Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The F-Factor: Kate’s Rules of Commercial Fiction Part Two

So, if we’re willing to accept for a moment the idea that as readers we like to live vicariously through fictional characters, which is likely to be more appealing:
a) a heroine who is exactly like us: who shares our feelings of panic
and paralysis when faced with life choices, and who spends a long time agonising over and discussing her future before reaching the right decision,


b) a heroine who leaps before she looks, makes impetuous decisions
without thinking, and often makes spectacularly wrong choices before finding a solution to her problems.

OK, these examples are exaggerated for effect, but for years I really did think it was a). Like many writers, I am a thoughtful kinda person (my friends would argue that I am the world’s biggest procrastinator and ruminator and they might well be right) and I specialise in internal monologues that, if transcribed would read something like this

I should go to the gym. Now. Except it’s raining. Does rain burn more
calories? But perhaps I should have six roasted pecan nuts first.
Or swim, swimming is good exercise and I have shin splints, but then again, I
have recorded some good telly from last night. And then there’s that blog to
write. And I should plan my novel. Oh and reply to my emails. And check what
time train I need to get. But then again there’s the gym…

That’s about twenty seconds’ worth – so imagine if I have a big decision, like moving house. Don’t get me started on that one – my friends really went through the mill that time about downstairs bathrooms versus roof gardens, before I ended up moving in with my boyfriend instead.

Dwelling, mulling and other kisses of death

So, you get the picture. I dwell and mull. And so my characters tend to do the same. What better way to build empathy and identification between reader and character, than to share her innermost thoughts and dilemmas? Right?

WRONG! Of all the editorial comments I’ve had over the years, the most common concern my tendency to bung in long internal monologues. The notes will say something like: ‘Your character needs to think less, do more,’ or, more bluntly, ‘Get her moving!’ I’ve read elsewhere that many novels start with the central character making a cup of tea while mulling over his/her life. Can you think of a more tedious start to a book (Someone is now going to find me an example of a truly riveting novel that begins this way – I really am exaggerating to make my points, as usual)?

I call it the F-Factor. The more feisty or proactive your central character, the more interesting and attractive she will be. I don’t much like the word ‘feisty’ as it conjures up a wise-cracking New Yorker who performs an entire stand-up routine over lunch of sushi or bagels with her chums, so I just looked it up :

This is an Americanism which is gaining ground in British and Australian English. It is defined in many dictionaries as 'aggressive, excitable, nervous, touchy' but is now more often used to mean 'spirited', 'assertive', 'able to speak up for oneself' (usually applied to women). It has also appeared in an advertisement for a high-performance car, presumably suggesting that the car is fast, tough, and exciting to drive.
Words tend to change their meanings with time, sometimes through an error which gradually becomes accepted (as with decimate), often by being applied to different things, as in this case. Feisty is changing too quickly for dictionaries to keep up with – and it remains to be seen what the accepted meaning will eventually be.

Interesting. So it can mean what you want it to mean: and in my case I will say, spirited, active, assertive, interesting, willing to take action. Spirited is probably the best of the bunch because it suggests someone with vitality and drive, even if they are driving in the wrong direction (and disasters are the mainstay of comedy as well as tragedy).

Super Powers

I’m not saying your character should race across your pages like Lara Croft or Superwoman, never pausing to reveal anything about her inner life – that would be as alienating as page after page of emotional incontinence. But it’s about balance and if you’re struggling with a character and feeling frustrated, it’s worth considering whether she’s taking enough action.

Two further observations. The internal monologue is a particular pitfall of first person narratives because it’s so easy to do – and it can be funny, poignant, entertaining. But not if you overdo it. Less is more. I’ve learned the hard way and sometimes I look back on my earlier books and wish I could use the red pen right now.

Finally, I’ve realised that this became an issue for me with my second book, when I realised that I should pay more attention to making my central character more empathetic. I heard Zoe Heller on Five Live talking about her novel and saying that people have raised the question of empathetic characters in her novels and her response is ‘if you want to meet nice people, go to a cocktail party’, i.e. she believes fiction is a place to meet difficult, interesting rather than appealing characters. It’s a whole other blog post, but I think there is less room for obviously unsympathetic characters in commercial fiction, the eccentricities need to be tempered, particularly in central characters/narrators (again, there are many exceptions, I’d be interested in hearing about them). Anyway, I gave little attention to this in my first novel so that Tracey, my ‘heroine’, is unmaternal, bitchy, lacking self-awareness etc. I rather liked her, but reader reaction was very split.

Once the Empathy word reared its head, I began to add in lots of monologuing, explaining why my characters acted as they did, including lots of agonising and flash backing. Wrong decision. The key to empathy is to make your character struggle – most of the time it’s what they do, not what they think, that holds the key to reader identification.

It’s a tricky balance – but if you have the choice of a) or b) I’d go for b) every time. But what do YOU think? Which authors get it just right?

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Blogger jh said...

Hi Kate

This is really interesting and without spelling in out in the same why, my writing teacher (Sophie King) said the same thing to me when I first started writing - have some action every 1000 words or so. Unfortunately, I interpreted this wrongly and just invented a plot twist that happened 'to' the main character rather than 'because' of something she did. Am learning the hard way that passive is never a good thing and am rewriting the WHOLE THING (gulp) to make my main character more proactive and feisty. Glad I'm not the only one who has this problem! It's learning curve.
Jude xx

9:56 am  
Anonymous Julie Cohen said...

I think this is a fantastic post, Kate, and it's making me think about my wip, which is very good for me. I agree that first person narration can lead you into too much introspection.

I'm finding with this book I'm working on now, that I'm writing quite a bit of introspection--not for the reader, but for me. I want to know what's going on in my character's head, because it helps me figure out what she's going to do next. But your post is a reminder to me, to CUT IT quite severely when I get to revision stage.

I love your a) and b) choice, it's a really good way to explain it.

Thank you!

1:09 pm  

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