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Investment

Here's a familiar scene: It's a Sunday afternoon, and I'm in my bedroom crying my eyes out. Note that I am past the age when this generally happens at random. Nope, it's not a medley of hormones that's making me cry like a little girl. I'm reading Plain Kate by Erin Bow, and the misery is so poignant that for the last quarter of the book, I give up trying to choke back the tears.

Okay, maybe not so familiar. It's a different book every time, and it doesn't happen super often, but when it does I always marvel that the authors of these novels can rip through me like that. I spend hours puzzling out how a book can make me feel the way it does, hoping I might one day have the power to get to a reader like that. Not to produce tears, necessarily - I levitate to lighter stuff - but to call up deep emotions in a reader, to make them forget the particulars of their own lives because they're so lost in mine. It's pretty ambitious, I know!

What creates this poignancy? Understatement, for one thing. I have a tendency to explain and explain what a character is feeling, but I don't think that's the way to go. Two or three words can say more than a whole slew of them. Maybe the clever portrayal of a few strong relationships that keep a character going, just like strong relationships keep real people going. Confusion about how a character truly feels about another is another thing that tends to draw us in and make us really feel the story. Yet a lot of these things can work in the opposite way as well. When an author is vague on what a character feels, I sometimes find I can't relate to the protagonist. When I was reading The One-Armed Queen by Jane Yolen, the lack of insight into Scillia's thought processes kept me distant. It's a thin line and I don't know where to draw it when I'm writing, but I can feel it when I'm reading.

An ever-so-slightly less complicated issue is the issue of investment. (No, not the financial kind.) What makes us decide that we should invest in a character? I'm a relatively easy reader this way - I pick the main character's side quite quickly as long as the main character is semi-competent and well-intentioned. Still, not everyone's that easy, and even I have trouble caring about a character now and then. For instance, when a character is too badass/perfect (yes, it's a common problem) I just get fed up with that character. I was reading Lynn Kurland's Star of the Morning and its sequels last month, and I just couldn't get past the fact that the main character Morgan was the most beautiful woman most of the characters had ever laid eyes on, yet somehow also the best swordswoman in the land (and a powerful mage to boot). How am I ever supposed to like this girl? Contrast her with Tamora Pierce's Keladry of Mindelan (Protector of the Small) and it's easy to see what's wrong with Kurland's protagonist. She's much too perfect. She hasn't had to compromise between being a fighter and being a beauty. Kel had to balance being a knight with being a woman, and that's what made her so dear to me. I've never had her problem, of course, but I've had to compromise between plenty of other things: friends and family, school and a social life, fitting in and being true to myself. We all have. We're real readers, and we need real conflict - even if it's in a fantasy world.

So: in order to feel connected to a character we need to have conflict within and around the character. The sooner this conflict is introduced, the better. In Juliet Marillier's Child of the Prophecy (another of those books I cry shamelessly during), the main conflict is Fainne's isolation from the normal people around her (among other things). The second paragraph of the novel is as follows:

"There was a pattern to it. There were patterns to everything, if you knew how to look. My father taught me that. The real skill lay in staying outside them, in not letting yourself be caught up in them. It was a mistake to think you belonged. Such as we were could never belong. That, too, I learned from him."

BOOM. In one short paragraph, we've stumbled across the crux of Fainne's problem: belonging. We see her jaded father, her obedience, her intelligence - without very much mention of anything at all. This is why some books are magic, and others are not. Winter term of this year I took a fiction writing class (WR 224 at Oregon State University, from Tanya Katz) and we kept coming back to this issue: how to say a lot without using very many words. A short introduction to the problem is all we need, but we need it before we've come too far into the page count. A consistent theme is worth more to me than an amazing plot.

In summary: invest, invest, invest! Anyway, that's just my favorite flavor. What really gets you to fall in love with a story? I'd love to hear what others think.

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