Research Findings

sorrow thereof collage

S’s pics from research trip to Cleveland. Clockwise from top left: The Cuyahoga River; ex-hubby’s apartment building on St. Clair; boss’s apartment building in the Flats; heroine’s apartment above shops in Little Italy; heroine’s grocery in Little Italy.


For anyone who doesn’t follow us on Twitter, I just wanted to stop in and report that our trip to Cleveland was wonderfully productive. We found an apartment we think would be suitable for my heroine, rode the train to where she works, figured out where her ex-husband lives, where her boss lives, and what her favorite walk is along the Cuyahoga River. We bought a bottle of wine at the local grocery where she shops, ate what is surely her favorite pizza, and decided the coffee house down the street is way too hipster for her. In other words, it was genuinely helpful, and I think my novel will be better for the trip.




Road Trip


The fantastic Cleveland skyline.

While J is between semesters, I’ve taken a week off work, and we’ve been doing a lot of writing. With both of our birthdays quickly approaching, we’re frantically trying to finish up presents for one another, hence our absence on Sunday. J, as always, is writing at an impressive clip, but in order to write my novel, we’re thinking of taking a road trip.

I’m trying something different for J’s present. It’s not fantasy and it’s modern. (This doesn’t frighten me too much. I may also be lying about that.) A big chunk of the story is going to take place in Cleveland, because I figured if I need it to take place in any American city other than New York, why not one I’ve been to and can visit anytime I want? The visiting part is actually kind of important to me, because while there’s a lot you can figure out about a modern city simply by looking online, I’d much rather scout locations. We already have potential spots picked out for my heroine’s apartment, place of work, as well as where some other characters live and spend their time. But I think it will add some authenticity if I literally ride the train from my heroine’s apartment to where she works, and walk around the neighborhood where she does her shopping.

There are certain to be lots of pics, and we will share them here. Also, keep an eye on our Twitter (@jsmawdsley), because we may be posting pictures there as well. Wish us luck!


Irredeemable by Choice


Please allow him to introduce himself.

We’re still mulling over Season 3 of The Musketeers, and now that it’s available on Hulu here in our part of the world, we’ve started rewatching it. As S mentioned last week, one of the more controversial aspects of this final season is what happens with the character of Milady de Winter. If you haven’t seen Season 3 yet, consider yourself warned that SPOILERS FOLLOW.

The first problem that I see with how Milady’s story ends is that, from a certain point of view, it’s not really the end of her story at all. It’s the end of Queen Anne’s story. Anne has gone from being the sidelined, ignored queen to being the regent and de facto ruler of France. And Milady acts as the symbol of this. In season one, she worked for the Cardinal, who was the true power in the kingdom. At the end of season three, she’s working for Anne, which shows how the queen is now the one in control. It’s actually a neat way of showing the queen’s arc, but it doesn’t really have much to do with Milady’s arc, and so I can see how people might have found it unsatisfying.

The second problem is that, as S discussed last week, Milady didn’t get redemption, even though it seemed earlier as if she might have been heading in that direction. Coming to the end of Season 2, it certainly looked as if Milady was about to do a classic “Heel-Face Turn.” That is to say, she looked like she was about to go from being a bad guy to being a good guy. She helped the heroes beat the real villain, and she almost-but-not-quite ended up with the leading man.

But of course what happened to her in Season 3 was that she turned back to being a spy and an assassin, and she engaged in (or was forced into) what TV Tropes calls “Redemption Rejection.” This is when a villain has a chance to make a Heel-Face Turn, but instead decides to keep being a bad guy. The classic example of this, as cited on the TV Tropes page, and as noted above in our picture for the week, is Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost, who would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.

A character doesn’t actually even have to be a traditional villain, though, in order to reject redemption. Another great example on the TV Tropes pages is Barney from How I Met Your Mother. S and I stopped watching that show a few episodes into Season 6, but we’d still get updates on the show from time to time from our online friends. One of them once summarized a then-current plot line on the show by saying that, “Barney grows a soul for the umpteenth time,” or words to that effect. Time and time again, Barney looked like he was going to be a decent person, but then he would decide to go back to being his old, legen…(wait for it)…darily charming, yet awful self.

This points to what I think is one of the usual causes of “Redemption Rejection”—namely, the need in many long-running series (both sitcoms and soaps) to “reset” the story and put the characters back the way they were. If Barney stops being a cad, we all feel good for him and cheer for about ten seconds, and then we realize that the show is now essentially over, since his caddishness is one of the primary sources of humor and dramatic tension on the show.

That’s one of the things that makes the decision to “reset” Milady to a villainess at the end seem so odd: there was no particular reason to do it. Yes, she needs to be a villainess (or at least a “frenemy”) for there to be tension with the other leads (especially Athos). But when the show ends, there’s no need for that anymore. Milady actually can have a happy ending, just like Porthos can be a general and Athos can decide to adopt a terrible new hairstyle. The fact that those things would have made the story problematic going forward doesn’t matter anymore, because the story is over.

It’s interesting to note that, from what I understand, How I Met Your Mother did essentially the same thing with Barney. (Admittedly, I’ve never watched the finale, and I probably never will; I’m just going off what I’ve read about it.) They had him return to his usual lechery at the end, instead of redeeming him. And from what I’ve read, there was a very similar outcry from fans. During the run of the show, fans reveled in his bad-boy antics, and they might have prayed, paraphrasing St. Augustine, “Lord, grant Barney Stinson chastity and continence, but not yet.” Once the show ended, though, it seems like fans want to believe that the bad boy settled down. And in a similar way, it looks like there are a number of Musketeers fans who wanted Milady to find happiness and some way of supporting herself other than knifing people in the dark.


Redeeming Qualities


My silly edit of Maimie McCoy as Milady de Winter in Season 2 of The Musketeers

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk surrounding several shows I watch concerning redemption arcs. Fans have been wondering if characters are redeemable, if they have been redeemed, or why they haven’t been. So, naturally, I started thinking about the topic, beginning with what is a redemption arc? And I’m running across a lot of fans who want to see their favorite characters get one, so I’ve also been wondering what precisely the appeal is. And also, under what circumstance a character needs/should have an arc of this sort. To answer that first question about what precisely is a redemption arc, I started with one of the classics of the type, and then began thinking of variations, until ending with the one that’s been most on my mind lately.

(Obviously, this is a topic that can only be discussed with spoilers, but spoiler phobes shouldn’t be too worried. I’m going to spoil three classic stories most of you likely know, and I’m only going to discuss the ending of BBC’s The Musketeers pretty vaguely.)

Sydney Carton—A Tale of Two Cities

Truly the classic redemption arc, Sydney Carton starts the novel lazy, drunk, and selfish, and ends the novel by literally sacrificing his own life to save another man’s. It’s an incredibly satisfying transformation because Dickens makes us care deeply for Sydney Carton and the people and cause he eventually sacrifices himself for. And on a more basic level, we like the redemption arc because we want to believe all people have the capacity to grow and change and become better human beings. We like to think that if we ever fail, there will still be hope for us. Sydney Carton provides that and then some by going the extra redemptive mile by becoming even better than we are and making the sacrifice we all want to believe we would have the strength to make in his position.

But what if his opportunity for redemption had been offered and he turned it down? Is that still a redemption arc? I think so, and here’s an example.

Javert—Les Misérables

After spending hundreds of pages (or dozens of songs, depending on which telling of the story you have in mind), Javert, the quintessential obsessed policeman, has a shot at redemption. For decades, Javert has been searching for Jean Valjean, and when he finds him, Javert could let his hate and obsession go, along with Jean Valjean. He could finally exorcise his demons and be a better, happier person. He could, in other words, finish his redemption arc by allowing Jean Valjean to go about his own life while continuing on with his own minus the unhealthy drive. But Javert doesn’t accept the redemption being offered to him, and instead commits suicide.

So, this is the redemption arc answered in the negative. Is there another way for this to play out? Yes. Yes, there is.

Frodo and Gollum—The Lord of the Rings

Like Javert, Frodo and Gollum are both ultimately offered redemption, but refuse it. All they have to do is cast the One Ring back into the fiery chasm from whence it came. (Aside—How awesome is that line exactly?) And yet, the One Ring has made them both so mad, so enthralled to its power, that neither of them can do it, thus damning all of Middle-earth to an eternity of darkness under the dominion of Sauron. Except, that’s not actually what happens. What happens is the eucatastrophe. A force greater than Frodo, Gollum, or Sauron sees the One Ring destroyed. And that force also decides to grant Frodo the redemption he previously rejected. Gollum isn’t so lucky, but greater forces get to be fickle like that. But as readers/viewers, even if we feel bad for Gollum, we take comfort in Frodo’s arc, that even if we are so blind/stupid/insane to turn our backs on redemption, the possibility exists for us to get it anyway. And that’s a comfort.

Can a redemption arc fail or be rescinded? Like everything in storytelling, execution is everything, so sadly, yes it can.

Milady de Winter—The Musketeers (BBC)

Now, I’m not going to get into specifics. And I’m not even sure where precisely I fall on the issue of Milady’s final outcome on the show. But there are many fans, with whom, even when not in total agreement, I sympathize with greatly, who feel as though the show failed this character in terms of her redemption arc. Through the first two seasons, it certainly seems as though Milady, one, had an arc, and that two, it was redemptive. She is introduced in Season 1 to the viewer as a cold blooded murderer who literally tells a priest while in confession, “I’m not looking for absolution. I want revenge.” By the end of Season 2, she claims she no longer wishes to be a woman who lies and kills—she wants to be a decent, happy person, as she was when she first married Athos. With very limited screen time in Season 3, Milady ends the season (and the run of the show) decidedly closer to the woman at the beginning of Season 1 than the woman at the end of Season 2. Fans of the character, including myself, question if the writers of the show missed an opportunity for a redemption arc here. And even if Milady was never going to stop being in essentials the character to whom we were introduced, some fans wonder if she couldn’t have had more agency in choosing her resolution, rather than feeling as though she were not merely denied redemption, but never offered it or any say in her future.

I think the important lesson I take away from The Musketeers as a writer is that when dangling a redemption arc in front of a character, you snatch it away at your own peril. Again, the belief that we can be better and find forgiveness and happiness is a strong emotion in all of us. Not allowing that to a character who the reader believes deserves it can be immensely disappointing. Although, J made an interesting observation that the important difference between, say, Sydney Carton and Javert is that one of them is the hero and the other is the antagonist. Perhaps Milady could only have redemption offered but not granted? I’m not sure. But I’ll certainly be thinking about it.


Home from Camp!


Hey everyone!

S and I are back from camp, and once again, Team Unicorn is a winner: I wrote 149,156 words, finishing my newest novel, Written In Sand.  And S wrote 40,551 words spread among five different writing projects.  Of those, she completed three, including a 20,000-word fanfic.  So we both met our word-count goals for the month, and we’re both pretty happy with how our writing turned out.

Metaphorically speaking, we’re still unpacking our macrame art projects and still-damp swimsuits.  So we don’t have a real blog for you today.  What we do have, however, is a much-needed update to our page about “The Myrcia ‘Verse.”  Talking to one of our writer friends last night, at our last local write-in of the month, I realized that I hadn’t updated that page since last August, and that since then, I’ve written four books.  (This brings our collective total up to 28 3/4.)

So go check out that page, where you will discover such wonders as “epic banking” and the fusion of Mad Max and Juno.

We promise we’ll have a real blog again soon.  Probably.