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How to inspire readers with ordinary characters

_Editor’s Note: after discussing this subject at greater length with people on the NaNoWriMo forums, I realize I didn’t do a very good job explaining myself, so this is a re-draft of the original post. Just so you know. Even editors have to edit their own work sometimes._

Unless you have been cryogenically frozen since roughly 1995, you can’t have failed to notice that paranormal books are hot right now. H-O-T, as evidenced by Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, the Bartimaeus Trilogy, and about a zillion others. People love them because they’re really fun. There’s no denying that.

But if you’re writing a paranormal book for younger readers, I’m going to ask you please to consider one thing.

Consider whether your protagonist really needs to have any powers.

I’m not trying to tell anybody want to do, I’m just asking that you think about it. And let me just say right up front: My reason for asking has nothing to do with plot. Your choice on the matter can certainly affect your plot in ways which may add or subtract from the overall drama, but that’s a subject for a whole other discussion. Plot is not what I’m talking about.

Perfectly fine, rip-roaring paranormal adventures, romances, detective thrillers, westerns, et cetera can and have been written using protagonists who have all kinds of paranormal abilities. If that’s what you’re keen to write, great. Those books are hot right now. Again, this isn’t about plot.

It’s about the deeper message your book sends to readers.

A YA book (and middle-grade books, too, but for purposes of this article I’m going to lump them together) can hardly avoid carrying with it a “meta” message, one that the author may or may not intend or be aware of. The message stems from how the reader empathizes or fails to empathize with the main character, in relation to the means by which the main character overcomes obstacles in the plot.

You’ve probably heard that rule of thumb about how YA readers like to read books with protagonists that are generally speaking a couple of years older than themselves. Obviously it’s not a hard and fast rule, but it tends to be the case. The reason is because those readers are looking for guidance about what’s coming for them a couple of years down the line.

Readers ask “can I see myself doing that?"

If they’re reading a vampire book, obviously they don’t expect that in a couple of years they’ll have to grow fangs or whatever. That would be stupid. But what they are looking for is a realistic portrayal of the emotional and social development of someone a couple of years older than themselves. They’re looking to see an example of what they can expect from themselves down the road a little bit.

YA readers are not usually aware of it, but that’s a great part of the appeal of those books for them. It’s an opportunity to test drive an older persona for a couple hundred pages to see how it feels. Fiction, especially fiction written in the first-person or third-person limited POV, offers a unique capacity to deliver this vicarious experience.

What’s your meta message?

If what readers see in your book is that someone a couple of years older than them is able to handle—even if it’s hard—situations the reader feels would completely overwhelm them, then that’s inspirational. That’s a positive, forward-looking message that says “Hang in there, kid. You’ll get there. Just give yourself time.”

The opposite is also true. When a reader sees a character who is older than them struggle with a difficult situation and succeed by using a paranormal ability, the meta message is completely different. Your novel may still convey an intentional message of good triumphing over evil, or the value of never giving up, or whatever it may happen to be, but below that intentional message is a meta message that this character succeeded where you, reader, would surely have failed because you don’t have a paranormal ability.

It doesn’t mean the book is a bad book (this isn’t about plot). It doesn’t mean the book isn’t fun (plenty of such books are). It doesn’t mean the writer is a bad writer or a mean, horrible, crusher of souls. That’s not what I’m saying.

Think beyond your book.

What I’m saying is that I believe YA writers have a particular opportunity to positively inspire our readers, specifically because of where our readers are in their own development and what they’re watching for in the characters they experience in books, TV, movies, and games. And with so much pressure on kids these days to grow up fast, to be dating younger and acting more mature than they’re really ready for, I think YA readers need every “Hey, relax. Slow down a bit. It’s cool” message they can get.

Think beyond your book. People didn’t used to be so sensitive to the presentation of women in fashion and cosmetics advertizing. But we’ve come to realize that the intentional “buy this!” message of the ads cannot help but carry with it an unintentional meta message about which body types are and aren’t valued in society at large. And since body type is largely out of anybody’s personal control—it’s hugely genetic—you get a lot of girls starving themselves or worse trying to conform to a shape that just isn’t natural for them.

The meta message matters, and now that people have come to recognize this about advertizing, we’re starting to see changes to mainstream ads in order to carry a more positive meta message.

The same is true for fiction as for advertizing. Any book, but YA books especially, will carry a meta message along with it. We can’t prevent that. The best we can do as authors is recognize it and keep it in the back of our minds as we make our choices about plot and character.

Have your cake, and eat it too.

There’s a valid middle ground that a lot of people on the NaNoWriMo forums weren’t shy about sharing with me, and I’d be remiss not to touch on it briefly because it makes a lot of sense: Go ahead and give your protagonist super powers, if that’s what the story calls for, but let the character’s ultimate success come not from the powers but from innate human qualities such as compassion, bravery, cleverness, self sacrifice, et cetera.

These are all perfectly ordinary abilities that any reader can aspire to develop in themselves. I’ll have to think on this some more, but a paranormally-endowed character who succeeds by virtue of ordinary human traits may even carry a stronger inspirational meta message to YA readers than a non-endowed character.

It’s a compelling argument, if only by virtue of J.K. Rowling singular example of it with Harry Potter. By the end of the series, Harry has developed considerable magical talent yet his ultimate success comes not from that but from his genuine love for his friends and his willingness to sacrifice himself for them. That, I have to admit, is inspirational.

All I’m asking is that you consider it.

You may have totally different goals for your book, and that’s fine. Your plot may require paranormal abilities in order to hang together. So be it. But ask yourself if it’s really necessary. “What if my character didn’t have any powers? How would that change things? Would the meta-message be different? If so, would it be different enough to warrant the change?”

Ultimately it is and always shall be your book, not mine. But it can’t hurt to ask “what if,” can it?

October 14, 2009 22:33 UTC

Tags: character, paranormal, powers, magic, Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling, young-adult, responsibility, inspiration, meta message, NaNoWriMo

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