Or, why the words “entertainment” and “escape” aren’t all that helpful.
This is going to sound dumb, but I’ve struggled over the last couple of years with what adult fiction is for. The answer is obvious: entertainment. Or escape. I don’t get it. But then I’m the person who searches for the keys when they’re already in her pocket.
Let me contrast what middle-grade fiction is for.
One, it’s for entertainment. It has to compete with TV, movies, the Internet, video games, etc. It has to compete with Goosebumps and Erin Hunter and Harry Potter. It has to be entertaining for people who aren’t jaded, who miss implications, who have some fundamentally different emotional reactions.
Two, it’s a variation of the same story: you will be able to make it without your parents. Eight- to twelve-year-olds aren’t little kids anymore. Things don’t just happen to them. They make choices. Part of this involves the authority figure either stepping back (which can feel like abandonment) or not stepping back (which can feel like imprisonment). There’s a lot of crap to work out.
And so when I write middle-grade fiction, I have clear constraints.
I don’t have anything similar to work with, for adults. “Adult” is too broad a category. “Entertain” is too big a word.
But some ideas have made themselves obvious lately.
The adults who are likely to buy books tend to have ordinary lives. They produce something of use to society, have more or less stable personal lives, and are sane enough to function on a daily basis. They have a modicum of wisdom.
How many main characters are wise? –That is, how many of them start out as wise? How long does their personal journey feature as the center of the story, if they are wise?
Sherlock Holmes. Not wise. Poirot. Not wise. Both intelligent men. You can be as smart as you like and not wise. Scarlett O’Hara. Huh. Luke Skywalker, feckless farm boy, is the center of Star Wars, not Obi-Wan Kenobi. Finding Nemo. The Incredibles. Disney has an empire based on characters who don’t start out making the best decisions. So do a lot of romance writers. You want to slap some sense into Bella but she sells books.
“Flawed characters are interesting.” I’ve heard that a lot, and people usually follow that up with, “because you can relate to them.” But there are a lot of flawed characters I can’t relate to. Read the news, go to work, you’ll see a few. What’s so great about flaws?
So here’s my guess: Great characters aren’t just flawed or unwise. They’re passionate to the point of action.
Ordinary people can’t get away with it. Our passions are carried out on a once-in-a-lifetime basis, if that. Our jobs are dull. Or if they are exciting, they aren’t exciting as often as we get in books. A new adventure every night. Even firefighters spend a lot of time standing around. Even ER doctors have to do paperwork. The best characters live unbalanced lives, where they do not have to dot the is and cross the ts, or if they do, it’s because they have OCD, like Monk.
I recently read a book that was otherwise lovely, but the main character was entirely too reasonable. It was like watching an office struggle carried out on a big screen: two coworkers striving for attention, with the main character doing nothing to further her place in the battle. I could relate, but I couldn’t really get into the character. The character wasn’t perfect–she held back information that could have resolved things in a couple of words. Too shy. Too restrained. I wanted to smack her. “Communicate more. Be mildly self-righteous less. Fight back.” But. It was realistic.
I can’t think of a single book that I enjoyed that I read in order to get wisdom from it. Someone recommended I read one, and I had to put it down because I felt like I was indulging the woman’s self-destructive behaviors. It was a biography. Great writing. Made me feel ill, which was maybe the point.
Sure, I have gained some wisdom from books. Mostly kids’ books, because a lot of the conclusions that kids’ books come to is, “Be nice to other people; it often turns out handy.” Which it does.
Adult books aren’t constrained like that. There’s no one story that we can all relate to or one lesson we all need to learn. Thus different genres, I guess. But there is one thing that people who tend to buy books need. To feel something, no matter how foolish. Maybe the more foolish the better.
I told you I wasn’t so good with the obvious.