I Found the Most Complicated Process For Creating a Supporting Cast Because That's How I Roll
It's finally here! Dreams Bigger than Heartbreak, the second book in my young adult trilogy, is finally available to request on Netgalley. If you read it, please do post a review in all the places where reviews are posted --- it makes a huge awesome difference. (Side note: We decided to call the trilogy that begins with Victories Greater Than Death the Unstoppable trilogy, but i've started thinking of it in my own head as Victories, Dreams and Promises, after the three individual book titles. And yeah, the third title is subject to change, and not announced yet.) Oh, and because someone asked me online, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak is available to pre-order as well. And pre-orders are basically the greatest way to support an author, and the final evolution of a book nerd's beast form.
Anyway, I was realizing that I've never written an essay laying out how I created the supporting cast in Victories Greater Than Death and its sequels, though I've talked about it here and there. And this is a pretty interesting story—both as an origin story for these characters that I've come to love and as an exercise in showing how I sometimes make things way more challenging and complicated than they need to be. (Which I think is part of being a writer? We never take the straight path.)
So here's the winding process by which I came up with Rachael, Elza, Yiwei, Keziah and Damini. (Warning: some minor spoilers for Victories Greater Than Death ahead.)
Originally, I was just going to have Tina go into space by herself. Just as in the published version, Tina is a clone of an alien hero, who was hidden on Earth as a baby, but in my first outline, she would've been rescued by aliens on her own. And then she would have had to figure out where she fits in on this alien starship. There would have been a lot more drama with the alien crewmembers on the ship, and Tina would have had to work harder to prove that she can contribute, even though she has (some of) the skills and knowledge of the great Captain Argentian. My agent felt like the book needed some other characters from Earth, and of course he was totally right — this version would have been more straightforward, but would have robbed the book of a lot of its personality and flavor.
So Tina needed to have some other Earth kids with her. Here are the stages I went through with that:
1) High school classmates abducted! The most obvious thing was to have Tina go into space with a group of kids from her high school. Like maybe when the aliens come to pick up Tina in their space, some of her classmates get scooped up as well? One clear advantage of this setup would be that Tina would have some existing relationships with these kids, including unfinished business. You could have the kid who Tina had a crush on three years ago, the bully that Tina kept getting into fights with, the nerdy kid that Tina tried to protect from bullies, and the mean girls who always tore Tina down.
There were just a few problems with this approach, when I tried it out:
Kids sitting around rehashing old high-school drama on board an interstellar starship seemed kind of boring to me. Like, you're on a starship! Flying away from the solar system! And you're still mad at Tina for breaking your scooter?
It was kind of hard to avoid a Breakfast Club feeling, with the jock, the nerd, the stoner and the bully all stuck in a confined space together. Sorry for the dated reference.
And this was the big one — these kids had no reason to be on a spaceship other than the fact that they went to high school with Tina. They were just along for the ride by accident, and they were going to sit around blaming Tina for their alien abduction. They seemed in danger of getting whiny, and I got bored with the notion of people who weren't there for their own reasons.
2) The alien-hunting club. So I tried writing a version of the "kids from Tina's high school" thing, except with a twist. In one draft of Victories, Tina goes up to the Indomitable for a day or so, and then has to go back down to Earth for reasons. (They were good reasons, but I don't remember what they were.)
When Tina returns to Earth, she finds that a bunch of her high school classmates have formed a sort of club to investigate alien sightings in their small town. These random kids from Tina's school have glimpsed aliens running around, and seen lots of other weird stuff, so they've formed a kind of alien-hunting gang. This version was very Spielbergian, with the kids riding around on bikes and having secret meetings. In this version, the kids snooping on alien activity somehow led to them getting captured by the evil aliens, who weren't even called the Compassion yet, and Tina had to rescue them, and then they all ended up on the ship together.
I liked this approach a lot better, except that it was a lot of story that took place on Earth, before we even got to leave the solar system. And I still didn't love the thing of kids from Tina's high school traveling with her and rehashing old drama.
3) Tina's best friend. Of course, there's one kid from Tina's high school who does go into space with her in the final book: Rachael Townsend, Tina's best friend. And honestly, having one kid from home felt like the right amount of "hey, remember in ninth grade when you got an eraser stuck in your nose?" conversations to have.
Rachael took shape slowly — originally she was just a kid who was being bullied at school and Tina was her self-appointed protector. There were some versions of the book where Tina and Rachael weren't friends at all, and in fact they hadn't ever spoken to each other at all. Tina had just defended Rachael from bullies, without ever finding out whether Rachael wanted to be defended. Tina realizing that she had been part of victimizing Rachael, rather than saving Rachael from being a victim, was a big part of her personal growth in some drafts of the book. I still really like that, but once Rachael became Tina's best friend and their relationship got warmer and more multilayered, I got more invested in both of their characters. I could still keep some of the stuff where Tina is overprotective toward Rachael, but I liked it all much better once they had a rich history together.
And yeah, there was a version where Rachael accidentally goes into space with Tina and immediately demands to go home. But it got way more fun, and interesting, when Rachael actually wanted to go on this adventure with Tina, and Tina was the one trying to get Rachael to return to the relative safety of Earth. (In fact, that was one way I got to keep the notion of Tina being over-protective toward Rachael.)
So now I had one other Earth kid on this journey with Tina, but I still needed some other human teens on board the Indomitable. Which is why I hit upon:
4) A group of kids from all over the world. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted the supporting cast to be international, because these are the first humans to leave the solar system, and they ought to be representing humanity in all of our complexity. Plus as I mention in this Polygon article, there's a major problem with a lot of stories featuring aliens: the aliens start to seem like representatives of actual cultures on Earth. (For example, The Phantom Menace has Asian aliens and Caribbean aliens, not to mention Watto. Sigh.) The main way you can avoid that problem is to make the aliens actually alien, and distinctive enough that it's hard to project our Earth-based cultural images onto them. But it also helps a lot if you can have human cultures represented in the story by real-life human beings. It also made sense to me that an orbiting starship would be able to collect people from all over the world.)
But also, introducing characters from all over the world seemed to be a way to solve my biggest problem: how to have kids who had their own reasons for being there. If you've read Victories Greater Than Death, you already know that an ancient piece of alien tech provides a way to identify some of the smartest and geekiest kids on Earth, who can then be invited on board the ship. (Earlier drafts of the book spent way more time explaining the Longview probe, but I condensed that section for pacing reasons.) This storyline got even more fun when I decided it would be Rachael's idea to recruit other kids from Earth, and Tina was leery about putting more kids in danger.
This notion had two benefits from my point of view.
We could have kids who had their own origin stories, explaining why they decided to step on a random space elevator that crashes down out of the sky in front of them, and these "origin stories" could include a reason why they were willing to leave home.
And because they were the smartest kids on Earth according to an alien probe, they would bring their own skillsets, which could be useful. That's why Kez is a physics whiz, Damini is a natural pilot, Yiwei is a super creative musician/roboticist, and Elza is a hacker.
And here's a good place to talk about how I handled the problem of writing about cultures other than my own.
I was definitely thinking about these four characters when I wrote this essay on "representation without appropriation," which ended up being a chapter in my recent writing-advice book Never Say You Can't Survive. As I write in the essay:
[A]ll fiction, including fiction by people from the dominant group, needs to represent the diversity of the real world. It’s essential for White authors, in particular, to include BIPOC characters in our work and to make them as recognizable and believable as any other characters. We all need to populate our worlds with people from many backgrounds, genders, sexualities, and disability statuses, without trying to tell the stories that aren’t ours to tell.
So in the context of this trilogy, I wanted these characters to feel like real people, who are connected to the cultures they come from — but the story is never about those cultures. For example, when writing Wang Yiwei, I made sure to include lots of references to Chinese traditions, but I wouldn't expect someone to read this book as a way of learning about Chinese history or folklore. As I say in that essay, I tried hard to avoid taking on the "tour guide" role, or telling a story that's not mine to tell. Yiwei's story is mostly about traveling through space and fighting evil aliens, while dealing with a breakup and falling in love with someone new. (That's a bit of a spoiler, so I'll say no more.) I had lived in China, Taiwan and other parts of Asia for years, and I used to be fluent in Mandarin, so I had a knowledge base to work with.
For the character of Elza, a travesti (transfeminine person) from São Paulo, I had a steeper learning curve. I was planning to go to Brazil, but politics and covid made it impossible. So I did a ton of research: I learned to speak and read Portuguese, at first by using Duolingo and watching tons of Brazilian television on Netflix. I read a ton of books and articles. But most of all, I made friends with Hailey Kaas, a trava who lives in São Paulo. We started talking regularly on Zoom (yes, I paid her for her time), and Hailey answered all my questions relating to Elza's life and experiences. Hailey also sensitivity-read both Victories and Dreams, and for the past year and a half, she's been teaching me Portuguese once a week, via Zoom. All of this work has helped me to understand Elza better. (Elza artwork by Ines Możdżyńska.)
Something incredibly cool happened when I started talking to Hailey. I'd thought I had Elza all figured out already, and I'd convinced myself that she was a really three-dimensional, well-rounded character with a ton of layers. But as soon as I started hearing more about Hailey's experiences and the culture that Elza comes from, I realized that Elza was actually kind of a one-dimensional stick figure, and that I was unconsciously replicating a bunch of stereotypes. The amazing part, though? When I got a reality check on Elza, she immediately became more fun to write, not less — both because she was more vivid in my mind, and because she was becoming a more interesting character. Doing research, and especially learning from other people, almost always makes writing more fun in my experience. (And here's a quick plug: if you ever need a sensitivity reader, translator, Portuguese teacher or source on Brazilian culture, you should definitely hire Hailey. She also has a Patreon and a Ko-Fi.)
5) Giving these characters unfinished business. In YA, characters usually have unfinished business from the past — which is a lot easier when they're staying on their home planet and interacting with people they've met before. (Which is one reason it might have made sense for Tina to leave Earth with a group of her high-school classmates.) For example, in Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Nina is reunited with Matthias, and the two of them have a lot of baggage from all the abductions and betrayals (which you've already seen if you watched season one of Shadow and Bone.)
So these characters needed to have unfinished business that they could take with them into space. And meanwhile, the more I wrote the non-Tina characters in Victories Greater Than Death, the less I wanted them to just be sidekicks, or love interests. Especially after I'd put a lot of work into giving them "origin stories" that explained why they would step onto a mysterious elevator platform from space, I wanted them to have their own goals that were not just connected to the plot.
So Keziah isn't just a physics whiz who helps with physics stuff, he's trying to figure out how to be different than his father, a morally questionable science genius and entrepreneur. And by the end of Victories, Keziah is interested in becoming an ambassador so he can work toward peace, instead.
As for Elza, she has a lot of baggage from how she was treated in the hackerspace where she was staying before she left Earth, and she desperately wants to help other people who have been viewed as disposable. When she hears about a chance to become a cyborg "princess," whose brain connects directly to the most advanced computers in the universe, she's determined to go after this prize and prove herself.
Giving these characters goals of their own made them way more interesting to write — but it also made the trilogy more challenging in various ways. My original plan for Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak would have been much more of a second helping of the first book. All of the teens from Earth would have gotten more involved in the Royal Fleet, learning how to be space heroes together. But the more I worked on them, the less sense this made. Kez really wanted to become an ambassador, and eventually go back to Earth so he could help humanity cope with the realization that we are definitely not alone in the galaxy. And Elza was determined to try out for the princess selection program. Rachael wasn't really super into the idea of joining the Royal Fleet either. The other three characters — Tina, Yiwei and Damini — made sense as Royal cadets, but even they had their own lingering issues that would complicate things in ways that I can't really talk about without getting deeper into spoiler territory.
So without giving away any spoilers, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak is way more of an ensemble story, in which the six characters from Earth are chasing their own dreams and dealing with their own issues. I was still hyper-aware of not wanting to tell a story that wasn't mine to tell, especially when it came to Elza. So my guiding principle was to give Elza believable roots, but to stay focused on telling a cracking great story about alien worlds and ancient palaces. And of course I worked closely with Hailey to avoid stereotypes and to give Elza a storyline that gave her both respect and realness. If any of this works, it's largely thanks to Hailey and my other sensitivity readers and helpers—if it doesn't, that's entirely on me.
Anyway, that's how I chose the most complicated and winding path to coming up with a supporting cast for my YA trilogy. I feel like it paid off, big time, because I'm still having the time of my life writing all of these characters in the third and final book. As a general rule, I feel like I find the most interesting stories by going off the main road and wandering into the bushes.
This newsletter ended up being way too long, so I'm going to save all the links and recommendations for the next one. :)