Monday, August 3, 2015

Behind the Story: The Road to Salvation Series

The third book in the series, Good Intentions, was released last week. I thought it might be fun to give you a little background on where the idea for the books came from.

There is this notion that it is accepted and expected that women will fall for the “bad” boy. The belief is that with their unconditional love, patience, and devotion, a woman will make him an upstanding and contributing member of society.

I have no doubts that for some men this is true. All they’ve needed in their life was support and caring from a devoted partner. But for others, nothing will ever change them. And that can be incredibly dangerous for women.

I am reminded of the “Hot Convict” story. This man found his way into women’s hearts because of his mug shot. From there, he landed a modeling contract.

Now, I don’t know the guy personally. I don’t know if he can be reformed or is looking for a better life, which could possibly be provided by the vast amount of women fawning over him, but an article on February 5th explains that he was sentenced to 27 months for his crimes. So he’s really a “bad” boy in every sense of the word.

Pfft, you say. It was just a weapons charge. It wasn’t like he actually murdered someone. But what if he had? What if he had been arrested for raping and beating women? Would women still find him attractive? More than likely, yes. We’ve been conditioned to think that no matter how terrible an attractive man is, they are just waiting for the right woman to come along and fix them.

But not everyone can or wants to be changed, and it can be devastating for women if they don’t fulfill this societal role. It can make them feel like failures. It can keep them in abusive situations because they’ve been told their love will change everything.

Then, I started thinking about Twilight and how Bella fell in love with a “bad” boy and what happened to her in the process. From there, I started thinking: What happens if the “bad” boy is really bad? Like demon from Hell bad. How would a na├»ve, inexperienced girl handle it?

Teenagers have specific notions about how love should be, and they are often influenced by popular culture. I know my ideas were waaaaay back in the day. They are often romanticized. And for women, it is often cemented in the idea that men can be changed and that we need a man to have meaning in life. It feels like those were some of the ideals I strove for when I was young.

Things have changed slightly over time, and we see a lot more strong female characters in popular culture. Katniss is one that comes immediately to mind. Or Hermione. But with the strong ones comes the Bellas—teenage characters who shut completely down when their man leaves because they have no meaning without them.

I wanted to challenge these notions while writing the Road to Salvation series. I wanted to point out how flawed and dangerous this way of thinking could truly be.

Katie starts out as a very stereotypical teenage character. She is whiny, self-centered, and needy. And it’s supposed to be irritating. It’s supposed to seem ridiculous and over-the-top. She’s supposed to drive the reader crazy. She wants to love someone and be loved, and for the longest time, she thought she could have that with her childhood friend Wes. But eventually, she discovers that it won’t happen. So she moves on and finds Josh.

Like all stereotypical bad boys, Josh is incredibly hot and has moments of being charming. He knows what Katie wants and needs, which is attention. But he’s also incredibly controlling and puts her in dangerous situations. He saves her, but that only reinforces his control over her.

As the books progress, Josh gets more controlling and even verbally abusive. But he does it in such a subtle way that she doesn’t realize what’s going on. She convinces herself that he does it because he truly cares for her. She thinks that she can change him. And when she finds out that she’s part demon herself, she feels that she doesn’t deserve anyone better than Josh. But that’s also because Josh has convinced her of this through his actions. He’s made her feel important and needed, so why would she go anywhere else? She has purpose and meaning with Josh. And he accepts her for what she is—even with all her flaws.

This situation is dangerous for Katie. She allows herself to be put in increasingly dangerous situations. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to make Josh happy because she believes that he defines her and gives her meaning. She wants to keep him around because he makes her feel complete, but she loses her identity in the process.

Only when things go completely wrong and Josh betrays her does she realize how bad that situation was. But even then, she still thinks she can fix what happened. She thinks she can make Josh happy again by working harder at being bad.

When I envisioned the relationship between Katie and Josh, I thought of it as an abusive relationship. Josh knows exactly what to say and how to act to keep Katie around. He knows how to make her feel special and needed, at the same time manipulating her into doing what he wants. And he knows how to make her feel guilty and like a failure for not living up to his expectations. He’s broken her down. He’s made her completely dependent on him. He needs her weak and unsure so he can get what he wants.

This type of relationship dynamic happens on a daily basis. I chose to have a teen as my main character because of her inexperience with relationships and men, but it can happen to anyone. And a lot of it is because women are taught that their self-worth and meaning comes from their relationships and how well they maintain them, i.e., how well they take the bad out of the boy. But it often doesn’t work out well for the women.

Katie learns that some boys just want to be bad. Josh always had his own agenda in mind, and she was just a means to an end. But on the other end of the spectrum, Wes isn’t exactly the better choice either.

Within the context of the story, I purposely chose to have Heaven vs. Hell, good vs. evil, as the main conflict. It is a black and white battle that most people recognize easily. And readers chose their sides immediately: they were either Team Josh or Team Wes. And I encouraged their decisions. I wanted them to pick sides. It was rather sneaky of me to do that.

Having readers pick teams played right into the notions and expectations that Katie needed a man in her life to give her definition and meaning. If Wes couldn’t provide it, surely Josh could. And when Josh turned out to be totally evil and Wes came back, Katie could still be saved. But as I mentioned briefly above, Wes isn’t any better than Josh. Sure, he’s on the side of good, but he’s also emotionally unavailable. He’s been stringing Katie along for years, making her believe that they could have a normal relationship, but he’s incapable of being there for her.

Wes does good for the world. He rids the world of evil threats, and he loves Katie, and in his mind, he thinks that should be enough. He has absolutely no idea what it means to be there for her because he never has been. He is selfish and self-centered. He thinks that keeping her safe from herself is enough. But what Katie really needs is a partner, someone who sees all her flaws and accepts her for who she is. Wes starts to do this at the end of the series, but by then it might be too late.

Katie doesn’t exactly have a lot of choices in boys when it comes to relationships. She had Josh, who is abusive, and Wes, who is emotionally distant. And yet, these were who readers were rooting for her to be with. I laughed whenever I saw people pick a team, and I wondered: why is no one picking Team Katie?

This, of course, comes back to stereotypes and notions that Katie has to end up with a guy. It’s a convention that has been portrayed in stories since the dawn of time. And I wanted readers to believe that trope. I wanted them to think that was how the story was going to go. But what it all boils down to, and what it has always boiled down to, was that the only person who could save Katie was Katie. She might not have accomplished it in overly heroic style or without getting hurt along the way, but she accomplished it.

Life is tough, and we are constantly faced with difficult and challenging decisions. As Katie learned, she has to have faith in herself and learn that self-worth is drawn from within, not from those around her. It doesn’t matter that she possess both good and evil, we all do. In the end, she has to live with consequences of her decisions—whether good or bad or both—and no one else can define her.

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