Writing a book? This better be personal!

A friend of mine, Intrigue author Ann Voss Peterson, has a mantra concerning books and the main characters’ goals and motivations. It needs to be personal and it needs to be important, very important at least to the character—to the world is even better. (but that doesn’t work for every type of book)

Now, I KNOW this, Ann has told me enough times I should, but somehow knowing and doing don’t always go together.

Right now, I’m revising a paranormal young adult novel that my agent had sent to seven houses. Two of these houses in particular had a lot of feedback and said they would be interested in seeing the project again if I chose to revise it.

So, I’m revising. First seven houses is not the world and if two professionals have given me some feedback I’m at least going to give it careful consideration before sending it out to anyone else.

Neither of them said—Hey, dummy, remember the protagonist’s goal should be personal and important. But then I’ve found when people have an issue with a book they seldom pin it to the board quite that neatly. They say things like “I’m not believing this character.” or “I didn’t quite care as much about (fill in blank) as I wanted to.”

So, ignorant to the fact that I had made a basic error that I know darn well better than to make, I started reading.

And there it was—or wasn’t. My protagonist’s goal was personal and it was important…kind of. But it wasn’t important enough. And as I read further past the first plot twist when things start to go south, that personal connection faded. She still had the personal thing going for the initial goal, but now the “get us out of trouble right now” goal…that was weak. It felt like she could have walked away and left the job to someone else.

She personally didn’t have anything at stake. It wasn’t her brother that was in trouble. It wasn’t her life that was going to blow up. Yes, the antagonist winning wouldn’t have been good, but my protagonist could have disconnected and gone on. That wouldn’t have made her a very nice person, but so what? That isn’t the strong emotional tie a book needs to make readers care.

Ugh. Stupid, stupid, meSlap, slap, get up and revise the thing!

Now, despite my above personal smack down, I don’t blame myself too much. In fact I just read a book by an author I really enjoy where the same thing happened. At first, like these editors, I couldn’t quite pin down what the issue was. Then I saw it.

The protagonist had an ugly past. All the building blocks to giving her some very personal reason to hunt down the killer in question, but the author didn’t use it. The author let the killer not be tied in anyway to the ugly things that had happened to our protagonist in her past (not even the same type of crime being committed). Then later when there was another opportunity to make this particular killer personal by having him kill off a secondary character we the readers might have liked the author wimped out again.

It was there in her grasp, the possibility of making a well written book that was just fair into a really great gripping book, and she missed it.

It was very, very sad.

So, if you are writing a book. Is it personal? Why does your protagonist have to be the person to do what he or she does? If he or she doesn’t do it, what will happen? Will his or her life implode? Will she or he lose everything they hold dear?

If not, you might want to look at it again.

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Writing a book? This better be personal! — 6 Comments

  1. I really like the way you phrase this. Another way I’ve seen it phrased so it finally got through my thick head after decades of flailing was that each scene needs emotional goals on the parts of the characters.

  2. So that’s why I’m finding “Twilight” so boring! Over 1/2 way through the book and all that is “important” is typical high school angst that I hated when I was in high school.

    I can see why adolescent girls might swoon over these characters, but I don’t care. There is nothing important at stake.

    Tossing it against the wall out of pure boredom.

  3. Really well put, Lori, and so important. I think we all get involved in writing where the twists and turns, or making the mystery hard, can overwhelm us. If we’re lucky, we realize we’ve neglected the heroine or hero when we read through the first draft.

    This is the perfect time for me to read this, because I’m about to dive back into a manuscript where the heroine does like to help people — and a war is building that she’s just become aware of — but she came to this location for specific reasons, and for her own safety must learn certain things fast.

    That cannot be forgotten — in fact, it must slightly trump everything else in her 14 year old mind. Or it’s not real. (Unless someone has to verbally slap her up the side of the head and ask why she is endangering herself and by extension others….)

    Thanks for a good lesson!

  4. On the other side of the medal, I see too many protagonists being thrown into situations where they _have_ to act. Their life is in danger. Their friends are being killed, or at least threatened. They are the only one who can stop the antagonist (often because they happen to be born with a particular skill/heritage).

    Such characters bore me. They act because they must, and I prefer them acting with good grace instead of reluctantly (particularly if that means that two or three sympathetic characters die before they finally accept their fate). I want to read about protagonists _who make choices_, who must betray their friends or their country and who struggle to do neither. I also like to read about _pro_(t)agonists: about people who have agenda, who choose to do something, who find ways. All too often characters react to a threat – if they *must* act because otherwise really bad things will happen, they remain reactive for much further into the book than I prefer.

    So I think it’s a case of ‘gain some readers, lose others’. For me, a character who _could_ walk away and choses not to is much stronger than a character who is being placed where they need to act by authorial fiat.

  5. Green Knight, I get what you’re saying, but it occurred to me in reading this that one reason that deeply personal motivation is important in fiction is because that’s the way it usually works in real life. Look at your typical whistleblower. Generally, they don’t act until things are so bad that they have very little choice, partly because the action pretty much destroys their lives.