A Reader’s Opinion
While I’ve been laid low with back problems this week, I took the opportunity to read a novel by P G Wodehouse. Like all his novels, Jill the Reckless is a great story! Six stars out of five. The author has created a memorable cast of characters and, like Agatha Christie, has such a delightful way with words and phrases.
Writers like D E Stevenson, Wodehouse, Sayers, Christie, etc., used strong story lines and an interesting cast of minor characters to showcase their heroes. There was a STORY in their story. Even in tales with a romance woven in, the overall focus was as much on the main character’s triumph over adverse circumstances as on their relationships.
Have modern genre formulas become like a corset, rigidly holding writers to a specific shape deemed to be attractive in our day? Stories tend to be so focused on the conflict between the two love interests. Furious outbursts, insecure characters full of negative self-talk, a lot of internal dialogue use up word count without adding variety. I read one novel awhile back where I’d estimate 75% of the word count was spent on the MC’s conversations with himself — basically why she’d never have him anyway so forget it.
I find almost no negative self-talk in those older novels. Miss Marple doesn’t constantly berate herself for snooping. Lord Peter may babble about his silly curiosity but the writer doesn’t devote long paragraphs to his self-chastisement. Wodehouse’s characters act and react in a lively way; they spend little time mentally rehashing their own actions and reactions.
In real life negative self-talk is usually destructive. It’s the devil on our shoulder that berates us for how we are without giving us any power to change. Sometimes we do need to admit faults and make changes, but negative self-talk rather tends to paralyze.
So, in our age of promoting self-esteem and ridding ourselves of guilt, why do we allow our book characters to indulge in so much self-criticism? Do readers really find it that appealing?
Imagine yourself standing in a long supermarket checkout line and striking up a conversation with the customer in front of you. You notice she has two boxes of Exquisite Caramel Ice Cream. You’re quite fond of it yourself. You say so, and she replies:
“I really shouldn’t be buying this. I know it’s not the best for me; it’ll only go to my hips and I really should lose weight. I can hardly resist the delicious taste but I know I shouldn’t indulge and it’s so foolish of me to be buying it. My best friend’s brother’s such a hunk and I wish some romance would take off between us but he makes fun of me for eating it and says I’m turning into a dumpling. Well I don’t like him anyway. But still, even if the taste is exquisite and I can hardly resist, I am just getting fat eating it every day. What kind of a wimp am I? I need to develop some backbone and not ever touch the stuff again. But then I might as well eat because no guy’s ever going to look at me anyway.”
Worse luck, every few days you visit that same supermarket, stand in line beside the Exquisite Caramel Ice Cream addict, with another two boxes in her cart, and hear her recite her insecurities again.
Welcome to the modern novel. No, not all. But too many. Recently read another one myself.
Let’s say you’ve been asked to edit some current book — your choice. So you open it in a new window, start at Chapter Two and delete all the negative self-talk. How much will be left?
Can you fill in those gaps with ACTION? An outside CRISIS they must deal with? Other issues going on apart from main character blow-ups. Maybe leave just a phrase here and there to let the reader know those feelings are still in the background. Once in every chapter is often enough, IMO.
Can you add some ENVIRONMENT? In one story I read, the female MC and her parents had joined a wagon train. Though they would have been crossing amazing new territory, scenic description was scant. (Saves research, I guess.) Pages were filled with how she was attracted to/ couldn’t let herself fall for/ the scout or he was attracted to/ couldn’t let himself fall for/ her.
What about adding a new CHARACTER? A jolly old auntie or uncle to give readers a break from the intense focus on the lovers’ spats. Wodehouse added the smooth-talking, conniving Uncle Chris who squandered Jill’s inheritance in poor stock market investments, but was always ready to fleece some new lamb. The author devotes some paragraphs to Jill’s assessment and acceptance of her uncle’s nature and weaknesses; these in turn show Jill’s compassionate nature.
Maybe you could add a nosy neighbor? If the story already has one, write in another and have the two interact with each other and with the main characters. Sprinkle in their WRY COMMENTS ABOUT HUMAN NATURE and each other. Have them play “Pass the Rumor.” Display your hero’s nature in the way they deal with these minor characters.
I believe these subplots are what made novels so memorable and writers so successful in years gone by. As a reader, I’d like to encourage all writers to loosen the constrictions of formula and put more STORY in your stories.