A long time ago, I remarked to my father how difficult calculus was. He remarked real life wasn’t a cakewalk and wait until I had to face life complete with a mortgage, a teenaged daughter and bills to pay. I looked at him like he was crazy. What could be more difficult than calculus unless it was trying to stay awake while reading my biology textbook?
Fast forward a number of years. Here I am, ensconced in that real life my father was talking about, complete with my very own teenaged daughter. At the monthly writers’ meeting I attend, I joke that I often feel like a character in a YA novel, the beleaguered mother of the heroine. While I know better than to base any of my characters on real people, real life sometimes has a way of sneaking up and teaching me about the concepts I’m trying to grasp as an author. This week my teenaged daughter Kath is hitting home some of the messages craft authors diligently write about. Since Kath doesn’t read my blog, I’ll go ahead and use her as my guinea pig example.
Kath is on her high school debate team. Yesterday she left to attend a debate tournament in another city, in another state. So far this illustrates the point so many craft authors try to make to us newer writers. You can write about a character but without urgency, immediacy, and the ability to relate, there’s not going to be an emotional connection with the reader. My first two sentences prove that. There’s no chord struck with the first two sentences. A teenager is part of her debate team and is attending a debate tournament. So what?
Urgency. Writers are urged to add a dimension to their character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts to up the urgency aspect. If something strikes home in a way to promote urgency, it can add to the tension and suspense in the book.
Did I mention the tournament is taking place in Massachusetts on Saturday and Sunday? Have you heard the weather forecast for New England? Another blizzard is expected with snowfall accumulations of up to a foot. Here is Kath, excited and nervous to go on her first national tournament, a tournament that will be her gauge about her skill as a novice debater who has co-championed in her last two events, and depending on when the weather system hits, the tournament may or may not go on as planned. Even if Logan’s backlog is cleared by Tuesday, her home state may be or may not be in for a significant weather event of its own. Her hometown airport may or may not be closed the day she’s coming back.
I’ll grant that Kath’s urgency isn’t on par with a grade A thriller, but it’s hitting home the need for a sense of urgency in my own works in progress.
The ability to relate. Another level that is often stressed in craft books is the need for the hero or heroine to be written in such a way as to strike a chord in the reader. The reader has to find something in the hero or heroine that’s likeable, that’s relatable.
Let’s return to Kath’s debate tournament. Teenagers aren’t always the easiest characters to find a bond with. While we adults all went through that stage, some teenagers are as prickly as cactus. How do I add details to the story that will make readers like Kath and relate to her somehow (knowing all the while with my example that Kath is a real person whose name and identifiers are being changed)? I go into her backstory to add that detail but notice it’s a little later in the blog. Kath has recently been diagnosed with VHL, a rare genetic condition. Without going into too much detail, it’s enough to say her eyesight in her left eye isn’t what it was before she was diagnosed with VHL. If this were a book and not a blog, there’d be more detail about the extent and severity of the disease, but for now, it’s enough to say this trip has been a major incentive for her. The details of why the trip is important for her (recent life changing diagnosis) add enough for us to like her more and relate to her more. Who hasn’t looked forward to something in a tough time?
Urgency and the ability to relate. These are two traits that can go a long way in adding depth to your main character. Is the conflict lodged between the character and their goal such as to promote a sense of urgency? Is the character likable so that the reader can relate to them and root for them to overcome the conflict?
As a writer, I’m trying to incorporate these details in my work in progress. As a mother, I’m on the edge of my seat for news about the blizzard in New England, knowing that will impact whether the tournament is able to continue.
Have any recent events in your life helped you delve into the craft of writing? Let me know.