve. If the book is good enough, it's easy to imagine the characters are out there somewhere during those in-between periods when you've left the book in limbo. You stopped reading for the moment, but that doesn't mean the characters stopped, and you know that because of all the pages left to read. The characters are alive, and so is their world. And, since you've spent so much time there, you attach to it like you would a home. It becomes familiar.

Video games are the same way. They take hours to complete, you often can't finish them in one sitting, and the characters become part of your daily life, if only for a week or so. They also take the whole "living world" thing literally. Most games have a narrative, and to beat the game you have to follow that narrative and complete tasks pertaining to it. But many games, including those in my three favorite franchises mentioned above, have sidequests, extra places to visit, secret treasures. The world seems real because it's explorable. Again, if you spend enough time in it, the world of the video game becomes a home. I probably know how to get around Kingdom Hearts' Traverse Town better than I know how to navigate my own neighborhood.

"But wait," you argue, "people literally spend years following television shows! They (hopefully) take longer than any book or video game to finish! You can't tell me the TARDIS isn't as much a home as your dang Traverse Town!"

Well, hypothetical person, you're right. I would sooner equate a television series with a book "series" or video game "series," and count individual episodes alongside individual novels and games, but I see what you're saying. What makes video games and books really stand apart, though, comes through in my next point:

Books and video games are the only forms of fiction I can think of that require your participation.

Part of the reason I struggle with watching very many shows or movies is because, while I'm sitting there letting the show or movie happen to me, I get this itching feeling that I'm wasting time. It's not an altogether rational feeling, since there are some fantastic pieces of cinema out there, big screen and small. Nevertheless, I'm physically doing nothing while I receive visual and auditory stimuli. That is it.

Books and video games literally cannot be enjoyed, understood, or completed without your engagement. If you don't feed a book's words into your imagination or make an effort to interpret what's being said, you won't be able to visualize what's going on, nor will you be able to follow the plot, form attachments to characters, etc. Yes, similar brain work is required for following TV and movie plots, but you don't have to expend as much effort because the sights and sounds are displayed for you. If you're playing a video game, and you don't strategize well or load up with enough items, BOOM! The boss kills you, and your narrative will not continue until you overcome that obstacle.

How wonderful is it that such interactive modes of fiction exist? There's a real give-and-take relationship between the creator and consumer going on here, and it's beautiful. A writer who describes a room as "large and white" leaves the rest of the experience in the reader's hands, because every reader's imagination is different. Some readers will dream up an off-white room the size of a school auditorium. Others will think of a place so white it blinds you, and it's as big as freaking Buckingham Palace.

On the video game side, the creator decides much of the larger things that make up the game, but allows the player plenty of agency. What keyblade will you choose in Kingdom Hearts? What Pokemon will you start with in Ruby Version? Even in games with more limited options, there's freedom: will you run straight for the character that has the Thing You Need To Proceed With The Game? Or will you run around and around one of the computer characters, jump on his head, and light him on fire while he just stands there, because it's hilarious? It's up to you.

I love books and video games because you have to work for them. What's more rewarding than feeling like you've earned your fiction?

-Morgan

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Frequently Asked Questions

So, I've decided to take a leaf out of Mara Wilson's book and respond to some questions I'm asked on Twitter all the time. It's understandable, of course--I get new followers, they haven't seen my responses to previous questions, and so they ask me. I thought it would be a lot more convenient to put them all together here, just so I'm not answering the same common questions over and over again. Here we go!

1) Why did you stop acting? Will you ever act again?

I stopped acting for many reasons, but they are best summarized in this post of mine. As for the second question, I doubt it. I've got a lot going on right now--I'm trying to finish my undergraduate degree, planning for a masters degree after that, writing novels, editing novels, researching the publishing industry, keeping up this blog, and more. Acting isn't really in the cards. As for the distant future, I'm not planning on it...but hey, if I ever published my novels and one got adapted into a movie, I wouldn't mind appearing in it! So long as the role was appropriate.


2) Are you in touch with any of your former castmates?

Not very many of them, but I am in touch with a few online. We don't talk often, but I'm always happy to interact with them when the occasion arises. Most of the people in my life are family members, people I previously or currently attend school with, and other friends made outside acting.

3) What was it like to work with [insert former castmate here]?

This answer varies from actor to actor, but honestly, I can't think of anyone I worked with that would elicit a "Yeah, they sucked" reaction from me. Everyone I worked with had (and probably still has) lovely qualities.

5) What writing projects are you working on?

Thank you so much for your interest! For a long time, I have been working on a four-part YA fantasy series. The first book in the series, and the one that's the most polished, is The Hollow Between, which you can find more information about here. I just finished the first draft of the third novel in the series.

6) Can we chat privately over e-mail?

I'm afraid I wouldn't feel comfortable chatting with fans over e-mail. First of all, there's an imbalance--you know a lot more about me than I do about you, because you've seen me in a movie/TV, but I've never seen you before. That doesn't mean I'm not open to chatting with new, friendly people (who I bet are every bit as interesting as anyone on TV!), but I feel more comfortable doing it in a public setting. If you want to contact me, please do so in a mention over Twitter. Unless I feel like you're asking me something too personal, I will be happy to respond.

Note: I don't DM fans over Twitter for the same reasons I won't give out my e-mail.

7) What social media sites are you on?

My public social media presences include this blog, my Twitter account, and my Instagram account. I'm open to interacting with fans on all of these platforms. I also have a GoodReads account, but I don't spend much time chatting with anyone on there, fans or otherwise. I also only tend to add real-life friends as friends and GoodReads. I have other online accounts, but those are private, and usually reserved for people I know personally.

8) Will you look at my writing?

Depends on how long it is and if it's available online. If the only way you can get it to me is via e-mail, see #6 above. I'm happy to look at short pieces that don't take very much time, and if I read, I will give feedback.


9) Will you collaborate on a writing project with me?

I've never collaborated on a writing project before. I may do so in the future, but for now, I lead a busy student/writing life and probably wouldn't be able to commit to a joint project like that.

10) I have a question for you that isn't covered here. How may I ask it?

You can send me a tweet on Twitter (just put @morganyorkwrite at the beginning of your tweet). Some people ask questions in the comment section of one of my Instagram pictures, which is also fine. I respond to almost every question. If I don't respond, it's either because a) it was too personal or b) you've been asking me a lot of questions lately (like, at least one per day) and I'm starting to feel overwhelmed by them.


11) Will you ever shut up about Leo Tolstoy/James Joyce/Audrey Hepburn/Paramore?

No.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Top 15 Strongest Female Characters (According to Me)

A long long while back, I asked via Twitter if people would like it if I made up a list of who I consider the strongest women in fiction. I never got around to it because of some personal stuff in my life that kind of turned my whole routine upside down. And then I moved to Dublin. But here I am now, ready to present you with some kick-ass women who you should definitely acquaint yourselves with if you haven't already.

Below are fifteen female characters I have come across and loved, whether I found them in books, TV shows, movies, or video games. Are there other strong female characters out there? Of course, but if I haven't included them, I either haven't met them yet or I don't count them among my favorites. There were a few characters I considered putting on this list who I ultimately decided to leave off because I didn't connect enough with them personally. So, this list is quite biased and personal to me.

Also, this post may include spoilers. I'll try to leave out big spoilers if I can, though. I did my best to put these in ascending order, but as I get closer to #1, it may be more difficult for me to choose between heroines. Here goes!

#15
 KATSA
 (From Graceling by Kristin Cashore)

Katsa is wonderful, but there's a reason she's at the bottom of the list. It took me 200 pages to really love this character, which is interesting--usually, if I really dislike a character right off the bat (like I did with Katsa), it's hard for that character to win me over. In fact, while reading the beginning of Graceling, I was angry because Katsa exemplified the type of character I detest: the heroine whose "strength" comes from a callous toughness that is both physical and emotional. I thought, "Oh no, another protagonist trying to 'prove herself' by kicking ass but who is actually an unkind and unpleasant person." But Cashore did something interesting with it right around the time Katsa chops off all her hair, i.e. around the time Katsa stops taking orders from her uncle and becomes an autonomous person. Katsa was so unlikeable because her uncle's tyranny was preventing her from being who she really wanted to be; he was stunting her personality and her self-worth. On top of that, Katsa spends the rest of the novel exploring her emotional callousness, which emerges as a psychologically crippling problem for her. That is what saved Katsa for me, and that type of self-exploration is what made her worthy of this list.

#14
SABRINA
(From Sabrina)

Sabrina's one of those characters who is instantly relatable but also instantly off-putting. She's in love with a man who will never have her...but to the point where she locks herself in the family garage and tries to commit suicide over it. What a drama queen, right? But, like with Katsa, it's her emotional journey that makes Sabrina strong. She travels to Paris and does some growing up, but still has some maturing to do when she returns home two years later. The man she once loved suddenly develops feelings for her now that she's older and prettier, and she falls for that. Later, she uncovers more about the kind of person he is and realizes that if he really loved her, he would've loved her back when she was a dowdy chauffer's daughter, not just after her transformation. Sabrina instead sets her sights on another man, one who loves her for who she is and sees her worth as an individual.

#13
JANE EYRE
 (from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte)

A lot of people misunderstand what makes Jane Eyre such a strong character. I've seen people claim that her infatuation with Mr. Rochester makes her a weak character, which I emphatically disagree with. What impressed me about Jane Eyre this: she's head-over-heels in love with Mr. Rochester, she's thrilled he loves her back, she's all set to marry him, she finds out he's actually married to someone else and has been lying all along and...she leaves. She knows her self-worth, she knows he treated her badly, and so she leaves. That is not an easy thing to do, especially when she's been told how ugly and worthless she is all her life. Being lied to by someone you love doesn't make them instantly unattractive. How soul-crushing it must have been to have looked the man she still desperately loved in the eye and tell him she couldn't be with him. She returns to him in the end, but only after he's lost everything, learned a bitter lesson, and gained even more respect for her.

#12
TIANA
 (From The Princess and The Frog)

This girl's got an ambition, man, and she works her ass off to reach her goal. She has no money, no help from anyone, but she's still learned how to cook, researched potential buildings for her restaurant, and saved every penny she can because nobody is going to stop her if she can help it. Falling in love isn't her main concern, but she's open to it if that's how she ends up feeling. When she turns into a frog, her main complaint about it is that it gets in the way of her dream. Honestly, I'm fine with heroines falling in love, but we need more heroines like Tiana, who has a goal completely independent of a romantic partner and is determined to reach it whether she finds one or not. Also, her dad is dead, but she doesn't sit around moping about it. She misses him, of course, but he taught her that she needs to work for what she wants, and she's holding herself to that.

#11
LYRA BELACQUA/SILVERTONGUE
(From His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman)

Lyra is another one of those who starts out as a tough, no-one-can-mess-with-me type of heroine and transforms into a more emotionally complex young woman. She has a killer survival instinct that keeps her alive throughout the series and she has difficulty trusting people--but when she does trust someone, she loves that someone with all her heart. Seriously, she: escapes from her mother to join a band of gypsies, befriends a fully grown polar bear that should scare the crap out of any eleven-year-old, valiantly tries to protect her best friend Roger from death by her own father's hand and travels to the freaking underworld to visit him when she fails, finds the courage to leave her daemon on the opposite shore in the underworld even though it scares her to death, wanders through worlds she knows nothing about with mostly only her wits to guide her--I could go on for days. At the end of the series, Lyra is forever separated from someone she adores, but she accepts it. It devastates her, but she moves on. More heroines like Lyra, please.

#10
BLOSSOM
(From The Powerpuff Girls)

I would've put all three Powerpuff Girls here, but since that would fill three slots, I'm just putting my favorite. The Powerpuff Girls fight crime to protect their city of Townsville, but that only scratches the surface of what makes them strong. In the movie, all of Townsville turns against them because they see them as mutant, destructive freaks. When Townsville is overtaken by monkeys bent on taking over the world (I promise this show is good), what do the girls do? Tell those Townsville citizens to go to hell? No, they save everyone's asses, because they're good people. Several episodes showcase their integrity, determination, and dedication to justice as well. I'll use an example from the episode "Equal Fights": when a criminal convinces the girls that they should let her continue with her crime spree because she's an oppressed female, they point out (during an awesome speech about Susan B. Anthony) that if she wants both sexes to be treated equally, she should go to jail along with the male criminals. As for Blossom herself, she's the brains behind the team, always coming up with new strategies while managing to stay on top of her grades. True, she's in kindergarten...but it counts.

#9
VIOLET BAUDELAIRE
 (From A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket)

If your older sister is Violet Baudelaire, you can be sure you've got someone fighting for you, no matter what happens to you. Violet acts as a protective force for her brother and sister, but also as someone on their level, a member of their team. She gets the Baudelaires out of a multitude of messes by using her inventive mind--any time she ties up her hair to clear her thoughts, she can come up with some sort of homemade device that often saves the orphans' lives. Once, when her bookworm brother Klaus isn't around, she forces herself to take on his role, and reads a book she barely understands but that is the key to her family's survival. I love that she's an inventor. While I try to think of all skill sets and hobbies as gender neutral, society doesn't see it that way, and inventing/tinkering with machines is usually seen as a masculine pastime. Good for Violet for defying that stereotype and using it to keep herself, and her siblings, alive.

#8
VERITY
 (From Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein)

This is one where I refuse to give away very much, even the character's real name, because going in spoiler-free makes this reading experience infinitely better. Seriously, if you've read it, you know what I mean. Verity spends a portion of the novel as a prisoner of war in Nazi-occupied France. She's a tough, gutsy girl who fights for survival with everything she's got, even in the face of physical and psychological torture. You know those people who just seem alive with every fiber of their being, who express passion in their sense of humor, in their cheerfulness, in everything? Verity is like that, on top of being insanely clever and an affectionate, loyal friend. And then you get to the second half of the novel, and oh man, she gets so much better. Everything about the novel gets better. Just read it.

#7
 TOPH
(From Avatar: The Last Airbender)

On top of being physically and emotionally tough, Toph has a sensitive side. She doesn't like to show it much, but it's there. It's demonstrated in her moments when she's crushing on Sokka, and in an episode where a group of girls mock her when she has trouble expressing her femininity. In the latter case, she cries over it, but at the same time says, "I know who I am." Toph may be able to lift rocks and bend metal while simultaneously living with a disability (blindness), but it's this confidence in who she is that makes her strong to me. Besides, she's hilarious, has an infectious take-it-easy attitude, and stands up for what she believes in--which can be anything from protecting the people she loves to the right to have senseless fun. What more could you want not just in a female character, but in any character?

#6
KATARA
(From Avatar: The Last Airbender)

Katara gets a lot of hate, which I don't understand. She might be more high-strung and less outwardly tough than Toph, but she is also very human, very loving, and strong (physically and emotionally) in her own right. In fact, we see her overcome more adversity, both external and personal, than almost any other character in the series (just behind Aang and Zuko). She originally sucks at water bending, and it frustrates her easily, but she works on it and hones her skills. She refuses to comply with the Northern Water Tribe's insistence that a woman must not learn Water Bending for combat and resolves to take secret lessons. She fiercely defends the people she loves, but isn't afraid to call them out on their bullshit. What's more, she manages to forgive Zuko for the harm he caused her and her friends. Considering that she projects all her hate for the Fire Nation, whose troops killed her mother, onto Zuko, this is one of the hardest things for her to do emotionally. Let's not forget that she took on the maternal role in her family when her mother died. In my opinion, a maternal instinct shows great strength, whether the character is a biological mother or not. Speaking of which...

#5
MINERVA MCGONAGALL
(From the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling)

Also known as Professor McBadass. Look at this woman. She comes off as uptight and unfriendly at first, but then you get to know her throughout the series. She's extremely intelligent, enough to become an Animagus, which is difficult. She shows an incredible amount of loyalty to people who have earned her respect, including both Dumbledore and Harry. She's witty, such as when she basically tells Professor Umbridge to shut up while she's in her classroom in Order of the Phoenix--a bold and meaningful move, considering Umbridge is trying to take over the school at this point and McGonagall's sass acts as a form of rebellion. She's also got a surprising competitive streak, especially when it comes to the Quidditch Cup at Hogwarts--she gets all fired up if there's any chance Gryffindor might not win, which makes for some hilarious exchanges between her and Harry. In addition, she's maternal in her own way. She loves Harry and fights for his life, but her reasons differ from many others in the series. Several people love Harry because they loved his parents, or because he saved the world from Voldemort as a baby. I always got the impression that Harry had to work for McGonagall's love, and her affection for him grew because she witnessed his bravery, his love for his friends, and his modesty over seven years.

#4
MIDNA
(From The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess)

I'll admit it: I have a soft spot for characters who present a tough exterior but feel a lot of tenderness and vulnerability. When Link meets Midna in the game, she insults his intelligence and his competence right off the bat. She offers to help him, but she's clearly using him to meet her own goals. Subtly over the course of the game, her attitude starts to change. She still mocks Link constantly, but you can tell she's growing fond of him. She and Link transition into more of a team than a girl and her tool, and what started off as her own selfish quest turns into a journey taken by two friends helping each other. Midna is extremely humbled when Zelda sacrifices something enormous for her--that's about the point where Midna reconsiders the motives behind her choices, and takes on a nobler role. Then (spoilers), at the end, when she travels back into the Twilight, she destroys the link between the Twilight and the World of Light so that the Twilight can never harm anyone again--despite knowing it will cut her off from Link forever. She does it without telling him, too, because she knows he'd try to stop her. She'll miss him, but she does the right thing. And all this wonderful character development happens while Midna maintains her wise-cracking personality. It's not in your face, and I love that.

#3
SERAPHINA
(From Seraphina by Rachel Hartman)

Here's a fantastic example of a heroine who isn't physically tough but is exceptionally strong. I really connected with Seraphina's character. She's one of the most human protagonists I've read in YA fiction for a while (ironically, considering she's half-dragon). To protect her safety and reputation, she must conceal the fact that she is half-dragon, a burden she hates but accepts. She is far from perfect--she self-mutilates, she's shy, she's awkward in social situations. But she is also boundlessly loving, and a lot of her strength comes out of her art. She's a musician, and her fondness for music jumps off every page of the book in the way she listens to music at events, handles her musical instrument, and remembers her dead mother (also a musician). Seraphina straddles the line between lack of confidence in her place in society and a firm understanding of who she is personally. She places others before herself and struggles with an awful lot of heartache. The whole thing is just beautifully written. Go read it.

#2
MULAN
(From Mulan)

You guys. She saved China. She wanted to find herself, but her chief reason for joining the army was to prevent her father from having to go, which would have meant his certain death. Like, the moment she realizes she can dress up as a man and go, she just does without hesitation. She might die, but whatever, because this is the right thing to do. What I really love about her, though, is how flawed she is despite her heroism. When she reaches the training camp, she realizes she's way in over her head and has no idea what she's doing. Does she give up? Hell no! I literally get chills every time Mulan fights her way to the top of the wooden pole during the "Be A Man" sequence. She battles her own incompetence until she reaches her goal. Also, she saves everyone by burying the Huns beneath an avalanche, thanks to some quick thinking on her part. She rescues her general while badly injured. And then she saves everyone AGAIN while using strategy to steal the Emperor back from Shan Yu, who she then blows up. Mulan, feel free to my best friend.

#1
HERMIONE GRANGER
(From the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling)

Putting Hermione as number one might be surprising to some people, considering she possesses no more physical strength than the average person and she has many, many moments of weakness. But that is part of her appeal. I saw a tumblr post once that pointed out Hermione is both a rational logician and passionately emotional, traits that are rarely combined in a female character. That post is absolutely right. There is enormous strength in both qualities, and it shows through Hermione during the series. Her brains get her, Harry and Ron out of plenty of perilous situations--she figures out what's attacking the school in Chamber of Secrets, she helps Harry avoid getting scorched to death by a dragon in Goblet of Fire, she organizes Dumbledore's Army during Order of the Phoenix, and she's the reason she, Harry and Ron are able to survive in the woods for so long during Deathly Hallows. But her heart aids her just as much as her head does. Her affection for Harry is what drives her to help him on his Horcrux hunt, her love for Hagrid motivates her to spend hours in the library researching how to prevent Buckbeak's execution, her belief in House Elf rights eventually leads to her fighting for them when she reaches adulthood and starts working at the Ministry. Hermione has knowledge and knows how to use it, but she also loves, she cries, she obsesses. And as a fellow bookworm and perfectionist, I will always count her among my favorite characters.