What Adult Fiction is For

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?

Nothing.

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.

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9 Comments

  1. Sometimes the obvious needs saying. Besides, I don’t think it’s all THAT obvious, and I do think you put your finger on at least one major driving reason why adults do fiction. “Passionate to the point of action.” Well said.

  2. Hmm, that was actually kind of handy for me today. I’m trying to write a scene in which two reasonable people argue. I want it to be an authentic fight and they do both have reason on their side, although one is clearly right. In a way, it’s a perfect battle–they’re both right from their own perspective (except we know that one perspective is wrong). But I don’t argue in real life. I walk away from fights. I smooth things over. I’ve been stuck for days, trying to find each character’s words and not have both of them simply fall back on rational discourse to seek common ground. Thinking of the approach from the perspective of what the reader needs–to feel something, no matter how foolish–it’s immediately obvious that I’m in the wrong point of view. I need to be in the point of view of the character who feels most passionately (the one who’s wrong), not the one whose side the reader will take. Sorry, that’s probably confusing–but suffice to say, I found this helpful this morning. Thank you!

  3. De

    Teramis – what do you think about Kafka? His stories point to a hole in my logic.

    Sarah – Ohhhh, yes. That’s a good way to use it, to pick who your POV character would be. I like it.

  4. So true! I have beta read too many novels where the main character doesn’t seem to *want* something. Or, if she does want something, she doesn’t want it madly and passionately. She doesn’t work her butt off to get it. She doesn’t fight for it.

    I, too, have written stories like this. They now all live in a dark closet and will never see the light of day.

    Want-passion-action. I should tape these three words above my computer!

  5. De

    Margaret – Ugh, I have a ton of those stories too, and I’ve heard that advice about a million times and said, “Okay, fine, if THAT’s the fashion.” No clue what it meant, because it was too obvious, I guess.

    Personally, I’d put passion first, but those are good words 🙂

  6. The stories that I like the most are realistic. Sometimes it’s even better if I want to slap the main character; by the time all is said and done, she’s (ideally) learned something, and I’ve inadvertently learned something about myself. Your Bella example is brilliant. She’s young, naive, in love for the first time… It’s a little nauseating. I wanted her to see that she was giving up everything just for one guy, but she actually never sees it. Meanwhile, I learned that I’m a lot more independent than I thought I was.

    Part of why I love adult fiction so much is because of the lack of boundaries—and on the flip side, boundaries are why I love middle grade so much. There is still an eleven-year-old inside of me who remembers what it was like to be left home alone for the first time. (Luckily, the worst thing that ever happened to me was getting gum tossed in my hair. I had to figure out how to get it out in time to pick up my little sister from her school.)

    The struggles are different, but what always draws me in is the character. I have to admit that I easily related to Bella’s clumsiness—even while wanting to shake some sense into her. I’m definitely a character person, and that’s always my goal in my writing: creating real characters.

  7. De

    Liz – how would you say your YA characters deal with boundaries? I’m not a YA writer. Maybe I’ll pick it up as Ray gets older, I don’t know. But right now, I don’t always get it.

  8. Hmn. I’ve only written one YA and less than half of another, and both main characters handle boundaries completely differently. In Sade on the Wall, Sade respects boundaries. She understands what they’re there for. She’s had good role models to illustrate how important they are. In If Juliet’s Father was a Nazi—which is probably YA—Frankie is actively trying to overcome boundaries because she knows they’re wrong, and because she wants to protect the two people she loves most.

    I’ve never thought about it before, but it’s really interesting, how different these two books are! Maybe YA is like that. Maybe there is a fine line between middle grade and adult, and that’s YA. It makes sense. It seems to be a pattern in all the YA I’ve read.

  9. De

    That the main character has yet to work out what the boundarries are? I like that.

    I’d say Sade has some clear boundaries, and her question is when to break them, which she does from time to time.

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