Strength Comes in Many Varieties: Leanna Renee Hieber and Strangely Beautiful

Last week, I posted a review of the new edition of Strangely Beautiful. Today, the author Leanna Renee Hieber has a guest post for us about the different ways in which characters can be strong. Read on to find out what Leanna has to say about the hidden strength of Miss Percy Parker…

Strangely Beautiful cover 2

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As my beloved and most well-known series, the Strangely Beautiful saga, is about to re-issue in a revised edition with new scenes and content from Tor Books, I’ve been doing a great deal of reflection and discussion about the oft beleaguered Gothic novel and my heroine Miss Percy Parker.

I believe in fiction that represents all people, types, perspectives, physiologies, tropes, gender identities, races, faiths, backgrounds, statuses; the whole beautiful complicated intricacy of humanity. There should be fiction featuring the vast lot, and in any genre it pleases.

I also believe that the emotional scope of a character and their abilities and choices should be as broad, as valued and as limitless as human possibility. This is no less important in fantasy fiction, where the subtleties of emotion and character traits may understandably be upstaged by lavish world-building and fire-breathing dragons.

When I began drafting my first novel, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, a Gothic Victorian fantasy romance novel with suspense, horror, mystery and YA/New Adult elements, I wasn’t thinking about a mission, about voice, about impact, about cause, about genre; I was writing the book of my heart and mashing everything I loved reading into one novel. One shouldn’t think about those external factors when drafting, one should just take the cheesy advice and write “the book of your heart.” No joke. The rest of the trappings will come later, often after a lot of pain and reflection.

Strangely Beautiful received a lot of notice during its 2009 debut. A ton of people fell in love with my sweet, dear heroine, Miss Percy Parker. Her tale went into 4 print runs, became a national bestseller and won a bunch of genre awards in its relatively short shelf-life. The tragedy of these books was that I was out of print soon after I got my big break due to the publisher going bankrupt. That was a school-of-hard-knocks emotionally and a devastating hit financially that I was not expecting. And while I was blessed to see so many champion Miss Percy, I fully admit I was not expecting some readers to outright hate Miss Percy. Vehemently. With a passion. She was a “Mary Sue,” and I learned that was A Very Bad Thing.

I didn’t know from Mary Sue. All I knew was that I’d written a nineteen year old woman who was raised in a convent seeing ghosts and looking like one while she talked to them. Miss Percy has albinism—a condition that gives her unusually pale skin and hair as well as unsettling eyes that are sensitive to light—and while it was really rough being a “freak” in Victorian society, let’s be honest, we’re not any better about appearances today. Modern society may criticize the Victorians but ours is just as vicious, repressive and restrictive, it just uses a different bold vernacular and a shift in power dynamics. We still have massive issues with the “other.” Percy is a meek, introverted, skittish young woman who didn’t have to live beyond convent walls to be taught her first lesson: she was not and did not look normal. Her only friends were dead; ghosts. It is a feat of strength for her simply to walk out of her room every day and face gawking cruelty and harsh stares from the living. To those who have faced abuse and bullying and come out of the gate an assertive bad-ass, my sincere kudos. Miss Percy just wasn’t one of those souls. One might think she was too fragile for this world and yet she kept surprising me, and everyone who took the time to get to know her, with her subtle mettle.

There are many types of strength. One doesn’t always have to wield a sword or pack a punch. For Percy, just surviving in an oft cruel world is strong. The fact that she’s got a heart large enough to hold the whole world within it is, to me, a feat of herculean will. That she loves so fiercely, that she is so full of light, hope and joy in a bleak, dark, mean world continues to inspire me. When I feel bitter about the hateful world she quietly, effortlessly heals me.

Not everyone felt that way about her and that’s truly fine. Believe me, I didn’t get into writing because it was easy, painless or full of blanket praise. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and the right to like and dislike what they will. My work and style can be polarizing, I’ve no issue with that.

But why I am writing this post is for this reason: I don’t want us as readers and humans to qualify that there is only one way to be something. I don’t want to see boxes and qualifiers around “strength” any more than I want boxes and qualifiers around any human being.

This is especially important when looking at the scope of Gothic literature. If you’ve followed me and my work in any capacity, you know I speak out about the Gothic as often as I can, about its wonders and its pitfalls. Gothic novels and Gothic settings are what I’ve gravitated to since I could hold a pen and read a word. But one thing stood out for me in nearly every traditional Gothic novel: the problematic plight of the female characters. Women in a traditional Gothic are generally plot devices, victims, property, prizes, one- to two-dimensional tropes, either angels or villains, never allowed to be the independent, fully realized focus, never allowed agency to self-determine their futures. Helpless.

I am not interested in continuing the problematic tropes of a guilty pleasure without expanding on their dimensions and providing alternatives. Gothic novels are emotional, high-drama, intense stories and the often fraught style is not everyone’s cup of tea. Reading and writing a Gothic requires a certain abandon and in that abandon some incredible things can happen. I want to write women that are very much in touch with themselves, their femininity, their constraints, their abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and who make independent and considered choices, who act within their realms to their most comprehensive capacity, in spite of their circumstances. This can be done delicately, subtly. For some it may not be by burning the proverbial house down but by being politic, careful and utilizing spheres traditionally handled by women and turning them to their own advantage. This is still a valid choice and not one that abandons strength.

Miss Percy is very much a traditionally Gothic heroine, but she expands, is allowed depth and comprehensive focus. Through her saga she transcends the traditional Gothic and comes into her own in a way not often allowed in the genre historically. I’m hardly the only author challenging the traditional Gothic but it has truly been my career mission thus far to write female-forward, female-centric stories firmly rooted in a genre that has typically so limited the breadth of their voices. It is our job as modern novelists to expand and challenge a genre with deeper dimensions and wider narratives.

If Percy’s meek, sometimes shaking, vulnerable state is uncomfortable, I understand. She has been as deeply uncomfortable to write as she has been a joy. I ache for her. I want her to grow a spine. And she does, through the series, if the reader is patient with her and allows for her the character growth that we would expect and permit of any hero. Percy adapting into a more assertive self is a blossoming that is painstaking and deliberate. She never does wield a sword. But she faces down death itself to save those she loves several times throughout the series. It is her love that is truly invincible. We don’t always equate a loving heart, or the ability to fight depression, or anxiety, the fight to just simply get out of bed, with strength, especially in an action-adventure kind of tale. But I think that’s a lost opportunity. Let’s allow for the full range of human emotion and give different shades of strength and ability their due. Sometimes being vulnerable is the bravest thing in the world a person could be. Seeking comfort and relief is human and can forge the most vital of bonds. Let’s allow our characters their full humanity, allow for moments of trembling fear not to be condemned as a sign of weakness but of reality, and we root for them to transcend those difficult places towards balance and peace.

I am a strong-willed independent woman, but an unabashedly feminine one. This is a valid choice and should not be demonized in any character. (I don’t watch Game of Thrones but I’ll just assume some Sansa fans will throw their hands up for that). I don’t think my love of frilly black dresses makes me any less strong. Strength should look as diverse as our world. Percy’s blazingly vibrant heart got me through very rough patches in my life. Saving a life is a strong act. Percy’s wide open heart alone, pretty frilly dresses and all, saves many lives over the course of the Strangely Beautiful saga in ways that only her care, luminous spirit and gentle insight can. There’s a lot of hate, prejudice and misunderstanding in the world right now; a lot of “us” versus “them” and so many closed doors. Perhaps there’s never been a more apt time for a passionate heart, for endearing kindness, to be considered as mighty, and as kick-ass, as a sword.

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Support the Strangely Beautiful saga, books 1 and 2 in one volume, wherever books are sold, in paperback or digital. You can find them online at Barnes & NobleAmazon, and IndieBound.

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LRHieber author photoLeanna Renee Hieber is an actress, playwright, artist and the award-winning, bestselling author of Gothic Victorian fantasy novels. The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker hit Barnes & Noble and Borders Bestseller lists and garnered numerous regional genre awards. The revised omnibus edition with new content releases as Strangely Beautiful from Tor Books in 4/16. Leanna’s Magic Most Foul saga began with Darker Still, an American Bookseller’s Association “Indie Next List” pick, a Scholastic Book Club “Highly Recommended” title and a Daphne du Maurier award finalist. The Eterna Files, her latest Gothic, Gaslamp Fantasy saga is now available from Tor with the sequel, Eterna and Omega releasing 8/16. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies such as Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, Willful Impropriety, and The Mammoth Book of Gaslamp Romance and has been featured on Tor.com. She is a four-time Prism Award winner for excellence in Fantasy Romance and her books have been selected for national book club editions and translated into many languages including Polish, German and Complex Chinese. A proud member of performer unions Actors Equity and SAG-AFTRA, she lives in New York City, works as a ghost tour guide and has been featured in film and television on shows like Boardwalk Empire. She is active on twitter (@LeannaRenee) and on facebook, and she crafts art and jewelry at her Torch and Arrow Esty shop. More about her many books and endeavors at her website.

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