“What’s it about?”

The first question I get when family or friends find out that I have a novel being published is: “What’s it about?”

 So I go ahead and tell them:  “GET AWAY FROM ME!  I HAVE TO GO FEED MY TURTLES!  I’LL CUT YOU!”

Okay, that’s not true.  I just thought it was more dramatic than what I actually tell them, which is that CHARMING is about John Charming, the modern day descendant of all those characters named Prince Charming from the fairy tales.   In my fictional world, there wasn’t some crazed serial bigamist inspiring all of those different stories, there was in fact an entire family line of witch finders and dragon slayers extending through the centuries.

The next question comes in one of three variations.  People either say “Oh cool!  How did you get that idea?”  Or “Oh cool!  How come nobody has ever thought of that before?”  Or just “Oh.”

My response to that is a little more complicated.  I know there’s a lot of fairy tale stuff out there right now, and some of it I’ve read and watched and some of it I haven’t, and I talk about that in an interview in the back of my book.

I also mention that I was an army brat.  We moved pretty regularly, and my grandparent’s farm was an island of stability in my childhood, the place we always went to on vacations or between moves or when my father was going to be gone for a long time.  My grandmother was an English teacher and a pack rat, and her house was stuffed with books on folk lore and fairy tales and mythology, and not just European stories and not just children’s tales.  I’m talking the real stuff, dark stories full of fantastic places and creatures of nightmare where macabre events are described by a third person narrator with a matter of fact attitude.  That’s my happy place.   Not Christmas memories.  Not my first puppy. It’s lying on my grandparent’s porch swing reading stories that were totally inappropriate for children.

So there’s that.

And I really wanted to root my character in a literary tradition.  Actually, that’s not true.  I wanted to root my character in all literary traditions relating to folk tales and fables and myths.  I start out with vampires and werewolves, but I start introducing new/old mythological creatures into the mix pretty quickly.   Really, if I have any serious literary ambitions for my John Charming tales at all, it’s that I would like to make the urban fantasy genre as a whole a little more aware of how rich and varied the story telling traditions it’s been strip mining for vampire and werewolf stories are.  And I’m not saying that no one else is doing this.  My favorite urban fantasy authors do this.   It’s largely why they’re my favorites.

Anyhow, I thought very seriously about connecting my protagonist to the myth of Prestor John and considered making the knights in my book the surviving descendants of his lost kingdom.  I also considered making my character one of the eight Chinese Immortals, but that was too much backstory and research for little old debut author me, delusions of grandeur notwithstanding.  Roland was pretty much out because of Stephen King’s the Dark Tower series, and stories about King Arthur resurfacing are pretty common too.

Truthfully, I was looking around for a knight to take the place of that Prince Charming fellow because I’ve never liked Prince Charming.   If you really read the old stories, Prince Charming is either a plot device, an idiot, or a date rapist.   His whole purpose for existing is to get a young noblewoman who has fallen on hard times from point A to point B and then rubberstamp a happy ending on the whole thing.   This is why Prince Charming gets dissed a lot in Post-modern times, from the Shrek movies to feminists who like to point out that waiting for a rich handsome guy to come take you away and solve all your problems is a lot like hoping you’ll win the lottery and calling that a pension plan.  Even modern stories where Prince Charming is sympathetic like Everafter or Mirror Mirror make him the same old secondary character – he still exists to get the female protagonist from point A to point B – it’s the nature of the female protagonist and the scope of point A and B that has changed, not the Prince.  There’s kind of an “I’ll show you, buster” attitude.

And I guess that’s when it occurred to me that I have never read a story where Prince Charming spoke in the first person.  I’m sure they exist, somewhere, but I don’t recall reading one myself.   And then I thought of that children’s story, The Big Bad Wolf Tells All by Donna Kaufman, where the Big Bad Wolf gives his side of things, and that kind of sealed the deal.  I started to fall in love with the idea of writing a Prince Charming character that I liked.

There is no glamorous fashion aspect to my story – I wouldn’t know how to write one if I wanted to, so instead of clothes and galas there’s a lot of emphasis on fighting and weapons and defenses.  There are still the basic elements of the traditional story; there’s love at first sight though instead of dropping down on one knee and proposing, my character fights it.  When he finds himself coming back or opening up to a mysterious female repeatedly despite his surface resolve, it bugs the crap out of him.  The female lead is stuck in a bad situation that she’s been kind of passively accepting, but I don’t think it’s the sort of thing you’d expect… it’s messy and complicated.  There is an evil queen, or at least an aspiring vampire queen though this sociopath uses the Internet as her magic mirror.   My “princess” doesn’t really need to be protected – she has more in common with Buffy the Vampire Slayer than Snow White – but there is still a damsel in distress scenario at the end though I will tell you right now…well, no I won’t.   And the whole “Happily Ever After” thing gets examined.  Truthfully, it has to bend over and cough.

The main difference is that this time it is the male who has lost everything and has a tragic back story and the female who’s a too-good-to-be-true cipher, at least at first.   I didn’t want some idealized pretty boy, I wanted someone who was edgy and came across as a distinct and flawed person.   For once, I wanted the Prince Charming character to be the source of the sardonic commentary, not the object of it. Whether you like John Charming’s personality or not, I’m pretty sure he has one, and in my book that’s a step up.

Elliott James’s debut novel CHARMING is available online and in stores this September. Read an excerpt from this the first book or check out the short stories.