If your main character is … non-standard: overly mean, vapid, or maybe just plain dumb, learn to evoke sympathy in your readers to keep them engaged in your story.
I read Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes and State of Grace by Hilary Badger back-to-back. That order wasn’t intentional. I read Flowers because I saw the title used in another book (Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything), remembered it was classic sci-fi, decided I should read it *because* it’s classic, and I put it on hold at my local library. I read it when it came in and then… had nothing immediately queued up to read next.
I was skimming my book list and stumbled on Grace. It’s not actually my book. It’s my son’s. He asked me to buy it for him because he made a deal with his friend: He’d read her favorite book (Grace) if she read one of his (Harry Dresden). He never got into it. I figured, well, I read and edit YA and fantasy and *this* YA fantasy is a teen’s favorite, so I should read it. (A large number of the books I read are “shoulds” to keep myself up-to-date with current trends in novels. I don’t mind; it makes it way easier to pick out a book to read when I’m reading for a zillion different reasons, only one of which is pure entertainment!)
So, I read these seemingly very different books back-to-back and was stunned by the similarities in story-telling technique. Both books start out with a not-obviously interesting character: Keyes’ Charlie is a literal moron (“retarded” in the mentally deficient meaning used in the late 1950s) and Badger’s Wren is a vapid teenager, obsessed with having fun.
On the surface, these characters shouldn’t work. There’s no “hook” that lets us latch on to them. Most of us who read are not morons or vapid. How do we see ourselves in these main characters? Neither character is a deep thinker or even observer of the people and situations happening around them. Neither character seems to be a driver, or even able to drive, their own destiny.
And yet… somehow Keyes and Badger are able to evoke sympathy in us for these seemingly simple characters, and that sympathy propels us along the story until the characters grow into themselves.
Flowers for Algernon
Flowers is written in first person POV, and Charlie is a moron. It’s rather difficult to read Flowers at first (unless you’ve had practice with a kid whose school told students to write phonetically and worry about spelling later):
Those misspellings aren’t mine. This is how Charlie hears the words and translates them to the page. Every time Charlie writes (in the first few chapters), it’s this painful phonetic writing with a lot of repetition (Keyes and his editor are GENIUSES, keeping just enough repetition to show us Charlie but not so much we want to gouge our eyes out).
But… Charlie is also earnest in his single-minded desire:
It’s this earnest desire to “be smart” that keeps us reading. Charlie wants very much to be smart, and I found myself reading more: why does Charlie want to be smart? What does he think he’ll get in return? Can the scientists help him?
As Charlie writes more, we see events that have happened to him during his life, some of them awful, but Charlie never saw them as awful when they happened. We see these stories from two points-of-view: Charlie before he is smart, and Charlie after. (Spoiler alert: the scientists DO make Charlie smart.) His first viewing of events pains us because we see the subtext he didn’t. We see him laughing along with his own degradation as people he thinks are his friends make fun of his deficiency.
Worse, we see the events AGAIN as Charlie re-processes them once he’s “smart” enough to see the subtext himself. (Honestly, this is one of the most relentlessly tragic books I think I’ve ever read.) Our hearts break all over again.
As Charlie “gets smart,” our sympathy for him grows and becomes sympathy for ourselves because NOW we can begin to see ourselves in him. The pre-smart Charlie couldn’t question anything. The smart-Charlie wonders about everything.
What does it mean to be human? How do you live a good life? How do you create a loving relationship with someone else? These are all questions we often struggle with and watching Charlie come at them from an educated innocence lets us see these issues from a new angle.
Keyes uses our sympathy for Charlie’s innocence and child-like desires to draw us along the story until Charlie becomes sophisticated enough to lead us on his own.
State of Grace
State of Grace starts out with a similarly child-like character. Teenaged Wren (she’s 16 or 17-ish) appears singularly interested in having fun:
Wren has both the simplistic desires of a child and the childlike ease of accepting and following authority. (And if you’ve raised/are raising a teenager, you know this is SO not the typical case!)
The first few pages are all about Wren pursuing hedonistic activities with very little responsibility of any kind. Even the teens for whom this book is written aren’t living this life, so what keeps us going?
It’s that sympathy again. Quickly, Badger shows us that not all is right in Wren’s world, and even when Wren can't (or won't) see it, we do.
Wren is experiencing something strange, something she “shouldn’t” and it’s her fear that evokes sympathy in us. We’ve all felt (especially when we were teens!) that we didn’t fit in and that not fitting in is dangerous because it means we’re all by ourselves in this big scary world. (Isolation is a cruel punishment/torture in almost every culture.)
We keep reading Grace to see how Wren handles her fear and doubts, to cheer her on when she’s feeling “prenormal.” Our sympathy keeps us reading until Wren has grown sophisticated enough (in her doubts, in her searching for truth/meaning) to lead us in her own story, just like Charlie.
Everything you read has the capacity to teach you something: about yourself, about your world, and (perhaps most importantly) how to write better. If you like this idea of engaging a reader's sympathy, you may also want to consider reading the Thomas Covenant series by Stephen Donaldson. Donaldson's anti-hero's actions are profoundly unheroic. About half the people I know who read this series (it came out in the late 70s and is STILL in print) threw the book across the room and quit forever and the other half kept going, grudgingly, after they picked the book up off the floor. That anyone kept going at all (and I was one), is, I think, a huge testament to the power of sympathy.
A thousand years ago* I wrote a post about how reading 1000 books changes your writing. I wrote a few articles*** about different techniques you can learn by reading different books. I wrote about how I really don’t like rating books. So much of rating is based on personal preference and what I like you may not and vice versa.** And then… I didn’t write anymore. Hah! That changes now.
* Three. Three years ago.
** Plus… I know just how long it can take to write, rewrite, edit, re-edit, format, re-format a book. Who am I to judge its quantitative worth? I liked it, I didn’t like it. I loved it enough to ready it a zillion times; I learned enough from reading it once. My 4 stars means nothing to you…
*** Related articles
My plan was to stop there. Wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving and then be done.
I started thinking about the first time my husband (then my fiancé) had Thanksgiving dinner at my family’s home. I remember his surprise at all the different dishes we served, his disgust at one of them*, and his confusion when he caught me and my cousin flipping the cookies upside down**. Your family traditions are a gold mine. Mine those memories to practice writing description and editing down that description to a few key details.
Family traditions are typically rich in description opportunities: What do you eat? What activities do you do? Who joins you? Where do you meet?
Food is one of the easiest things to practice describing because it’s accessible (we eat literally every day***) and it hits all the five senses: The sight of a perfectly baked pumpkin pie; the scent of cinnamon and cloves and ginger; the sound of a knife slicing thru the crisp crust and hitting the pie plate underneath; the taste of that first bite; and the smooth texture of the custard contrasting with the flakey crust.
When you’re writing a story, you probably don’t want to include all five senses in every description opportunity. Your story can easily become tedious to read! Instead, you want to pick and choose key details that help propel your story.
Show us something about your character: she hates ginger so that’s the detail you share, along with her reaction to it. Why doesn’t Mom ever remember I HATE ginger?
Show an awkward silence (instead of tell) by describing the sound of the knife hitting the pie plate. It’s a small sound and easily missed when the room is full of chatter. If it’s the only detail you share, your readers focus on it and understand all that you don’t say.
That brings me to another thing: show vs tell. It’s arguably one of the cardinal rules (if any writing rules really exist!) of fiction writing, but a lot of writers don’t know what it means. What is the difference between showing and telling and when are you doing one or the other?
Description helps show (rather than tell) a scene. Consider:
This certainly isn’t the greatest writing (shitty first draft, baby!) but it should be enough to show the difference between showing and telling. The obvious: showing is generally longer than telling. And the less obvious: I never once wrote “Steve was worried” in the second sample. I didn’t write that the cigarette ash might fall into the food. By describing the scene, by showing it, you as the reader infer that Steve is worried and what he’s worried about. (And if that didn’t come across in this first draft, I’d revise!)
So if you find yourself with some quiet time this Thanksgiving, or any celebratory event, duck away and write about it. Start with the food and try to capture all five senses. Move on to the activities. Describe people’s actions to show their emotions****. Lastly, think about picking and choosing those details to use them in a scene. How can you show this mood? How can you show increasing tension? What can we learn about this character?
And then get back out there with the family and have some pie!
* Hard-cooked eggs, boxed croutons, canned cheddar cheese soup. I can’t even find it on the internets… My mother never cooked anything without a recipe, so it had to have come from somewhere.
*** Um… *I* do. I suppose you may be fasting on occasion.
**** This also gives you the benefit of studying people so that when you write your fictional people, you have natural actions at your fingertips.
More words help provide you with more ideas, write tighter (by killing your “helping” adverbs), provide your readers with better description, and even offer a sense of “realness” or honesty to what you describe.
Back in 5th grade, my kid got vocab words. I only remember “abut” because… well… we ALL adopted the 10-year-old’s sense of humor. The vocab words stopped coming home in 7th grade and I found I missed them. Yes, I am an editor and I like words, so that was part of it. But it was more than that: your ability to communicate is based not only on how you use words, but also on which words you use. More words gives you more options.
TL;DR? New words make you write gooder, so learn more.
Ideas, more ideas!
In a previous life, I was a linguistics major (for a semester). At the time, scientists were trying to determine whether the thoughts we are able to think are determined by the language we speak. The questioning went (if I remember right!), if you don’t have a word for something, can you even think about it?
I’m sure this argument is much more complex than I’ve just written because I can still feel overcome with emotions, and think about what it feels like, without knowing the Yiddish word verklempt. And I can understand taking pleasure in someone else’s pain even if I don’t know the German word schadenfreude. (But then… I’m not always a nice person…)
On the other hand…
If I don’t know what an orrery is, then I can’t have one sitting on my character’s desk to show either a) his delight in having an antique or b) his patronage of this new field of engineering.
If I don’t have multiple words for various types of snow, do I pay attention to what kind of snow is falling out the window? (I do not. I hate snow.) Snow has no importance to me or my culture, so it’s all just snow. Snow to Inuits, however, is a pretty big deal, to the point it’s estimated they have more than 50 words to describe it.
Language helps us make sense of our world, and writing helps us make sense of our world, and reading what others have written helps us make sense of our world. The more words we have at our disposal, the better job we can do sharing our ideas.
Or the more ideas we can have in the first place. I’m not saying go out and learn all 50 words that the Inuits use for snow. That’s crazy. But… knowing there are 50 words for snow sorta* makes me want to create a frozen world where that sort of knowledge might drive an interesting plot…
* And by “sorta” I mean not at all. I’m getting cranky just thinking about how much snow must fall and for how long throughout the year for there to be 50 different kinds of it. I want you to know: I really, truly hate snow.
Kill your adverbs
She used very few words to express herself. vs She was laconic.
He was very mad. vs He was furious.
She was very hungry. vs She was famished.
The orrery was very, very old. vs It was antediluvian.
These are simple sentences that don’t necessarily capture the true essence of a better vocabulary, but bear with me here. I started writing this on Halloween, so I was in a bit of a sugar coma…
(And then I stopped writing it because I had to answer the door to some 200 little beggars. Though some were totes adorbs and some were truly scary. Kudos to the two middle-school girls dressed up as the twins from The Shining. Shudder… And then I got busy with other things and forgot to come back here. Sigh.)
Adverbs weaken your writing because they can’t be visualized. What does “very” look like? Once we’ve skipped over that “very,” all we have left to work with is “mad,” which may not be as powerful a word as you wanted.
More words at our disposal allows us to tighten our writing by ditching adverbs and other modifiers.
New words give you the opportunity to describe your scenes better.
Part of reading is creating scenes in our heads: how does what we’re reading translate to sight and sound and touch?
A leafy bush vs a hydrangea. Fruit vs a peach. Fretful whining vs querulous.
For people who know what a hydrangea is, they get a beautiful mental picture of what you’re describing. For those who don’t, maybe they’ll look it up, but even if they don’t, they’ll get “plant” from the context.
Fruit doesn’t give readers much to work with. Peach gives us everything: the feel of its skin, its color, the firmness of the flesh when you bite into it, its scent and taste. For some of us, we even get an idea of what time of year it is (or whether that peach has been imported or magically ripened).
(Sure, you probably don’t need to learn what a peach is, but you might want to learn about rambutans or dragonfruit. (I learned about these while visiting a chocolate plantation in Hawaii. Slimy little fu- Er… I did not enjoy them.))
“Mad” isn’t very nuanced (Gah! Very!). Irate, ballistic, indignant are all shades of “mad” that better describe the emotion your character is feeling.
You don’t lose anything by using a better, fancier, and/or more descriptive word except maybe a few adverbs.* But you gain a vivid mental picture of whatever you’re creating, which draws your readers in and keeps them coming back for more.
* Well, that’s not entirely true. The more specific a word you choose, the more baggage is attached to that word, so… you may need to do your research. For example, if you have a farm-to-table culture (like in, say, a pre-industrial society), then you need to know that strawberries are not typically still in season when apples ripen.
New words help you evoke a scene and add verisimilitude.
(That’s a twofer of vocab words right there in that sentence!)
If you’ve never lived in a place that has graupel or freezing fog, you may not know that these things exist. If you decide to write about a character who lives in the Seattle area, in the late fall/early winter, and you DON’T include these things, your readers who HAVE lived in Seattle may get a little testy. Pfft, they’ll think. She doesn’t know squat about Seattle. Her story better be good so that I can just ignore those problems…
Using words that are specific to a place, or even to a time, create a more realistic scene in our heads, which gives us confidence that what you’re writing is true. And having that truth in place allows us to more easily follow you into the make-believe portions of your writing: you’ve engendered trust in us.
Studying doesn’t have to stink like it did in school. You won’t be graded. You’re SAT scores won’t be affected. (Well… unless you are still a high school student, in which case… studying may stink but it will all be worth it in the end!) Far as I can tell, all the major dictionaries offer word-of-the-day or word-of-the-week posts on Pinterest and Instagram. Start flagging the words that appeal to you. You can ask for a word-of-the-day calendar next gift-giving season. When you read on your Kindle*, look up words you don’t know, or you only think you know. Look out for those writers who stretch your vocabulary (Barbara Hambly and Neal Stephenson for me) and read more of them.
And, perhaps most important, practice! New words may magically appear in your daily speech and/or writing, but only after you’ve seen them some large number of times. Quicken that process by trying them out in your writing!
* Let’s be real here: I love love love my Kindle and I have no idea whether those other ereaders are still a thing or not.
I read, and then I tell you about what I've read. Whether you want to hear about it or not...