Writing lessons from Sunshine

Book title: Sunshine

Author: Robin McKinley

Genre: Fantasy

Point of view (POV): First person

Synopsis: Rae “Sunshine” Blaise is an ordinary woman working in her family’s coffee shop. One night, unhappy and not sure why, she drives out to her father’s old lake house to reflect. While admiring the lake, she’s kidnapped by a gang of vampires that chain her to a wall in an abandoned mansion. Next to another vampire. Using a childhood gift, she escapes and takes the captive vampire with her. But as the vampire points out, their escape means something. Now Sunshine battles against a vampire warlord, government agencies, and her own inner demons trying to get back to normal. 

Sunshine by Robin McKinley is one of my favorite books. I read it several times in high school and several times as an adult. It was even one of my book picks for my book podcast, Book & Bitch. 

This wasn’t my first Robin McKinley novel—before Sunshine was Beauty. A retelling of Beauty and the Beast with a twist—Beauty was unattractive. Instead of a beautiful woman that loved books, she was an awkward, gangly, plain woman that rolled up her sleeves when her family needed it. Oh, and loved books. Some parts of the old tale don’t change.

I fell in love with Beauty, the un-beautiful bookworm. She was the first example in my young literary life of a woman that didn’t have to beautiful to be important. So when Sunshine caught my eye on a Barnes and Noble end cap, I was eager to see if this heroine was the same. 

While the reader doesn’t know what Sunshine looks like, there are inferences (mostly from the protagonist herself) that she’s not the most attractive or even smartest woman around. But she is brave, kind, and loyal. She fights her inner demons with humor and self-depreciation in a way that’s relatable and authentic. Sunshine is a novel I can’t quit: a real woman (i.e., a messy woman) facing down the evil around her. On her own terms and with her own powers. 

Reading the book as a young adult, I was drawn to the first person point of view. Sunshine talked and thought like how I thought and talked. The prose was natural and wasn’t strip down to sound literary. Later, reading it as an adult with a Creative Writing degree, I cringed at the adverbs and long, rambling sentences. But I kept coming back to the story. Again and again and again. 

Then I figured it out. The narration uses repetition and adverbs with purpose to enhance the character. Not because McKinley didn’t feel like cleaning it up. Once I got off my high-writing-horse, I realized there were other lessons I could learn and apply to my own writing. 

If you’ve read Sunshine, you’ll probably recognize these lessons. If you haven’t read it, don’t worry, the lessons are relevant outside the context. 

Adverbs and rambling are okay (when used with purpose) 

“I took my tea and toast and Immortal Death (a favorite comfort book since under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight reading at the age of eleven or twelve) back to bed when I finally woke up at nearly noon, and even that really spartan scene when the heroine escapes the Dark Other who’s been pursuing her for three hundred pages by calling on her demon heritage (finally) and turning herself into a waterfall didn’t cheer me up.”

Sunshine, 16

You’ve probably heard the infamous Stephen King quote: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” It’s common writing law that adverbs weaken your work. We can’t think of a powerful verb and slip in an adverb to give our weaker one some oomph. I’ve even written a blog post about cutting adverbs from dialogue. 

Then there’s the writing advice (à la Hemingway) to keep your sentences tight and clean. If you can say it in ten words, don’t use twenty. So why is McKinley using adverbs and lengthy sentences, and why is it GOOD? 

It’s because she’s using them with intent. She’s not peppering them in like a chef trying to spice up a bland dish. Instead, she’s using them to build a rich character in the protagonist and narrator. The adverbs show us a character that is immature and unsure of herself. We think of the stereotypical teenager throwing in a really, seriously, definitely, completely, etc. into their sentences. The lack of directness (adverbs deflect direct statements) demonstrates the character is unsure of herself. 

Then there’s the long-winded sentences. That quote above? Seventy-two words before a period. But we’re hooked on it because it’s a window into Sunshine’s mind. It’s stream of conscious in a more grammatically correct format (looking at you Faulkner…). 

We can break rules. BUT (and this a huge but) make sure you know the rules and you’re breaking them on purpose. Purpose defined as enhancing your characters or story. Not because you’re stuck. 

First person madness is clutch

“I understood that I was crazy, crazy to be still alive, crazy to be doing what I was doing to stay alive, crazy to be trying to stay alive.”

Sunshine, 415

I’ve read my fair share of stories about people going crazy or thinking they’re crazy or with distorted perceptions. You can say I like a good story about a crazy person. You know what I love more? A story about someone going mad and told from first-person POV.

Instead of hearing second-hand (through another narrator) you witness the action in real-time. You experience the descent, the questions, and the anxiety without adulteration. Writing in first person narrative is an opportunity to examine and portray our characters on a deeper level. It’s a chance to write them as likable and relatable. To explore madness as a perception and not a condition. 

If you have a character that’s battling depression or believes they’re going insane, consider using a first person POV to delve deep into their mindset. It could offer an opportunity to create a well-rounded and interesting character. 

Complex romantic relationships are more interesting

“‘He’s lost his house keys anyway,’ I said glibly, ‘and we can call a locksmith from my house.’ 

‘He keep a fresh change of clothes at your house too?’ said Pat. ‘Does Mel know? I didn’t say that.’” 

Sunshine, 452

One of the other things I love about Sunshine is the complicated romantic relationships. Sunshine has a boyfriend she likes. But then there’s also this vampire. And she isn’t declaring for one or the other. As a young adult and adult reader, I enjoyed that Sunshine wasn’t some pure maiden waiting for her prince to show up. I liked that she was between two relationships and wasn’t spending her time trying to figure out which guy she wanted to be with. She had other shit to deal with.

Relationships in real life are messy. So it makes sense the ones in our stories should also be messy. This doesn’t mean your story shouldn’t have a romantic plot or subplot. This means can your romantic storyline operate outside of a perfect relationship to add complexity. For example, maybe the protagonist loves two different people, but neither loves the protagonist back. Or maybe the protagonist is married and having an affair and the neighbor knows. 

Adding complexity or interference to your character’s love lives offers an opportunity to develop a more interesting character. It reveals information about them; gives them a chance to overcome a challenge; and helps them grow into a different person. 

Next time you’re writing in a fairy tale ending for your protagonist, consider the advantage of writing in a messy romance. It could be what your character needs to progress. Or what your reader needs in order to relate.

What book has changed your style of writing? Leave a comment below or drop me a line! I’d love to hear from you.


McKinley, Robin. Sunshine. Jove Books, 2004.

One response to “Writing lessons from Sunshine”

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