• Kacen Callender

WIP: Write A Book Readers Will Hate

In response to King of the Rising, I saw someone ask something along the lines of “what is the point in reading a tragedy where the character doesn’t change, and there are only consequences for their actions?” It’s a fair question, and one that I want to answer:

Storytelling, for me, is all about lessons and messages. The end game isn’t only about watching a character grow and change, though this can certainly be a part of it. If you’ve seen any of my recent talks or blog posts about theme, you’ll see that I tend to focus pretty heavily on how stories need theme, and that theme can be shown by a character healing from a trauma, and in this healing, learning to grow as a person.

But if going to my original point of storytelling, a lesson doesn’t always need to be focused on a character’s growth. The boy who cried wolf is a story where the character didn’t grow, and we learned the message as children that, through consequences, we shouldn’t lie, because help might not come running when it really matters. (Pretty gruesome story to be taught as a kid, now that I think of it…)

I’ve actually been wanting to write about Queen of the Conquered and King of the Rising for a while now. I’m in a place where I can be pretty confident that these two books were successful in what I set out to achieve, and that they’re honestly my best-written books, especially in terms of language and characterization—and I can simultaneously acknowledge that these are also my most mixed-review books, and extremely polarizing in terms of the outright hatred (yes, hatred, with people really wanting others to know how much they hate these books, ahhhhh), and really intense excitement and love for what has been seen as a badass story… which I appreciate, but also wasn’t my intention.

I saw a Caribbean blog post about the two books that understood absolutely everything I’d sought to write about in this duology. I often wonder about the communication of these two books: on the one hand, it should be the author’s job to make sure everyone understands what’s being written about, so that the message and theme doesn’t go over so many people’s heads, and they’re left wondering what’s the point (of a tragedy, and the story in general). On the other, I wonder if I, or any other writer, should ever diminish their own story and message because readers won’t understand. Maybe I should stick to stories where the message will always be clear if I want to have a positive response. But more on that in a moment. :)

So, what is the unclear point of the Islands of Blood and Storm duology? This is a Caribbean fantasy about capitalism that asks the reader to look at themselves, and the capitalistic systems they’re a part of. The two novels are unexpected in a world of “take down the power” books, usually about an underdog rebellion, as if most of us are not participating in the very system that the fictional rebellion would be fighting against. I’ve learned that many readers don’t like characters who tend to make very realistic mistakes (especially when those characters are marginalized), and I’ve often wondered if it’s because so many of us don’t want to be reminded that we’re imperfect human beings who also make mistakes and need to grow and learn and change, or face the consequences. I wonder the same about Queen of the Conquered: did people not want to see the point of the books, or face that this was about assimilation, because they didn’t want to take a look at themselves and their own actions? Maybe I’m making too many assumptions. Maybe the message was just really, super unclear, or there weren’t enough reference points to have this discussion, with readers who didn’t know what the discussion was about.

Sigourney Rose symbolizes Black capitalism and assimilation and exceptionalism in today’s age: the lie that so many Black people were told that, if we work hard enough and play the game by the rules of white capitalism, we will eventually find true freedom. Sigourney does change in the novels. She’d been lying to herself throughout the first book, saying that she was trying to gain power for her people. By the end of the second, she finally acknowledges to herself and others that it was always about greed of power and wealth. But when it comes to assimilation and fighting for capitalism and power, she doesn’t change and, at the end of the duology, she even wins the power of the islands at the sacrifice of her people and her culture.

This is exactly what so many Black capitalists do, wanting only to focus on their own success and continuing to uphold the same system that kills so many others. It’s what we were all taught to do. I remember a conversation I’d had with an interviewer, where the interviewer finally confessed with a hint of anger, “But I just don’t like Sigourney!” And they were surprised when I replied with, “Oh, I know—I can’t stand her.” That’s the point. You’re really not meant to like Sigourney for any of her actions, or the lies she tells herself.

Løren Jannik, the main character of the sequel and Sigourney’s main antagonist, wavers with difficult questions about morality—and while he does change in the end by realizing he can’t depend on Sigourney, though he’d had so much hope, we see the consequences of him not changing quickly enough. Løren symbolizes revolution, a focus on community. He continues to believe that the system of Black capitalism will eventually find empathy and change (in the way that so many of us simply have hope that the system will change without taking appropriate action or making internal change first). Spoiler alert—but he’s ultimately killed for this. These two characters ask a lot of hard questions that I don’t necessarily answer, because I don’t know the answers myself. For me, the point was to spark a discussion about assimilation within the Black community, when capitalism in this nation was created using our ancestors as slaves.

Should we really be seeking wealth and power, to be considered the exceptional Black person in any industry or profession, by the very same system that continues to starve and jail and literally kill other Black people? Are we being truthful with ourselves when we say we are striving to be the best for the sake of our people, because if we rise up then our people will rise with us? I wrote these books to offer a warning: we can’t abandon our own culture and sacrifice our own people because of the lie that the system will change if we work hard enough and play by white capitalism’s rules. We have enough evidence that the system will still hate us and kill us, and that if we play this game long enough, we might even become like Sigourney: willing to kill our own people, too.

Now, this blog post was partly me wanting to write about the point of Queen and King in relation to tragedy—but I also wanted to make a swift turn back to the fact that these books have such mixed reviews. I feel like these two books have been out long enough now that I can stop tip-toeing around this, which feels so awkward in interviews and on panels as I try to insist that they’re good books, others love them, I’m a genius, the message just went over everyone’s heads, etc. They’re the only books I’ve written that have gotten outright horrible trade reviews and a whole lot of vitriol from readers. (Felix Ever After is the only other book I can think of that got a terrible trade review, but that review was also really transphobic and low-key racist, so let’s not talk about that right now.)

Still, despite the hate, I think I accomplished what I set out to do. So, as a writer, these two books have actually sparked an important question for me: should I focus on writing books that I know will undoubtedly have positive response? Does that mean sticking to clearly defined paths of what is a good book and a bad book based on what readers expect and want to read? Or does that mean having agency and deciding to forge new paths that work for me, where conversations can be sparked and where questions can be asked, where storytelling can be pushed into new places? At what point do we as writers decide to be courageous and take a risk, even knowing many people will not get the point, or simply won’t like the point you’re trying to make?

I have to be honest—I have a lot of fear of going too far from the unexpected now because Queen and King has received so much pushback. I love fantasy, and I want to write many more speculative novels for all age ranges. Should I just write the expected? Follow the trends of the bestselling novels, give the people what they want and move on?

I’ve tried to. I’ve sat down and told myself I’m going to write a “big” fantasy book, and I made a list of all the popular tropes in bestselling novels: competitions, betrothals, rebellions, assassinations… (there’s more, I just can’t remember them now). Queen absolutely borrowed from those tropes, too! Tropes aren’t necessarily a bad thing, from my perspective… But whenever I tried to write these new fantasy books, following these tropes, they fell apart. There wasn’t any soul to those stories. Following the not-great reception of Queen and King and the inability to just write a fast-paced, exciting fantasy novel, I’ve felt like a failure of a writer, because I haven’t been able to deliver the fantasy book most readers would love.

The fantasies I’m writing now have soul to them, points and messages and themes that I think are important—but what if those messages aren’t clear enough? What if they go over peoples’ heads, and what if, even if the reader does understand, they simply don’t care? I’d like to find a balance in every story I write: where the reader is entertained, and where there are also messages/lessons/themes—but what if the reader isn’t entertained and doesn’t care about the theme? What’s the point to writing a story that most people will not care about or understand? These are the inner-saboteur thoughts that I struggle with (at five in the morning, apparently).

I’m not sure if I know the answer yet myself, but I am going to have faith that this is a direction I’m meant to take. And, as I work on inner-healing around the desire for validation (talked about a bit in this post about self-care), I also need to realize that maybe the love and validation of readers isn’t the point at all. It might sound counterintuitive as a writer, but so many writers throughout history have not always written stories, books, essays that were popular, or well-received. Some were killed for their work. But the writing itself was still groundbreaking. Their work was still life-changing, and helped forge new paths for people to follow. I don’t necessarily think that Queen and King have changed the world as much as they are hated, but they did give me a valuable lesson: I’m not for everyone. My stories aren’t for everyone. My writing will, at times, be hated. This doesn’t take away from the importance of the work, or the ability to shape others—maybe even change the world.

This blog post was all one very long, twisty way to come to the conclusion of: go out there and write a book that someone—no, many people—will hate. I certainly have, and I’m just fine. The books that we write that people hate might just be the book that the world needed to see in that moment anyway, the one that could be the spark that could change this world for the better.

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