Saturday, May 11, 2013

HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL IN TWELVE STEPS: Love your characters; love your places #Step NINE

HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL IN TWELVE STEPS: Love your characters; love your places #Step NINE
This is obvious.
And yet, it’s not.
You are going to be living with and working with, these characters. They are going to occupy your mind for a certain section of the day (& night).
I don’t care if your main characters are the meanest girls in school (In Pride & Princesses those characters are Teegan, Tory, Brooke and Freya) - you better find some love for them.
The novels I read in my formative years (i.e. teenage years) included characters, main characters even, that would now be regarded as “unsympathetic”. My favourite novel (The Outsiders) is narrated by Ponyboy Curtis – who is definitely “sympathetic” – but he also seemed real to me.
Let’s say this word again together:
I really don’t like that word, but it is a categorization too often used in publishing and movies etc.
Here’s the thing. Most agents and publishers want you to have characters readers cannot only relate to – but like. 
The problem is, real life is filled with unsympathetic characters.
You have to decide what you want.
Maybe not straight away – not if this is the first draft of your first novel (everyone thinks they are autobiographical or at the very least semi-autobiographical anyway!)
Do you want to be a certain kind of writer?
Do you want to omit certain “unsympathetic” characters (and by that, I mean characters a reader or audience won’t like?) Do you want the work to serve you (i.e. make you some money) or do you want to serve your work?
Making some money up front might be a good idea. Assuming you need it, and most people do.
Money creates an opportunity for you to have freedom - theoretically. If you are lucky enough to get the opportunity to make some money from your art and someone wise wants you to make your characters “more sympathetic” in return, you could always consider it.
You should also consider the story you are telling and how to be true to it.
I once wrote a little story which was based on my college years. It contained a lot of unsympathetic characters. It contained bad language and compromising positions. It wasn’t cruel but it wasn’t nice. It was very real. The boys weren’t gentlemen and the girls didn’t behave the way society dictates smart girls should.
And boy, this hit a sore note with some people who read it. My main character was only eighteen. She was smart, she knew a lot, she had an opinion, she was blonde and she was pretty. Readers (and by readers, I mean commissioning editors and publishers) loved her… and they hated her.
They were afraid.
I was asked to make big changes.
Rather than make my characters “sympathetic” I shelved it. I was very young. At the time, it was the right thing to do.
You have to decide who your characters are going to be and what they are going to do.
A note on YA writing:
Writing for young adults is a (slightly) different animal. There should be a sense of colour and character development. But you might want to think about how you are going to develop certain characters and situations.
Writing with young teens in mind (particularly girls) makes me aware of certain values I’d like to install in my own daughter should I have one. I don’t think there is anything to be gained by my ultimately promoting a character that is behaving in a bullying way (for example) to a YA audience. I think readers know it’s wrong, but there is nothing wrong with proving that on the page. Even if, in life, it sometimes seems the bullies win.
Some more thoughts about the young adult genre:
It’s huge, we know it.
It seemed to start with JK Rowling, went on to Stephanie Meyer and carried on with Suzanne Collins (to name just a few of the notable writers out there). It really started a lot earlier, it just wasn't known as such.
That said, if Jane Austen were writing today she might be writing chic-lit or YA and she wouldn’t be surprised that because a woman was writing it, it had been categorized in a “less serious” or dismissive way… (Think Twilight). That series has sold millions of copies but for every lover there has been a backlash - even though a lot of people (mostly women) enjoyed it. Tons of guys – in particular – seem to love heavy duty sci-fi, but we don’t hear the same kind of backlash... this genre is discussed far more seriously, in the main. Of course there are parodies, but I hope you get my point. There are double standards in publishing as there are in life. At the end of the day some people want to make art, almost everyone wants to make money. It's great when the two are combined. 
One of my favourite current series (and a favourite series of many others) is The Hunger Games. This series, like Harry Potter, appeals to boys, girls and grown-ups.
It has been almost universally praised. (What did I mention about ‘you can’t please everyone?’)
But returning for a moment to the double standard in publishing. It started hundreds of years ago when the Brontes wrote to get published and had to use boy’s names…
And yet, the majority of readers (and maybe even writers now – especially unpaid ones!) are female.
Go figure… now that you know this, I’d kind of forget it. Go find some characters to love and some great stories to tell.
Note: I think Jane Austen (if she were writing today) would have allowed her female characters to be trailblazers and maybe not be ruled by what society dictates they should do… Err, is that unsympathetic?
Um… well, yes. Of course it is.