Cassandra Rose Clarke, author of The Assassin’s Curse and The Pirate’s Wish talks about identity and self-image, and whether the latter has to matter in relation to social conformity. In this post she talks about her protagonist and how she falls outside of the usual boundaries set by many legions of thin, pretty YA heroines and social expectations of a particular image. This is a great topic to cover; a gentle reminder that self-image and worth are intrinsic, regardless of gender. Naji has issues with his appearance; Ananna does not. It’s a great turning of the tables and I’m incredibly happy to have Cassandra here speaking about it.
The main character of The Assassin’s Curse books, Ananna, possesses several noticeable traits: She speaks with a distinctive voice. She’s brave. She’s impulsive and doesn’t always think her actions through to their logical conclusions. But there is also another detail that perhaps isn’t as obvious as the others, since I’ve not seen anyone comment on it: She’s kind of fat.
I conceived of Ananna as a character who doesn’t quite fit with in with her society’s notions of physical attractiveness. She talks about being large for a woman, and about how the courtier’s dress she wears at the beginning of The Assassin’s Curse doesn’t fit her right, and how her betrothed’s mother doesn’t think of her as a beauty. But it was important to me that, although she acknowledges these things, she doesn’t hate herself for them. There’s no makeover or weight loss narrative to turn Ananna into someone desirable, because it’s not necessary: people like Ananna are in fact considered desirable every day, all over the world. So while I wanted my heroine to be “average”, I also didn’t want it to be a Thing.
Now, I have seen a lot of people talk about Naji’s appearance—my friend told me about a review (I try to avoid reading them myself, so I’m afraid I don’t know who wrote it) that said Naji had all the low self-esteem of a typical YA heroine. And while I didn’t actually intend that when I wrote him, it’s a pretty accurate assessment! With Naji, we have a character who was at one point extremely handsome in a conventional way, and who feels he lost that handsomeness when he was scarred by wayward magic. In this sense, Naji is Ananna’s opposite: his appearance is a major part of his character, and a major part of his identity.
The idea that appearance might be a part of our identity is a concept that makes some uncomfortable, but it’s certainly a reality for a lot of people. Actually, I’m not certain it’s even appearance itself that can define our identities, but rather how we view our appearance, and how appearance is defined for us by the outside world. Furthermore, falling on the peripheries of “acceptable” can really elucidate that connection—your appearance becomes part of your identity whether you want it to or not.
That forced connection between identity and appearance was a concept I tried to explore with Naji. Other characters react negatively to both his scarring and the fact that he is an assassin, and he takes those reactions as the truth. He sees himself as a monster because that’s how other people see him. The reality, of course, is far more complex, and his appearance ultimately has nothing to do with it.
For Ananna, the connection between her physical appearance and identity is more of an undercurrent than a defining feature, but it’s still there, as it is for most (arguably all) people, to one degree or another. As as I said, I didn’t want her appearance to a Thing, but it does influence her behavior on occasion throughout both books, particularly with regard to Naji. I included it because that sort of thing happens with real people, all the time—if we’re told enough times that we aren’t desirable, we start to believe it.
And ultimately, that was something that I wanted to accomplish with The Assassin’s Curse novels: to show that characters don’t have to be conventionally beautiful in order to fall in love. The notion that love can only be acquired by way of physical beauty is an insidious one. It was important to me that I show it’s also a lie.
Thank you, Cassandra, for taking the time to post today. Your contribution is awesome!
For those of you familiar with Cassandra’s work, The Pirate’s Wish is due out next week (June 6th) and is the second part of The Assassin’s Curse duology. If you’re new to Ananna and Naji, The Assassin’s Curse, the first book of the duology, is already out and available at all good bookstores. And if you just can’t get enough of the world of The Assassin’s Curse, two short e-book stories are available: The Witch’s Betrayal and The Automaton’s Treasure, both of which are incredibly cheap and incredibly good. (Reviews for both e-shorts are pending, where both will be reviewed in the same post.)