Deus ex Character-achina?

Have you ever read a book or watched a show or movie and gotten mad at the characters for their choices?  I have.  I spent a large part of the Harry Potter series mad at Harry because of his illogical and infuriating choices.  There were times I just wanted to slap him and say “Get with it Harry! Just do the occulumency! Don’t go rushing off on your own! Wait for Dumbledore!”  But here’s the thing, they were his choices.  I get way more angry when a character acts contrary to the way they’ve been presented.  If in the sixth or seventh book Harry had suddenly just said “You know what, I’ll just sit back and think about this choice for a minute,” or if Hermione had decided they didn’t need a plan or supplies, people would have been left scratching their heads and wondering what happened.

I’ve been watching the show “Smash” on NBC and, while it started out strong, it’s waning for me.  Last night’s episode, for example, had some characters acting in ways I couldn’t picture them acting.  I found myself cursing the show writers instead of the characters for their actions, which takes me out of the story.

If you hang out in Q&A sessions enough, you’ll start hearing a lot of the same questions. “I want to write X, but…” and “can my character do Y?” Or you read a lot of work that doesn’t fit what the author is going for. The words are too big or too zany or too snarky, or not snarky enough.  The answer is always the same: what would your character do or say in that situation?  It’s part of voice but it’s more than that, it’s knowing your character.

I see characters as real people.  No, you don’t need to call the folks in white coats to lock me in a padded room.  I mean I like to get lost in a story and, just for a little while, pretend I’m reading about real people and events.  It’s an escape.  When I close the book I don’t believe there is really a school for wizardry hidden in England or anything, but I like to be able to suspend my belief for a while.  Real people generally act in manners that are in line with their character.  Sure people change and adapt, but you don’t just suddenly have a neat freak throw mud across the floor without a catalyst.  If Monica from “Friends” gave up on cooking and quit using coasters, something would be wrong.  Yet, for some reason, writers think they can get away with doing this to their characters.

It’s almost like a separate form of deus ex machina (if you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s a plot device where a particular item or person turns up at just the right time.  On a random note, at the end of the movie “Dodgeball” when the Average Joes receive the treasure chest of money, the label on the front of the chest says “deus ex machina”).  It’s something that is too contrived.  The writer sticking their hands in the story to make something work.  There is a quote by Anton Chekhov that says “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”   Well, the converse is true too.  If someone is going to get shot in act two, you’d better make sure the gun is on the stage in act one.  In terms of characterization, for me, it’s having a character act in manner that is convenient for the writer.

I get it.  I mentioned this before, but I have a hard time writing illogical choices.  I’m a highly logical person, so it’s difficult to step back.  But the key is that I’m a logical person, my character might not be.  I can’t write it the way I want to, I have to write it the way it is.  It’s almost like changing history.  Sure, I’d love it if the white settlers hadn’t pushed the Native Americans off their land.  If I’m writing a history of that time, though, I can’t change it to how I want things to be.  I can’t substitute puppies and kittens and rainbows for lies and battles and blood.  You have to write what is.

If Annie Wilkes in “Misery” had all of a sudden started threatening Paul Sheldon with a gun and cussing like a sailor to speed the plot along, the book wouldn’t have worked.  It wouldn’t have fit with her whack-a-doodle personality.  Love or hate “Twilight” but if Bella had suddenly up and said “You know what, this is all crazy.  There are plenty of normal guys who don’t have a deep desire to kill me or turn into canines when angry.  Peace out.” people would have thrown the book across the room.

What I’m saying is, be true to your characters. And if they’re going to do something radically out of character, they’d better have a dadgum good reason for it.

What’s the Difference?

Conversations have been all over the internet lately asking what separates Middle Grade from Young Adult from Adult literature?  I’ve taken part in some of these debates in various forums and have noticed more agents and editors stepping forward to address the question (see Agent Michael Bourret of Dystel Goderich and Editor Molly O’Neill’s new weekly blog conversation specifically on the topic of Middle Grade lit.).

So, what’s the difference?  Most people would say it’s an age group thing.  Middle Grade is for middle school ages, 10-13, Young Adult is high school, 14-18, and Adult is everything after, 19 and up.  It’s not that easy though.  Especially when it comes to the MG/YA line.  Sure, age is part of it.  Kids generally like to read up, meaning they want to read about someone their age or older.  I think age is a good starting point, though.  If you’ve got a twelve-year-old protagonist, it’s likely MG.  Seventeen is pretty soundly in YA territory.  Thirty is obviously adult.

The lines blur on age, though, when say, your protagonist is thirty but the novel is his flashback to when he was twelve and how a middle school experience shaped his life.  Where would that end up?

It comes down to two main components: voice and theme.  Think of it like a chart.  If the thirty-year-old protag is telling the story as a thirty-year-old–using more mature language, longer words, longer sentences, etc, that’s a point in the Adult column.  If the protag only introduces the book as a thirty-year-old then tells the rest as a twelve-year-old (shorter words, snappier dialogue, shorter sentences, different language), that’s a point for MG.  If the theme is how the protag was abused in middle school and the effect on his adult life, point for Adult.  If it’s about how he overcame a bully and kissed his first girl, MG.

A similar system can be used for MG/YA.  One: What’s the main character’s voice? When I think of voice, I imagine the character sitting in front of me.  How does he sound?  How does he talk?  What language does he use?  Then I write him.  If you read a string of messages from four different people you know, can you usually tell who said what without seeing their names?  That’s voice.

Two:  What’s the theme?  MG, YA, and Adult explore different territories.

Most MG books focus on internal conflict: how does the world affect the main character?  MG books usually involve a main character learning who they are and what they like.  They’re growing older, gaining more responsibilities, and experiencing new things.  Conflict usually revolves around their small world: school, family, neighborhood.  “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is a great example.  It takes places around the school and is about the main character dealing with bullies and popularity and how it affects him and his friends.  There can be more serious themes in MG, like divorce, but the focus is still internal.  For example, how the main character’s parents’ divorce affects him.

YA tends to be more about how the MC affects the world. It goes beyond the boundaries of their small world; their world gets bigger. There is usually internal conflict, but the main conflict is external. The main character generally encounters more adult problems and tries to change things. Think of “The Hunger Games” where teenage Katniss is thrust into a very adult situation and is forced to choose whether to rebel against the government she’s always known or take care of herself.  How does she fit into the world?  Using my MG example, if the YA main character’s parents were divorcing, the story would focus on not just how the main character is affected but how he affects the world because of it.

Harry Potter is a great example because it started MG and ended up YA.  The characters grew with their audience.  The first half of the series deals with Harry finding out who he is and where he fits in the world.  In “The Sorcerer’s Stone” he finds out he’s a wizard with a special place in a new world (mostly set at his school of Hogwarts).  The main conflict is Harry embracing who he is and dealing with Malfoy and Snape.  Voldemort is almost a subplot in the first book as it’s not him Harry ultimately has to defeat; rather, he has to overcome personal challenges and defeat Professor Quirrell.  “The Chamber of Secrets” shows Harry getting more comfortable with his place, but still discovering and learning.  The main conflict, again, really isn’t Voldemort, it’s Tom Riddle and saving Ginny.  “The Prisoner of Azkaban” starts to shift a bit, but the conflicts are still MG: Harry verses Sirius.  All of these are how the world affects Harry.

The second half of the series deals with Harry using who he is to change the world around him.  Book four, “The Goblet of Fire,” is a transitional book where he’s growing from middle school to high school.  Most of the book focuses on Harry overcoming the various physical challenges and disdain from his peers who think he put his name in the cup.  There’s a major conflict shift where Harry finally faces Voldemort at the end of the book.  “The Order of the Phoenix” completes the turn.  The main conflict is Harry versus Voldemort.  Sure, there are a lot of scenes at school where Harry’s peers shun him because they don’t believe his “lies,” but the driving force is Voldy himself.  “The Half-Blood Prince,” is again Harry versus Voldy, with some growth in Harry’s relationships.  The last book, “The Deathly Hallows” is completely about how Harry can defeat and destroy Voldemort.  How he can change the world.

Themes in Adult literature vary greatly from internal to external depending on the genre.  Mystery/Suspense/Thriller is pretty external, Literary/Women’s Fiction, etc is more internalized.

None of the genres are better or worse than the others.  I hate it when people downgrade MG or YA and think they’re less worthy than Adult books.  I may be a bit biased, since I write MG and YA, but the plots can be just as advanced as Adult books.  To me, themes and ages aside, the voice classifies the book.  So if you’re still not sure where your work may fall, especially when it comes to the MG/YA line, imagine the main character talking to you.  How does he sound?  Who would he hang out with?  What does he say?  If he’s got a strong voice, it should be easy to classify.

Painting the Picture

How important is setting in a novel? Does it really matter where a story is set, or if the scene is expressly painted for you?

I enjoy painting.  I’m not very good at it, but I enjoy it.  Getting creative and messy with brightly colored globs of acrylic goo that I can smear in whatever patterns and shapes I desire can be wonderfully freeing.  Some people, however, prefer more constraint.  I don’t know how much the concept has taken hold in other places, but in the south a place called “Sips and Strokes” has been springing up everywhere lately.  It seems to be a popular venue for “girl’s night” (I don’t really know for sure since I don’t have a lot of “girl friends” and don’t do many girly things in the first place).  You take your beverage of choice and they provide the easels, paints, canvases and brushes.  Then they show you what to paint.  Each person’s comes out differently, but they’re all basically the same thing: a sunflower, or the Eiffel Tower, or a pot of flowers.  (They all seem to be girly things as well.  Bear in mind, I don’t really speak from experience since I’ve never been, but I have friends who love it and have reported back on the experience).  It’s basically a grown up version of paint-by-number.

Don’t get me wrong, I see the value in it (beyond “girl time” I mean).  If you feel creative, but need direction, or look at a blank canvas with no clue where to start, this sort of thing would be perfect.  It’s like the difference between a book setting the scene for you, and you making it up for yourself.  How much do you want the author to paint the picture?

Obviously there are books where setting is immensely important.  In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for example, Harper Lee had to set the scene for the story to work.  The setting was almost another character.  Without it, the events wouldn’t have happened the same way, or mattered as much.  On the other hand, “Perks of Being a Wallflower” didn’t seem so dependent on setting.  Sure, we knew Charlie’s brother played football at Penn State, but they could have been from anywhere.  The main story could have taken place in any town.

To me, it depends on what you’re going for.  If your story is a socioeconomic commentary, it probably matters more.  If it’s a story based more on the characters and their interactions than the plot, or something more fantastical where the main character will travel to another land, I don’t think the city the character starts is that important.

I have a history of not including a concrete setting in the books I write.   I think it’s simply that the setting hasn’t mattered much.  It hasn’t been necessary to the plot.  In my head, my stories takes place in the south, because that’s what I know, but I like leaving it open to the reader to imagine it in their own city.  I like stories that don’t give it all away.

“Bridge to Terebithia” for example.  I couldn’t tell you where that story is set.  It very well might be mentioned, but it wasn’t important enough for me to remember.  And because it wasn’t important enough to remember, it could take place wherever I wanted.  Like in my backyard.  I felt closer to the story, more pulled in by the fact such amazing things could just as easily occur for me as for the characters.

Don’t misunderstand, I think stories with definitive setting are wonderful too.  “The Chronicles of Narnia” had to start in London, and C.S. Lewis did a great job describing the scene.  “Little House on the Prairie” obviously had to occur on the prairie.  “Harry Potter” had to describe the setting for the story to come alive.  Hogwarts was a character in it’s own right.

I guess this is coming to mind because I’m revising a manuscript and catching places where I’ve used southern phrases.  Like “gotten a hold of” instead of just “gotten.”  Which is all well and good if the setting were important, if I’d specifically said it took place in the south and included southern mannerisms, like Harper Lee did.  But for a more generic setting, I think the language needs to be more generic.

It comes back to painting.  I enjoy the creative release of slapping color on canvas in any pattern and combination I choose, so I like reading books where I can shape the setting how I want.  That’s one reason I write.  I’m not so big on the paint-by-numbers, grabbing me by the hand and leading me down the path mentality though.  What I’m saying is, if an author is going to set the scene for me, I want it to be beautifully and masterfully done, a Monet or Van Gogh.  Otherwise, it leaves me in setting limbo, with a half-fleshed out scene that’s set in Seattle or Maryland, just because, without giving me the real feel of Seattle or Maryland.  If it’s not important, I’d just as soon have it left out.

How do you feel?  Do you like books that leave the setting open for your imagination?  Or do you prefer to have the scene set for you?  Is it important at all?

Stuck in the Middle with You

Whose opinion matters more?  The writer?  The critique partner/beta?  The reader?  The agent/publisher?

These questions have been swirling through my head lately.  At first blush, the answer is “the readers”.  I mean, they’re the ones who will ultimately decide whether or not to buy a book, whether they connect with the character, and whether they want more.  But the more I learn about the world of publishing, the more I’m finding that’s not the case.  A reader may love a story, but agents and publishers may hate it.  I recently read how Harry Potter came to be, and almost never was.  If you don’t know the story, I’ll elucidate for you.  You see, the manuscript for “The Sorcerer’s Stone” was rejected pretty much across the board and finally landed on the desk of a publisher, the last publisher.  All other avenues had been exhausted.  This publisher took the an excerpt home to “read” and ended up giving it to his young daughter.  (At this point in the story, I have images of the Grinch giving Little Cindy Lou Who a drink of water, patting her on the head, and sending her to bed).  She read it and absolutely loved it and couldn’t wait to get more, to find out what happened next. The publisher had hated it and was going to turn it down.  Fortunately for everyone (especially J.K. Rowling), he decided to listen to his daughter and accept the manuscript.

So, unless the reader happens to be a publisher’s daughter, they don’t seem to have much of a say.  I’m certain books are passed on all the time that readers would love.  It’s not the agent or publisher’s fault. They pass on books for all sorts of reasons.  Their client list is too full, they already have something similar, it’s not their cup of tea, they don’t believe enough in the project.  They have to use their judgment as to what will sell and what won’t.  Sometimes they get it wrong.  For example, sixty agents passed on “The Help” by Katherine Stockett.  Sixty.  Stockett tried for three years to get it published.  No one thought it would work or that audiences would like it, but people loved it.  So, again, it goes back to the reader’s opinion.

I recently became part of a wonderful sort of experiment: an online critique group.  It’s a forum with a small number of people, a max of ten, who post their stuff a chapter at a time for critiques from the other members.  No, this doesn’t count as publishing, as only registered members can read the works and everything is password protected.  Unlike some of the other writer’s forums I frequent where you can only post a chapter or excerpt here and there for help, you can post as much as you want.  I’m also a member of a flesh and blood critique group that works the same way.  We meet once a month and read a chapter or two and get feedback.  The only problem is if you work faster than that pace, which is the purpose of the online group.

So I joined and posted the first couple chapters of my new work in progress.  And they hated it.  More accurately, they hated my main character.  They found her shallow and self-absorbed.  However, they loved my plot, and that kept them reading.  I was a little miffed, to be honest, because I thought she was a typical teenage girl worried about prom and the boy she likes.  I will caveat and say my fellow critiquers said they were not normal teenage girls and that’s probably why they couldn’t relate/didn’t like my main character.  Nevertheless, I’ve found myself in a quandary.  I don’t want to have a completely unlikeable main character, but I need her to be a little unreasonable at the beginning so there’s room for growth.

My answer: I co-lead a small group of youth at my church.  All teenage girls from ages fourteen to eighteen.  So, I offered to let one of them read my first two chapters (and ended up with several of them reading it, but that’s the way it goes).  Their initial impressions were that they loved the character.  This only deepens the quandary, leaving me feeling stuck in the middle.  I have a character adults dislike, but teenagers like, in a book written for teenagers.  Yes, I know my adults come from one group of people who may be biased, but I have to wonder: will other adults feel the same way?  And if they do, will they be turned off and not want to read it?  Unfortunately, no matter how much the teenagers may like it, it’s adults I have to impress.

It seems a bit counter-intuitive though, doesn’t it?  I can’t help but wonder if we’re doing it right.  But then again, I don’t know how else it could be done.  I guess if an agent/publisher were interested in a book but weren’t sure how it would sell, they could do a test audience.  That takes time and money though, and what’s the point if the test audience doesn’t like it?  Ultimately, I don’t know any way it could be done differently.  So I’m going to do the only thing I can at this stage of the game: plug on and see how the book turns out, if it’s good enough, query it and see what responses I get.  Then, if the adults in the publishing world dislike her, I can reconsider a revamp, or hope I get lucky and someone’s teenage daughter reads it and convinces her publisher father that it’s good.  I won’t hold my breath for that one though.