Wednesday, August 24, 2011

To Kill, or Not to Kill; This is a Question?

As a middle-grade writer, I'm constantly wrestling with the issue of whether or not to kill someone. In my story, I mean. Particularly at the beginning of a story. I think the reason parents are either rotten or absent in middle-grade novels is because it's a fast and easy way to engage reader sympathy. Somehow, I have to make a reader care about my protagonist within the first 10-20 pages. I can do this by:

  1. Creating a burning, unanswered question. 
  2. Pitting the world against them. 
  3. Making them orphans.
Harry Potter does all three of these things within the first 20 pages. Percy Jackson hits the first two and compounds the sympathy by adding Smelly Gabe in place of a father.

In Return to Exile (only two more weeks to release!), I gave Sky, my protagonist, great parents and turned their very goodness into a roadblock. But this took time. To get immediate reader interest, I relied on burning questions and a cruel world.

It's hard to work strong adult allies into a middle-grade novel, and keep them there, because the reader will always be asking "why in the world is that kid in charge?" And most the time, the answer to that question feels very contrived.

If anyone knows of other things that work well in engaging immediate reader interest, other than the three things I've listed, I'd love to hear about it!


Steve Myers said...

An approach that may work in much the way that making a child an orphan does may be to show them as isolated from their parents, such as when the parents work all the time, have to travel a lot, can't relate with them, and so on. In either case, we invoke sympathy by showing loneliness that comes as a result of a parent not being there for their child, either physically, emotionally, or both.

Still, I think that what we're after isn't always to create sympathy for our characters, making us feel badly for them, but it's to make us feel anything at all for them. It may be as effective to make us feel for them by making the character likable, by showing noble or admirable qualities revealed through the way in which they make tough choices and how they deal with problems or challenges.

In either case, it's certainly important that we become emotionally invested enough in a character before they are put in danger that we care whether they succeed or fail, whether they get the girl or not, or even whether they live or die. We only care about the outcome of a scene in which a character is in peril when we would feel loss and disappointment if they were to fail in their goals, get hurt, or even die.

I really enjoyed the two classes you taught at Life, the Universe, and Everything. I heard a lot from other writers on story structure and plotting, but I found your advice on how to build a story by starting with well-built characters to be of much more use.

EJ Patten said...

Geez. Apparently Blogger messed with the embedded comments stuff so it's not working very well. I had to switch to full page just to leave a comment on my own blog.

Great points Steve. Getting readers to engage with the character on some level is definitely the goal. I think the orphan thing is often used in middle reader fiction because it's fast, easy, and strong (i.e., provides strong motivation).

It's like that activity I did in the Echo workshop where we voted on believable character motivation. "Which one do you like the most?" There are all sorts of believable motivations floating around, but people have preferred motivations. And not all have the strength to drive a character through terrifying situations. "Orphan" says "I'm willing to do just about anything to find or stop x." Of course, this only matters in an action story with danger and high stakes. There are other ways to create that level of believable motivation, but they generally take more development. In Return to Exile (where Sky, my protag, is not an orphan), I had to show a strong relationship between he and his uncle before I could remove his uncle from the story and use that as the impetus to drive the action. Sky's motivation is believable because we know he cares about his uncle. But, it took a lot more time to develop than if I'd just said "he's an orphan, look at how horrible everyone is--now let's get to the story."

I think the sympathy angle is specific to middle reader fiction, and there are exceptions. In fantasy or other genres, it's not as applicable. It's an interesting question though...what is the overriding approach to initial character presentation in fantasy? It's not usually sympathy. Epic coolness, maybe?

I'm glad the presentations were helpful. I appreciate your comments. You're right on. Get engagement however you can. Make the reader care about the character, whether that's through sympathy or some other means.