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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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Getting the bones right

I’m going to take another little departure from character development tips today to address a question I hope every writer is asking themselves: When is the right time to involve an editor in the creation of your novel?

This question actually came up at the PNWA conference a couple of weeks ago, during the Q&A session I was in with one of the conference’s other book doctors. An audience member asked if she should wait to find a good editor until her manuscript was finished, or until she had done her own edit pass on it first, or what.

My answer to her was “As soon as possible. Now would be good. Let me give you my card.” Because seriously, the earlier I get to see the story the more I can help.

This never happens, but ideally writers would contact me as soon as they get a solid idea for a premise. They’d e-mail me and say “I’ve got this idea for a book. It’s a paranormal mystery with comedy and romance themes, sort of I Dream of Jeannie meets X-Files. What do you think?”

Ok, so I just made that up. But we’d kick the idea around and I’d help them build their initial premise into something stronger, something with what literary agent Donald Maass calls “gut appeal". I’d help shape that premise into something that has the potential to be a really interesting book, by eliminating elements that might distract from the core concept, ensuring that the premise has appropriate levels of conflict and stakes built right into it, and helping the author find the right focus for the story.

That never happens, but it sure would be nice. I think forlornly about all the books I’ve seen that were trying to be too many things, to fit into too many genres. Books which had a surplus of subplots but didn’t pick any of them to be the main plot. I think about all the time those writers spent banging their heads against problems they could sense, but didn’t know how to fix because the problems were deeply structural in nature. They’d have been easy to fix at the premise stage, but they often imply a major re-write to fix once the first draft is done.

This next thing never happens either: After I helped a writer get their premise squared away, they would go off and build it out into a whole plot, which they would describe in a nice, detailed outline. Ideally, they’d break the whole thing down into chapters and scene-by-scene sequences within each chapter. They’d send me that and then I’d make sure the plot actually works.

This is the time for eliminating sub-plots that don’t add enough to the main story, collapsing redundant minor characters into single, less-minor characters (if not cutting them entirely), finding the story’s themes, ensuring that they’re touched upon at appropriate times, and identifying ideas that don’t quite rise to the level of themes but could if strengthened. This is the time to look at the story’s overall pacing, to make sure it’s fast and slow at appropriate moments, to make sure the story provides drama everywhere, that the stakes are both plausible yet rising, and (for those thriller authors especially) to ensure that the sense of tension mounts with each passing scene.

Get all that done, and you’ll know the bones of the story are right. You’ll know the story’s skeleton has the appropriate number and placement of arms, legs, and heads. Only when you know you haven’t conceived of some sort of seven-armed, legless, three-headed mutant Cerberus of a story—and only then—would the writer sit down to write that first draft.

But, alas, that never happens. Writers get an idea, half-formed as all initial ideas are, and they start straight in on chapter one, scene one. To take Stephen King’s metaphor, their initial kernel of an idea is nothing more than a fragment of bone sticking up through dry, rocky ground. They rarely take the time to discover the actual fossil buried beneath. They start writing before they really understand what it is they’ve found.

Every writer has their own process, and I know I’m bound to spark some ire in writers who love the joy of jumping into that first page to discover the story through the writing process. They’ll argue that planning everything out ahead of time like that eliminates the possibility of having those spontaneous moments of inspiration, when suddenly you realize how great it would be if the main character’s paranormal love interest turned out not to be paranormal after all, but merely possessed by the spirit of the person whose murder is the crux of the story’s central mystery. Or whatever.

I understand that concern. Discovery through writing really is fun, and that’s hard to give up. All I can say is that from my own personal experience this concern is unfounded. I plan the crap out of my novels before I write them, mostly as a paranoid defense against writer’s block: I can’t get blocked if I always know what scene comes next. But I have yet to write a novel that didn’t end up deviating from my plan, sometimes in large ways and sometimes in small, when those flashes of inspiration hit me.

You can, after all, only do so much thinking ahead of time. You can anticipate and avoid the big problems—and I argue that you should. But you can’t anticipate every little nuance of the story. As you write it, you’ll see possibilities in your outline that weren’t evident before. But guess what? Because you already understand your story on a deep, structural level, you’ll know immediately whether that brainstorm is a helpful idea or a dud. You’ll be able to see, right away, how that idea fits in with the structure you’ve outlined. You’ll know where to add that great plot twist, what character’s mouth to send that critical clue out of, or whatever it might happen to be.

Yeah, the jump-in-and-write strategy works for some writers. To paraphrase one of my personal heroes Elizabeth Lyon, it even “occasionally results in a manuscript that is worth improving.” But for most of us, jump-in-and-write is nothing but a recipe for spending a lot of time on a story that’s going to end up with fatal flaws. Yes, it’s good practice for our surface-writing craft, but why not spend some time beforehand working on deep structure first? Before you jump in, figure out how deep the pool is.

It’s easy to fix writing that’s rough on the surface but solid underneath. I can totally help with that. But if you send me a story with deep structural flaws—those seven armed, three headed beasts—no amount of surface editing in the world is going to fix them. I’ll still happily find and show you those structural flaws, so jump in and write if you want to. By all means take advantage of inspiration. Strike while the iron is hot and all that. But jump in with the understanding that ninety-five times out of a hundred, you’re setting yourself up for a mountain of re-writing later just to get the bones right. Mere editing won’t do it.

If you’re cool with that, I won’t stop you. Otherwise, do yourself a big favor and get some skilled eyes onto your premise and outline before you write that first draft.

August 13, 2009 20:09 UTC

Tags: bones, story structure, deep structure, PNWA, premise, Donald Maass, outline, themes, pacing, drama, rising stakes, rising tension, Stephen King, fossil, inspiration, Elizabeth Lyon, writer's block

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