Monday, January 12, 2009

Why Should I Care?

Recently, I read EVIL GENIUS by Catherine Jinks. It was enjoyable and funny with good plot twists, but I didn’t love it. At first, I thought it was because it was a bit too long and the story’s flavor wasn’t something I naturally gravitate toward. But, after reading the sequel, GENIUS SQUAD, I discovered that wasn’t true. The reason I didn’t love these books is because they evoked very little emotion from me.

The obvious question is ‘why?’ Why didn’t these books evoke much emotion? The main character has interesting problems and grows in wonderful ways. The minor characters play good roles both in the story and the main character’s growth. Plus, the story was engaging. So why wasn’t there much emotion involved?

I didn’t see it while reading the first book, but it became obvious in the second. The way both stories are written, the language used to tell the story, keeps us at a distance from the main character.

Okay, but, is that really a problem? He’s not real, so why should we care how much distance there is between us? Well, in real life, how do long-distance relationships usually turn out? Sometimes they’re fine, but often times they fail because there isn’t enough closeness.

I think fiction is very similar. The closer we are to the main character, the more emotion we’ll feel, the better we’ll understand his motivations and actions, and the louder we’ll cheer for him. If there’s distance, then he becomes this person who did this thing in a story. Kind of like reading about people in the news. We might enjoy what they did or feel sad about what happened to them, but then we forget everything because we don’t know them on a personal level. If we did know them, you can bet we wouldn’t forget anything.

I think this is the hardest part of writing fiction, especially for introverted writers. I’m an introvert, and hold myself at a nice, safe distance from people I don’t know well. In my early novels, I did the same with my main characters. Often, the minor characters were easier to know than the main character – which was another part of me coming out. I’m good at reading other people, but hide myself a little too well from others. As a result, the most common advice I got from fellow critiquers was to give them more of my main character. In order to do that, I had to do something far scarier: expose my main character completely, thus exposing myself. Yikes!

But it’s necessary. One of the biggest things I learned growing up is that we can’t really know someone unless there’s no distance between us. If there’s distance, then there’s room to hide faults and shortcomings. And if a character hides his faults from us, then how can we identify with him? A little, yeah, but not completely.

So, I guess what I’m saying, in a very round-about way, is that, in order to evoke emotion for a fictional character, we have to create a realistic relationship between that character and the reader by eliminating all distance between them. How much distance is between you and your significant other? Maybe a little...we do need personal space, after all. But there can’t be any between a character and a reader. They must be so close that the two people become one, so the reader is almost living vicariously through the character.

To do that, the reader needs to be directly in the story. We need to show it to him, not tell it. Telling is distance; showing is transporting the reader right into the scene. Then, if your character is well-developed, then the reader will experience everything you show him through your character’s actions, dialogue and monologue. And the reader won’t be able to help but feel connected to this imaginary person.

All this is hard work. Really hard work. But, if we don’t do it, then our readers won’t connect. And, if they don’t connect, why should they care about what happens to our characters? If they don’t care, why should they read our work?


Unknown said...

Ugh, I'm so with you on the Evil Genius books. I picked up the second one by accident, thinking it was the first one, and never found it engaging enough to finish--which is really rare for me.

Carrie Harris said...

I've been wanting to read this, and it'll be interesting to do so with these comments in mind. Having said that, I completely agree. I tend to gravitate toward first person because I prefer character driven books, although I realize that I'm just wimping out because you can do that with third too. ;)

Unknown said...

Your post is a good reminder, especially for us introverts.

Jacqui said...

I haven't read those books, but I think you make an important point, especially about showing/telling. I'd also add that lately I've read a couple of books where the characters themselves didn't seem to care that much, or pretended not to. It was very hard for me to care about those too.

C.R. Evers said...

true, I think that's why editors and agents make a big deal about having well rounded characters. It draws the reader in more when we can relate not only to the portagonist, but to the villian as well. Or, even if we can't relate, even if we can understand why they do the things they do. . .


Michelle D. Argyle said...

Very good post. Thank you! I think you are right about being close to your characters. However, sometimes it is good to have distance in order to create suspense. But if the reader already feels close to the character, this shouldn't be a problem.

Mary Witzl said...

Last month, I finished a book for adults that featured a protagonist I didn't much like. By the end of the book, I was happy to have gotten through it just for the sake of finishing it. I felt supremely irritated with the main character and glad to be shot of her.

For these past two months I've been working on an MG novel, trying to get it just right. I want to believe that my protagonist is someone readers will care about, but one piece of advice I've gotten is that her thoughts and feelings aren't always easy to read. This can't be me, though -- I wear my heart on my sleeve! I keep going back to all takes so much time.

PJ Hoover said...

I think relating with the MC is huge for a reader to really care at all. We have to see things in that character that remind us of ourselves.

BTW, I haven't read the books.

Angela Ackerman said...

great post.

Merc said...

Great post, and indeed, I agree getting close to the MC is important.

Some of it depends on the style for me, as I have enjoyed novels that are distanced from the MC (I'm reminded of Simon R. Green's Nightside series, which sometimes has Taylor a bit distanced and withheld from the reader, for all the world is endlessly entertaining), but in general I like getting close.

I have to work on this more; I went through a stage I felt all my characters were too emo :P so I started backing off, but that didn't help, and with voice changes (in terms of narrative/character voice) some of the characters just refused to show emotions without a fight... *sigh* It's an uphill battle :P but I'm working at it.

Thanks for the thoughts on this!


Marcia said...

Interesting. I've never seen these books. I really agree that the reader has to live vicariously through the character, which is I think a big advantage of first person and third close. In fact, I've never written in a POV that wasn't close. I also think that putting ourselves out there in the MC (who may not be us but is always some aspect of us, I find)is a big key to originality. When you're honest enough with the emotion in a scene to nail it with just the right word, dialogue, action, you make that connection and with originality as well.

Tabitha said...

Beth - yeah, not my favorites. The first is better than the second. Not as predictable, more character growth, etc. But still, nothing to write home about.

Carrie - if you read them, please share! These are definitely plot-driven books, but if you like Artemis Fowl then you might enjoy these.

Mary - introverts, unite! :) It's so hard being an introvert and a good writer...scary, actually. :)

Jacqui - good point. If the characters themselves don't care, why should we?

Christy - exactly! Gotta have well-rounded villians, too, or he won't seem believeable. People are people, not labels.

Lady Glamis - as long as the distance isn't a plot device, I completely agree. Especially if a close relationship was established early on.

Mary - LOL!! I've read some books like that too. Makes me wonder why I try so hard to finish *everything* I pick up. :) Anyway, if you're having trouble getting your character on the page, take a look at how much she's doing versus how much she's telling us what's going on around her. Action combined with her opinions may be all you need here. :)

PJ - so true. And if we aren't close to the character, we don't really know how much of them is in us.

Angela - thanks! :)

Merc - I think this is probably the difference between character-driven and plot-driven books. I've also enjoyed some plot driven books, such as JUDE by Kate Morgenroth. I didn't care about him as much as I could have, but the plot was so engaging that I didn't mind. :)

Marcia - I've always written in close POV too. And I SO agree on the originality, too. It's funny you mention it now, because I've got a post coming up that discusses this. :) One of these days, we're going to write the same post on the same day. :)

Miriam Forster said...

So this comment is a bit late, but have you read H.I.V.E.? (Stands for Higher Institute of Villainous Education)

I read HIVE first and then Evil Genius, and I was disappointed. I wanted another fun super-villain story and I just felt bleh about Genius. HIVE, on the other hand was very involving and entertaining.

Tabitha said...

Not late at all. :)

I haven't read HIVE, but I will go check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!!