Monday, December 26, 2005

making your reader bleed

In the last ten days, I have started and restarted and restarted my new YA, until I was seriously wondering whether I actually owned a single brain cell capable of creating a story that anyone would ever read. I brainstormed with my family (which I never do--I'm totally a do-it-yourself kind of girl), reworked the story, then brainstormed some more. I contemplated trashing the entire story and starting over (every single book I write has a moment or two where I become certain that it's unsalvageable and must be tossed. I think it's a rite of passage). Then finally in one brainstorming session, I created a new twist on my story and my main character, and suddenly more spinoff ideas started forming. I wrote several pages of notes, felt like I'd made some progress, then went back to my story and started rewriting. And it's working! What a brilliant feeling!

And I realized, as usual, that the key development that is finally making the story start to fly is that my main character is starting to develop into a really interesting and compelling character. She's got spunk, she's sympathetic, and I love her. She's not boring, she's got some serious issues and some flaws, but she's compelling, and I adore her, reminding me that no matter how good my plot is, the thing that makes any book compelling is the characters, even if it's a mainstream thriller heavy on the plot.

The simple truth is that your reader MUST care what happens to your character. They don't have to like them (though that helps), but they MUST care what happens to them.

Think of it this way: you get a call from a friend who heard that your fifth grade teacher died suddenly in a car accident after crashing into the abominable snowman. You never liked your teacher, you haven't thought of her in the 10 years since you were in the class. So, you're mildly interested in the fact she died, but really, you're much more interested in the fact that the abominable snowman actually exists. But when your dog runs in the room trailing the remains of the presentation you were up all night working on, you forget about your old teacher and the Yeti and chase your dog upstairs, threatening to withhold all ball playing for at least a week if he won't relinquish it.

Now, imagine you get the call from a friend who says that your best friend has just died in a car accident after crashing into the abominable snowman. Reaction? You could care less about the abominable snowman, other than to hate it because it killed your friend. Dumb hairy beast deserves to be extinct. Your dog runs into the room trailing the remains of the presentation you were up all night working on, and you stare at him and realize how little work actually matters in the grand scheme of things, because you're too shaken up by your friend's death to care at all if your boss hates you.

The only difference in these two scenarios is in how much you care about the person who died.

It's the same in a book. Your reader has to bleed with that character, has to feel that character in their heart and soul and worry about them. If you don't have that, nothing else matters.

It took me a long time to really believe that. I was so into plotting and twists, and (surprise, surprise) I couldn't sell a thing. It wasn't until I started really focusing on character that things started to happen. I still have to remind myself how important character is, but I can SO tell the difference when my characters finally become compelling.

That's where I am right now. The protagonist in my teen book just became compelling. Which means, now the fun begins.


At 6:02 AM, Blogger MaryF said...

You know, I just noticed this in one of the GH entries I'm reading. Very interesting plot, cardboard characters.

At 3:00 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

I'm glad the YA has started to click.


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