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Character Corner: The Last Universe by William Sleator

It has been so long since I posted a Character Corner review that most of my new readers have probably never even seen one. If not, it’s a book review wherein I discuss the good, bad, and ugly about a book’s characters. Part of the reason I haven’t done one in a while is because of the question of spoilers. It is quite difficult to provide a meaningful discussion of a book’s characters without spoiling important plot points.

I have no spoiler concerns with The Last Universe because, well, let me put it this way: When I finished the book the other night, I turned to my wife and said “What a disappointingly stupid book.” Honestly, you’ll be better off spending your reading time on something better. May I suggest Newberry winner When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead? It has a similar teen girl protagonist and mystery/adventure plot, but is a totally kick-ass book.

I have to say I was surprised at this book’s many flaws. Sleator is a well known author, with a whole bunch of books to his name. My wife read some of his stuff when she was in library school and said she enjoyed them. The “other books by” list opposite the title page in this one lists twenty-one other titles. So I was expecting better. Maybe after a certain point an author’s agents and editors stop paying attention? I don’t know.

The story, in a nutshell

The rest of this will be easier if I at least give you a capsule summary. First off, you’d have to classify this as a paranormal book. There are three notable characters in this book. Teenager and first-person narrator Susan, her sickly brother Gary, and the family’s gardener Luke. The basic premise is that the kids’ great uncle was a physicist who studied quantum mechanics, and built this freaky hedge maze out in the family’s wooded back property where, if you go in, you come out in a different universe. Parallel world stuff. The they discover this when the maze starts making strange things happen elsewhere in the gardens.

Susan’s job in the book is to push her brother in his wheelchair through the gardens, because he’s so sick and being outside is what he wants to do, and how can you say no to your dying brother? Susan is fairly realistic in this, so far as really she just wants to hang out with her friends and not be coerced by her parents and her brother into being his summertime caretaker.

Gary’s job is to be the cryptic cipher. He, so we are told, just knows there’s something weird going on in the garden—or more specifically, at the spooky old pond where a little girl drowned several decades prior—and so he wants to be there when it happens. This, ostensibly, is why he continually demands that Susan take him out to the pond and why he has gotten a bunch of quantum mechanics books from the library. Gary is the book’s stakes, too. He also claims that whatever is going on in the garden is making him better, helping him recover from the illness that put him in a wheelchair.

Luke’s job is to maintain the family’s gardens, but also to take care of a cat that had once belonged to the great uncle from way back (it’s a cat, in a story about macroscopic quantum effects. Get it? Nyuk-nyuk! ), and to deliver a critical piece of information later on in the plot. Luke is Cambodian, a refugee from the Khmer Rouge. He sends money back to his family in Cambodia whenever he can, and longs for the day he can rejoin them.

Be smart. Fact check your book

Here’s a tiny little thing that would have been no work at all for Sleater to have gotten right, but which he didn’t, and which sabotaged his protagonist and my suspension of disbelief alike: sloppy use of the word “quantum.” As Susan experiences the weird happenings in the garden, she becomes naturally curious as to what’s going on. This provides Gary with an opportunity to explain, a little bit at a time, some of the fundamentals of quantum mechanics. This, in theory, is great: with the sorry state of science education in our public schools, I’m all for slipping a little science into YA literature, especially when it serves the story.

Only, Susan consistently misuses the word “quantum” in her dialogue and her narration. She treats it like a noun, rather than an adjective. She asks Gary questions like “Tell me about quantum” which, leaving aside the obvious “Here be exposition!” red-flag, is just wrong. She could ask about “quantum physics,” “quantum mechanics,” or “quantum effects.” Those would all be fine. But bare “quantum"? No. It’s wrong.

I wouldn’t mind if she did it once. That would be a fine way to show that she doesn’t, as she admits, know the first thing about it. Gary could correct her, and thenceforth she could get it right. But that’s not what happened. She made that same mistake many times, and Gary never called her on it. He should know, he’s the one reading all the physics books. He uses it correctly in his dialogue, so I know he knows, and therefore, I also know that William Sleator knows that “quantum” is an adjective.

So why does Susan keep getting it wrong? There’s no excuse other than sloppiness. Because analyzing the relationship between surface-level writing and the portrayal of characters is what I do, I can’t help but step back and conclude the fault lies with Sleator, his agent, and his editor. Sleator should have gotten it right, but somehow didn’t, and nobody upstream in the publication process bothered to pay much attention, probably because he’s got a history of 21 other titles under his belt already.

But that’s me, trying my hardest to look favorably on Susan, and even I couldn’t fully escape the feeling that Susan was kind of a dope. Other readers may be less likely to be so charitable towards her. Still, in the balance I’m left with a protagonist I can’t really respect and a writer I can’t really trust to get the details right. Ask yourself, are those your wishes for how readers will experience your book?

This error falls under the larger category of fact checking. So be smart. Take the time to fact check your book on stuff like this, especially when elements of your premise, plot, et cetera fall outside of your own personal areas of expertise. And don’t try to tell me that it doesn’t matter because YA readers wouldn’t know enough physics to spot the mistake. If I ever catch you disrespecting your readers like that, I’ll personally come over to your house and steal all the vowels off your keyboard.

Keep your characters’ priorities straight

Sleater also did a poor job, in my estimation, of correctly maintaining his characters’ differing priorities. The only one he really gets right here is Gary, whose overriding priority is to overcome his illness. Everything Gary does is in line with that, until that proves to be impossible. After he loses hope for himself, his main priority shifts to Susan’s welfare. That was great. But Sleater didn’t do so well with Susan’s and Luke’s priorities.

Susan’s original motivations to assist Gary on his expeditions into the “quantum garden” are fine. She really does want to see him get better. But later in the book when the figure out that the hedge maze sends you to different universes where things are different (e.g. in some universes, Gary isn’t sick), her priorities don’t track. At that moment, when Susan comes to understand what the maze really does, she ought to be faced with a rather thorny set of questions. Are they still the same people, if they go to a different universe? Can they ever get back? Even if they do find a universe where Gary is just fine, will that even matter since they won’t be in their home universe with their real parents?

If I’m Susan in that situation, my reaction is going to be to want nothing more than to figure out how to get back home. It’s at heart a denial reaction: Gary understood what was going on, but didn’t tell her. So from her perspective, she has just learned not only that she has been duped, but that she has just had her whole life—her friends, her family, her home, literally her entire world—stolen from her. Yes, maybe these parallel worlds are eerily similar to her home world, but now she understands that they are not the same. Remember why stakes work? Remember how the endowment effect shows that characters will work much, much harder to avoid a loss than they will to gain something of ostensibly identical value? For Susan, the endowment effect and her natural denial should work together to create a powerful new priority: get home.

Alas, there’s no inkling towards any of that. There’s no examination of any of those thorny questions that sure popped right int my mind. There’s no heated argument between Susan and Gary where she rails at him for tricking her out of her rightful universe. There is no re-evaluation of priorities. Nothing.

Instead, Susan continues on helping Gary visit yet more new universes looking for the one that will satisfy his priority. Emotionally, it rings false. It would be one thing had Sleater recognized the emotions that this revelation should have had on Susan, and confronted them head on. But he didn’t. He skipped over it entirely and moved on with the plot he wanted to tell. He traded his plot problem for a characterization problem, which in my view is always a losing trade.

Sleater did something similar with Luke. Luke, we are given to understand, knows something about the dangers of the hedge maze. We learn, later on in the story when he delivers that critical clue to Susan, that he probably understands the maze sends you to a different universe. Yet, given that, there’s still a point where he chases Susan and Gary into the maze, supposedly out of fear for their safety. That would be very noble, except for not making any sense. On the one hand, if he understands what the maze does, then he would know that the instant they set foot in it, they were already lost. So what’s the point of chasing them in there? On the other hand, he would also understand that if he sets foot in the maze, he will be forever separated from his real family, the one he sends money to all the time, and that he wants to be reunited with. So again, why would he go in? He wouldn’t. Except, he did. Sleater made him go into the maze anyway, despite what Luke knew and understood, and despite acting against his knowledge and his priorities alike.

Don’t get sloppy.

Don’t forget: little details of language use can be just as problematic for your characters and your overall story as can outright plot holes. And never forget, too, that your characters ought to be real people with their own unique, motivating priorities which govern much of how they feel and act. Always keep your characters behavior consistent with their priorities, lest you break the reader’s faith in your character, lest you break the reader’s suspension of disbelief, and lest you undermine the reader’s trust in you to tell them a believable story.

If you do ever find yourself in William Sleator’s enviable position of having 21 prior published books to your name, don’t let yourself get sloppy and don’t let your agent and editor stop holding you to the highest standards either. You owe your readers better than that.

July 06, 2010 04:01 UTC

Tags: character corner, book review, William Sleator, The Last Universe, priorities, fact checking

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How writers can use Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Some decades ago, a researcher named Abraham Maslow got this idea that people have priorities. Brilliant, eh? Well, no. The clever bit was when he realized that any priority you care to name, whether it’s “I should go put on a sweater because I feel cold” or “Gosh, I’d really like to publish a novel one day,” fits into a hierarchy with well-defined levels.

Maslow decided that this hierarchy of needs had five levels. On the bottom are your basic life-support needs, keeping yourself fed and whatnot. At the top are your most aspirational goals, getting that novel published. Maslow’s main point was this:

You can’t pursue your higher-level goals until your lower-level needs are met

For we novelists, that’s key. It makes a fundamental kind of sense, too: all else being equal, a person (or a character) will naturally focus on the lowest-level need in their life that is currently going unsatisfied. That is, the freedom to pursue higher-level goals is a luxury compared to keeping one’s lower-level needs met.

If you trap your hero in an underwater cave with a limited supply of air in his scuba tank, pretty much all of his attention is going to be focused on getting out of the cave. You’ve created a pressing low-level need for him, and until he’s got it sorted, higher level concerns can wait. That is, while he’s underwater he won’t be spending a lot of brain-cycles trying to figure out the most romantic possible way to ask his girlfriend to marry him.

Similarly, you can’t get a group of women to organize for Women’s Suffrage if they’re too busy working to put food on the dinner table. This is why Women’s Suffrage movements, both in the U.S. and in England, were driven by middle and upper-class women whose low-level needs were already well assured. The freedom to pursue noble ends such as social justice is a luxury.

Conflicted priorities

This philosophy leads to a point of leverage we writers have with our characters. People generally have a whole set of priorities in their lives, distributed across all levels of the hierarchy. These priorities are also dynamic, changing from moment to moment as circumstances change. This means you can pit a character’s priorities against one another—pit the character against himself—in order to create obstacles for the character to overcome. These types of obstacles will naturally be more compelling and believable than random, externally applied obstacles because every reader knows the frustration of having one’s priorities come into conflict.

Let’s imagine your protagonist’s central goal in the novel is a low-level life and safety goal. That is, the premise of the novel is one that threatens to prevent the character from being able to feed and house himself and maybe also his family. (Hey, raise the stakes, right?) Maybe, for example, your protagonist is an auto-worker who has been taking night classes in computer programming so as to provide a better life for his family. But, with the collapse of the U.S. automobile industry, he gets laid off. Now he has to figure out how to keep his family fed and his mortgage paid, something he previously had under control. If he has to go out and get a couple of lower-paying jobs, working days and nights in order to make ends meet, he’s going to have to give up on those computer classes. Or, maybe, he might take a chance and start applying for programming jobs anyway, even knowing that he’s not ready and might not succeed at that. Make him choose between the safe strategy of keeping his family’s low-level needs met at the expense of his high-level aspirations, and the risky strategy that might just get him both.

You can do it the other way around, too, pitting a character with high-level goals against unexpected low-level needs. Maybe your protagonist is a mid-level employee at some company, working hard to rise up through the ranks. Maybe he really needs a promotion and a raise in order to put his kids through college (a doubly aspirational goal). So he begs his boss for a chance to make a presentation at a meeting with an important client, and the boss says yes. Now create a conflicting priority: In the middle of this situation where he might realize his higher-level aspirations, confront him with a lower level need. Maybe he was nervous before the meeting (who wouldn’t be?) and drank too much coffee as a result. Well, we all know what happens when you drink too much coffee. Make him choose between relieving his low-level need, or soldiering on as best he can. Make him choose between appearing unprofessional by dashing out of the meeting to go potty, or holding his wee and delivering the presentation as best he can despite his physical discomfort.

Inverted priorities

Maslow’s hierarchy isn’t a rigid truth. People aren’t robots. The guy in the meeting actually does have a choice about whether to go deal with his immediate low-level need, or whether to ignore it in pursuit of a higher-level goal. It can be very dramatic to watch characters pursue high-level goals even at the expense of low-level needs. We usually call this “sacrifice,” and you can build wonderful drama with it.

It’s believable, because real life is full of examples. In a rigidly Maslowian world there would be no starving artists (or writers), but in the real world there are (as we well know). In Maslow’s world, there would be no over-achievers who pursue career or social goals to the exclusion of love-and-belonging. But in the real world, there are plenty.

In Maslow’s world, no one would ever dedicate themselves to a higher purpose, but of course some people do and they tend to be the people we most respect, admire, and follow.

Maslow’s hierarchy is just a tool

It’s a very useful tool, but it is only a tool. Much like the five stages of grief, which can come out of order or even skip over some stages, Maslow’s hierarchy is only a guideline for how people typically choose to focus their attention. To that extent, it makes a great framework for thinking about what a character’s goals can and should be in any given situation, and is a very useful strategy for brainstorming new conflicts and obstacles to throw at your characters.

May 05, 2010 19:32 UTC

Tags: character, hierarchy of needs, Maslow, priorities, conflict

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