Solutions for "The Lunar Chronicles" |Lunar Chronicles Analysis Part 4|
Welcome to the fourth and final part of my discussion on The Lunar Chronicles. If you haven’t watched parts one through three, definitely do that first, otherwise this post won’t make much sense to you. Part one also has a bunch of important disclaimers, however, now that we’re going into part four, I have a few more disclaimers to add.
First, it’s often easier for outsiders to look at a story and spot problems than it is for writers who can get too close to their own work. It’s why we get critique partners and beta readers and editors. It isn’t my intention to suggest I’m a perfect writer or better than Marissa Meyer. I’m able to point out these issues and workshop solutions only because Meyer already did the much harder job of writing her story.
Which brings me to my next disclaimer: personal tastes aren’t the same thing as superior craft, which is why I normally hold back from saying, “Well, that’s not how I would have written it.” I’ve been making an exception for this case study because I think some of the things I bring up could improve issues I pointed out in the other posts, but I don’t want to imply that my solution is the only solution, the best solution, or a solution Meyer would feel fit the story she wanted to tell.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about those solutions!
In a previous post I mentioned that the main structural problem I identified in the first few books in The Lunar Chronicles was that Meyer couldn’t seem to decide whether she was writing a sci-fi adventure with a side of romance or a romance with a side of sci-fi adventure. While later books fall more heavily on the sci-fi adventure side, the first books tried to have equal parts sci-fi adventure and romance, which ended up with two plotlines competing for centre stage and neither one of them getting the development they deserved.
As with many writing problems, there's usually more than one possible solution that could fix this. I'm going to save my favourite solution for last, but I thought I should at least acknowledge a few other solutions in case you have a different favourite. So here's the first one: ditch this “equal parts” business and prioritize one genre over the other.
First: decide that the books are romances and demote the sci-fi plot to a supporting role. I’m not going to pretend this choice wouldn’t fundamentally change a lot about the books, because it would mean downplaying or entirely removing certain sci-fi elements in order to allow Cinder and Kai’s romance to have the proper attention it needed. To go on a date or two. To pine after each other. The sci-fi elements can still exist, but the moment they try to compete with the romance for attention, it’s time to show them who’s boss.
Honestly, if this is the route I took, I’d probably cut a lot of the sci-fi elements altogether and focus on one big sci-fi element I wanted to include in the story. Say that one element is cyborgs. Focus on Cinder being a cyborg and what impact that has on her life, her family, and her status. I would probably nix the Lunar Queen, the plague, and impending war altogether. Kai can meet Cinder for another reason unrelated to the lost princess. Perhaps, instead of protests against the Lunar Queen happening outside the palace, cyborgs and people with cyborg family members protest the unfair legal treatment of cyborgs. Maybe there are counter-protests by people who fear and hate cyborgs. Actually demonstrate why the people hate them.
Maybe Cinder happens past one of these protests and bumps into Kai, who’s pulling a Princess Jasmine and disguising himself to go outside the palace. Playing up the cyborg angle would make Cinder’s insecurity about being a cyborg feel more relevant.
Maybe instead of being threatened by the Lunar Queen, Kai’s ball is disrupted by the threat of a cyborg attack when the cyborgs are pressed too far. Or maybe, throughout their romance, Cinder manages to convince Kai to walk back on the Cyborg Protection Act, and instead the ball is threatened by a special interest group who hates cyborgs. In the sequels, have the liberation of cyborgs be the focus rather than this war with Luna.
Honestly, I’m just throwing out ideas at this point. The idea is to pick one or two sci-fi elements that are most important and to stick with them. Whatever it is, feature it in the story, but keep it simple. Not simple enough it becomes boring, but simple enough that it never overwhelms the romance.
The second potential fix here is the opposite. Decide that these books are sci-fi adventures and make the romance play a supporting role. Make the romantic scenes between Cinder and Kai smaller. Make the draw to Cinder’s story not “Will Cinder and Kai get together?” but “Will Cinder ever discover what happened in her past and learn why the Lunar Queen seems to want her dead?” or “Will Cinder find a way to save Peony from this deadly disease?” Again, I’d probably pick one or two sci-fi elements to focus on here, really ramp them up and explore how they interact with the world, and I’d demote the other sci-fi elements to set dressing instead of major plot points.
This is effectively what Meyer does starting with Cress. The romance is still important, but much more time is spent focusing on the adventure. For the most part Cress and Winter worked much better for me than Cinder or Scarlet, but as I already mentioned in my first post, this came with its own balancing issues, with Cinder taking over other character’s stories.
But we’ve already discussed that, so moving on!
The third option to fix the imbalance between the sci-fi and romance in Cinder is my favourite, but it’s going to take a lot more discussion, because it’s doing what Meyer tried to do and making both the sci fi and romance equal partners in this book. How do you do this well? How do you have both the sci-fi and romance plots intertwine in a way that they build each other up rather than compete for space?
The best answer I’ve come to is that you want these two plots to depend on each other to be fully told. Make them inseparable. Make the majority of scenes used to move the sci-fi plot forward are also moving the romance forward at the same time. Whenever possible, make your sci-fi elements do double duty, drawing the characters together at the same time they’re pushing the adventure plot forward.
This is the main reason why I said in another post that Cress and Thorne’s romance worked much better for me than Cinder and Kai’s. The whole reason Cress and Thorne meet is because of the sci-fi adventure. The whole reason they end up stranded together is because of the adventure. In order for them to survive the adventure, they have to come together and rely on each other because neither is capable of surviving alone.
When Meyer builds up the romance, it automatically helps the adventure plot, because the state of the characters’ romance affects how able they are to work together and confront the adventure. Likewise, when Meyer builds up the sci-fi adventure, it automatically helps the romance, because every problem the adventure thrusts on them either results in romantic tension or draws them closer together.
But Cinder and Kai’s romance did not work the same way. Cinder and Kai don’t have to be romantically paired, or even paired at all, for the sci-fi plot to go on. It’s the sci-fi plot that drags Cinder into all this lost princess business, not anything to do with Kai. Had Cinder never met Kai at all, about the only thing that would change in the first book is the scene at the ball. Cinder would need another reason besides Kai’s android to confront the Lunar Queen, but apart from that, Cinder’s relationship with Kai has barely any relevance to the sci-fi plot.
On the other hand, the sci-fi plot’s relevance to the romance isn’t completely absent, but it feels pretty thin. Cinder and Kai do meet because he’s trying to find the lost princess, but as mentioned in another post, that feels contrived when Cinder and Kai both seem to forget the android and the lost princess exist from time to time. Cinder and Kai spend time together literally because they bump into each other by chance, not because the sci-fi plot forces them to work together. Cinder doesn’t need anything from Kai, romantically or otherwise, to achieve her goal of running away. If Kai isn’t desperate for his android, then there isn’t really anything he needs from Cinder either.
So, how do we fix this? How do we make these plots depend on each other to be fully realized? How do we make it so that building up one plot automatically builds up the other?
This is the part where I remind you that what I’m about to get into isn’t necessarily the only or best way to fix the problems I identified. I can only tell you the solution I came up with. Hopefully you enjoy my answer.
The first part of my solution might seem a little strange at first, but I promise it comes into play: make Kai’s self-centredness an intentional part of his character.
Playing up Kai’s character flaw does a couple of things. First, it makes him more interesting. But beyond that, his character flaw could impact both the romance and the sci-fi plots. Cinder could feel insecure because she’s a cyborg, true, but maybe she also feels insecure because Kai’s self-centredness leaves her feeling uncertain that his flirting means anything.
But Kai’s self-centredness, coupled with his desire to protect his people, could also be the reason he decides to sacrifice himself and accept Queen Levana’s proposal. Yes, he wants to protect his people even if it means putting himself in danger. We like that about him. But perhaps his self-centredness—being so stuck in his own head that he can’t see past his nose—means that without the lost princess, he doesn’t consider that anyone else but himself is capable of saving Earth or appeasing Queen Levana.
Kai’s self-centredness, causes tension for both plots. Thus it creates interesting obstacles for our heroine in both plots while also giving Kai some mistakes to overcome during the course of his character arc.
The next thing I would do is strengthen Kai’s motivation to find Princess Selene. Let it be at the forefront of his mind and something he continues to pursue throughout the story. And stars above, let him actually figure out who Princess Selene really is on his own.
I can’t tell you how much this bothered me in The Lunar Chronicles. I wanted Kai to pursue his goal of finding Princess Selene, but instead it kept getting pushed aside for other things. But more than simply actively looking for Princess Selene, I desperately wanted Kai to actually figure out who she was. Strengthening Kai’s motivation to find Princess Selene, making it more of a driving force behind his actions, and especially allowing him to figure out who Princess Selene is on his own would have done several amazing things:
First, it would have given him a, well, motivation. Rather than having him get too swept up in political events to attend to his plans, allowing him to keep his motivation throughout the series gives him a goal. Something concrete we can root for him to achieve, giving readers an emotional investment in both him and his actions.
Second, his search for Princess Selene would give him a reason to seek Cinder out on his own rather than to simply bump into her at random. He would want the information his android has. He would want to check up on the progress Cinder was making. Maybe he’d sneak out of the palace to visit her. Maybe he’d offer any help he could to help her fix his android. It gives him motivation to spend time with her. Which helps the romantic plot.
Third, it would make Kai seem more proactive. Even if he doesn’t always make any headway with his goal, the mere fact he is actively pursuing a way to get the upper hand over Queen Levana makes him proactive. Readers generally like proactive characters.
Fourth, allowing Kai to figure out for himself who Princess Selene is would make him come across as competent. He had a goal, he made plans to pursue it, he followed those plans, and eventually he saw success and achieved his goal. You could still have Cinder plan a heist and come to his rescue at the wedding, but maybe as she’s fighting to get inside the palace, Kai has just learned who the princess is and is fighting just as hard to get out. Watching these two characters struggle to find each other would be poetic, and having Kai go with Cinder because he had his own goal to achieve and not simply because he got drugged and carried away would have felt satisfying. Making Kai seem competent through his actions gives the reader reason to respect him, and it also makes us understand why he might make an okay emperor.
Fifth, it gives Kai a chance for self-reflection when it comes to his flaw of being self-centred. The moment he finally figures out who Princess Selene really is, he can have a chance to think about and regret his actions on the night of the ball. This could add some depth to the sci-fi plot. It gives Kai the chance to realize that he really screwed up. By being too caught up in his own feelings, he might have put saving his people at risk. By not taking Princess Selene’s side at the ball, by allowing her to be made into a criminal and a fugitive that much of Earth wanted to see dead, he very well might have destroyed any reason the princess would want to help him or Earth. Why would she help the people who tried to execute her? Why would she help the emperor who insulted her and turned her over to die? This moment of self-reflection would allow Kai to recognize how his personal flaw is damaging. How it partly led to his unintentional complicity in the threat of war. It gives him a chance to determine to do better and improve himself.
Sixth, that moment of self-reflection helps the romantic plot too. When he finds out who Princess Selene really is, it not only makes him realize how his actions might have hurt any chance of him getting the princess’ help, but it also makes him realize his actions hurt an innocent. And not just any innocent: the girl he cares for. He can regret how he treated Cinder that night at the ball. How, after all that time he’d spent trying to attract her interests, in the moment she most needed him, he was too caught up in his own feelings to care about hers. How he insulted her and turned his back on her. How his actions in hunting her down as a criminal put Cinder’s life in danger. Finding out who Princess Selene really is gives Kai the motivation to find Cinder. Not just because he wants to save Earth and get out of a bad marriage, but because he wants to apologize to Cinder. That, even if he’s ruined any chance of getting together with her, he wants a chance to repair some of the hurt he caused. For her sake. Because he cares about how she feels and not just about how she makes him feel.
While, yes, Kai does apologize to Cinder for this in the beginning of Winter, we never see him mull this idea over when we’re in his POV. We never see him agonize over what he said and did or how that must have made Cinder feel. We never even get the sense that he feels bothered by what he did to her at all. All of Kai’s character development happens in chapters written from other characters’ perspectives, so it meant that his apology to Cinder—an apology I’d been waiting over two whole books for him to make—didn’t feel satisfying.
Okay. So, obviously I’m a big fan of the idea of tweaking Kai’s character a bit, but fixing Kai won’t fix the whole structural problem. So what else have I got?
The next thing I would do is scrap the whole thing about Cinder fixing up her magic pumpkin. I mean car. That doesn’t mean nixing the idea of a pumpkin altogether, just don’t have her spend time fixing one up. It’s unnecessary. It takes away time she could spend with Kai and distracts her from working on the android and learning about the lost princess.
Instead, I would try to connect Cinder’s goal to get out of town neatly with something that can both a) give her time to spend with Kai, and b) tie neatly into the sci-fi story, so that trying to get out of town automatically has Cinder figuring out the secrets of the sci-fi plot.
To do this, I’d first have Cinder try to buy her magic pumpkin car. Now stick with me for this because I promise it makes sense in a minute. At the beginning of the story, have her going through advertisements for vintage cars. She needs one to escape, but she doesn’t have much money.
You could still have her show her mechanical skills, even without her fixing up a car. Have her look at those advertisements. Have her finally find a car within her price range, only for her to realize that model is known for having transmission issues and is already 100,000 miles beyond its life expectancy. Have her struggle to find any car in her price range that won’t break down upon taking it out of the lot. Then, have her find the perfect vehicle for her escape. It’s in great shape. It’s got everything she needs. It’s still a model that’s in use so she won't stick out like a sore thumb when she's driving away. The only problem is it’s way more money than she has.
Have Cinder going through these car ads while she’s working at her stall in the first chapter. If we absolutely must have cyborgs as part of the book, then instead of having Sunto’s mother carted off because of letumosis, have a cyborg who’s already been purposefully infected escape the draft and end up in the market. There’s no reason we have to meet the person Cinder ends up giving the antidote to before that happens. It could be a random person; it really does not have to be someone we know. Having them drag an infected cyborg away instead of the boy’s mom still lets us know this letumosis is a big deal, but it also lets us understand why Cinder is so self-conscious about being a cyborg.
THEN let Cinder meet Kai for the first time. He can bring his android to her. He can tell her, “Hey, this is really important to me, I want to put a rush on this. I’ll pay anything you want once the android is fixed.”
This shows us a few things. It shows us Kai is really motivated to find Princess Selene. It also shows us a little of his self-centredness, because, even if he’s not consciously doing this, he’s expecting her to prioritize his job over work she already has. But having this introduction to Kai also gives Cinder both a way to buy her car and a reason to want to work on Kai’s android.
See what I mean about tying Cinder’s motivation more closely to Kai and to an important part of the sci-fi story? By having Cinder need to buy her car, she no longer has to spend time away from Kai fixing up a car. By giving her motivation to work on Kai’s android, it means the android is doing double duty, because Cinder is pursuing her own goal at the very same time she’s making progress on finding out about this lost princess. It also makes the android more of a central feature in the story, rather than allowing Cinder, Kai, and the reader to forget the android exists. This alone uplifts the sci-fi plot.
This would require making the android a bit trickier to fix than Meyer did in her book, because we actually want to see Cinder spending a bit of time trying to figure it out. However, as I mentioned earlier, this also gives Kai reason to seek Cinder out.
He can drop by to discuss her progress on the android. He can offer his assistance in any way she needs when she informs him she’s never had this much trouble assessing a problem android before. Maybe, despite her skill, she actually does need his help to fix the android. Maybe the androids the palace uses are models not available to the public. You know, for security reasons. That might mean Cinder has no access to classified blueprints and can’t recognize the hardware or software the android uses. She might not know anyone she can order replacement parts from, and if Kai really wants this android fixed, he’s got to go through palace records to get that info for her.
As they work on the android together, they can chat. He can flirt. She can ask insecure questions about his thoughts on cyborgs or how a cure for letumosis is coming along. They can actually start to have some deeper conversations where emotions are involved.
Having them work on the android together gives them time to spend together. Time to get to know each other. It gives them a chance to display how they connect well, how they support each other or where they have flaws that cause tension. It gives these characters a chance to lean on each other and find out how they’re good for each other.
I’d show Cinder and Kai actually having those meaningful conversations and falling in love. I’d want to show Cinder thinking about how, underneath that royal flair, he’s just a human being with the monstrous weight of a nation on his shoulders. He can think about how refreshing, even healing it is to take that burden off for a while when he’s with her.
She can struggle with her growing feelings for Kai because it’s so easy to fall in love with him, but she knows she’s planning to run away. He can struggle with his growing feelings for Cinder because it’s so easy to fall in love with her, but he knows if he can’t find Princess Selene, he’s going to be forced to marry someone else.
Maybe Cinder gets a chance to comfort Kai after his father’s death and gives him a moment where he doesn’t have to be the prince but can just be a kid who’s sad about his dad. Maybe one day Kai shows up at Cinder’s shop when she’s been taken for experiments in the lab. Maybe he’s worried, especially if he’d heard about an infected cyborg getting loose in the market. When he comes back the next day, he has questions about where Cinder was, but she’s standoffish with her answers, causing tension. Maybe he shows up after Peony has died and catches Cinder in obvious distress and is able to grieve with and comfort her, even if she never tells him what happened. All these interactions have substance. Meaning. They aren’t just bumping into each other at random.
Then, just before the ball, maybe they’ve made progress on the android but still haven’t quite fixed it. Kai is distressed because he knows this means he’ll have to go through with this marriage and maybe never see Cinder again. But maybe with all the time he’s spent with her he’s noticed Cinder seems to be in need of money, even if he doesn’t know why. So maybe he tells her that, even though she didn’t finish the job, he’s going to pay her for the work she’s done anyway. This allows Cinder to be able to afford her magic pumpkin so she can have it when she goes to the ball, but it also gives us a tiny glimpse that there’s a part of Kai that’s capable of stepping into other people’s shoes. It gives us hope that he can get over his self-centredness if he works at it. It also means that when Cinder keeps working on the android and finally fixes it after Kai has already paid her, she’s doing it because she cares about him and knows it’s important to him.
The point is, giving Kai a reason to seek Cinder out, and giving Cinder a reason to want to work on Kai’s android brings the characters together. It simplifies the sci-fi story a little, allowing us to go deeper with it. Making the android more of a central piece to this story means building up the romance builds up the sci-fi elements at the same time. Cinder can’t fix the android or achieve her goal of getting out of town without Kai’s help. He becomes necessary to Cinder’s plans. Likewise, Kai can’t achieve his goal of finding Princess Selene without Cinder. The sci-fi story can’t be told without these two characters coming together, but the characters have no reason to come together without the sci-fi story.
Featuring more of the android makes both plots more compelling. It makes the sci-fi plot and the romance plot depend on each other to be told in full. It truly makes these two plots equal partners in the telling of this story.
So that’s it for the final post in this discussion. And what a long one this was. What did you think? Do you have other ideas that could have made the sci-fi and romance plots interdependent? Or did you think the book was fine as it was? Let’s discuss in the comments.
If you liked this discussion, subscribe, share, you know the drill. Next time I see you, it will be with a new worldbuilding post. See you then.