The Sweet City House System

Image by KjellTjetland from Pixabay

Jailhouse Rock Candy

The system of dividing up children into “houses” at school has its roots in British boarding schools – creating substitute family units composed of older and younger students. Over time it’s become a way to foster intra-school competition, especially for sports events.

When faced with how to create conflict between Lucy and Amber in The Mythic and the City of Sweet Sorrow my first step was to physically separate them in the prison. My explanation for this separation was that they were now in different “houses” who all took part in a weekly contest to mine the most rock candy. One prisoner from the winning team got to “go home”. There’s nothing like the carrot of freedom to turn best friends into bitter rivals!

The house system thrives on tribalism and so I threw all the familiar tropes into the pot. The mascot cheerleaders, team colours, and battle chants at the weekly show-down are all cribbed from sports matches – real and fictitious. There are also elements that evoke reality TV competitions with their excruciatingly slow reveals of points, and awards shows where audiences wait in breathless anticipation for the opening of an envelope.

Taste Bud-dies

The house names—sweet, sour, salt, and bitter—are the four classic tastes in the gustatory system that I realised would also work as short-hand for personality types. I did consider adding the newer sensation “umami” which I would have called “Savoury” but there were already a lot of moving pieces in Sweet City and having five groups didn’t dovetail with another key inspiration for the houses—the Teletubbies!

The colours for each house are based upon one of the four Teletubbies and the names of the gelatinous mascots are riffs off the originals. In an earlier draft the mascots were able to change shape—meant to evoke the Barbapapa characters who are childhood favourites of mine but apparently few others as I’m yet to meet anyone who’s heard of them!

However, I dropped the shapeshifting element. It was how well Dropsy—the green Bitter mascot who Lucy thinks probably tastes like lime jelly—was working that caused me to dump that extra ability. The vision of Dropsy wobbling around as she warbled her motivational tunes, accompanied by awkward dance moves, didn’t need a shape-changing cherry on top.

House of Cads

The mascots reflect both the best/worst of cheerleaders and crowd-warmers, including their over-the-top hyping up of the audience. Dropsy’s terrible routines and her condescending manner are meant to evoke the worst of saccharine children’s educational TV shows.

The mascots’ bodies initially mirrored the shapes of each Teletubbie antennae, but it didn’t quite work for two of them – and the similarities were a little too direct for my liking – so I pivoted to making them each one of basic early-learning shapes children are taught. City of Sweet Sorrow is a fairy-tale/horror-story so I wanted everything to reflect one or the other or both!

All Around The Houses

Here is the data on all four houses and mascots:

Colour: Green
Mascot: Dropsy, who is oval shaped.
Personality Type: Lucy finds herself in this house and, while the bald meaning of “bitter” does fit her, she learns Bitter types are also forthright and direct. Dropsy notes that “You are industrious individuals, natural leaders and, most importantly, warriors” and “never content with how things are, always striving to bend the world to your will”.
Motto: Not fair, not here.
Teletubbie Inspiration: Dipsy. Dropsy is actually a dated term for edema—fluid retention or swelling, which has the effect of making one look swollen, a little like a jelly. Yes, I know that’s macabre, but this is a horror book…

Colour: Red
Mascot: Poopy, who is rectangular.
Personality Type: Dulcets are said to be “sunny”, “nice”, “well-mannered”, and “jolly”. It’s no surprise that Amber ends up here! But she also notes that her team-mates are “so obsessed with looking on the bright side that it’s the only side they can see”. I did indeed want to call this House “Sweet” but between Sweet City and Sweet Sorrow that word was already getting a lot of use!
Motto: Goodness is never bad.
Teletubbie Inspiration: Po. Poopy’s name isn’t just some childish scatological humour, it’s also meant to evoke the idea of being pooped (tired) which is appropriate since they’re all in a slave camp. But mostly it’s a juvenile pooh joke. Because that’s how I roll.

Colour: Purple
Mascot: Wee Willie, who is triangular.
Personality Type: Described as “taciturn”, Saltys are the most aloof and reserved of the houses – encompassing the shy, cold, distant, and depressed types but also those who are so easy going they don’t really go anywhere. I found them the most difficult of houses to encapsulate neatly, which is why we hardly see them!
Motto: Winsome, lose some.
Teletubbie Inspiration: Tinky Winky. Wee Willie’s name references the Scottish nursery rhyme Wee Willie Winky and is certainly not a reference to anything phallic! Just kidding! Of course there’s a knowing penis reference there!
Bonus: He’s the only mascot who is the same shape as their Teletubbie antenna.

Colour: Yellow
Mascot: Lah-di-Dah, who is a square.
Personality Type: Dubbed “relentlessly downbeat”, I almost had Lucy tagged as a Sour. But while both Bitters and Sours were “negatively” oriented, for the Bitters their darkness came from anger at the world—which could be a fuel for taking action to change it. For the Sours it came from thinking they were better than the world, selfishness, and privilege. Once I understood that it was very clear in which house Lucy truly belonged. She was certainly not a Sour!
Motto: Life is strife.
Teletubbie Inspiration: Laa-Laa. Lah-di-dah is a childish insult for something stuffy and pretentious.

Bonus Round

There is, of course, also the Sorting Mat, an item that makes a character assessment to decide in which house a child will be placed. Originally the scene with the Mat was far longer, with it taking its time on Lucy especially. But there was a lot of shock and awe thrown at the two girls when they’re deposited in the slave camp and I wanted to keep them disoriented, shoved through the system quickly. They had ceased being “people” and had become “labour”.