Have you ever read a book that you liked, but you just didn’t love? You’re not sure why, and then it strikes you: you don’t care enough about what happens to the main character. If they fell off a tall building you’d be mildly upset but you wouldn’t need a box of tissues; once you’ve closed the covers, you forget about the book and its characters entirely.
Authors dread this happening with their book when it goes out into the hands of readers. I don’t expect everyone to love my books, but to just not care? That would be the worse thing of all, because what I want when people read my books is for them to feel. It might be joy, it might be fear, it might be intense dislike, or it might be wonder: I don’t get to choose the feelings that my readers have but I certainly hope they have some feelings.
On people not liking my main characters
I know for a fact that not everyone has feelings about my book. I can thank Goodreads for this knowledge, because it tells me in all its raw and sometimes badly spelled honesty exactly what people think. And so I know that not everyone loved Gaelle, the main character in my first book, What is Left Over, After.
When I first read some of these reviews, I was shocked. Why didn’t people like her? I loved her. She was my character, my creation. What had I done with her that caused people not to like her, or to feel ambivalent towards her?
On lucky me working with LIZ BYRSKI
And then I kind of forgot about it because I moved on to writing another book. And in this other book, My New York book, I have been incredibly lucky. Because I have been allowed to write it as a PhD at university. And just a couple of months ago, my supervisors changed and I now have LIZ BYRSKI supervising me! (And yes, she deserves capital letters!) Could my life be any better? Probably not. I realise what an incredible blessing it is to learn from an author who has published so many books, which have reached hundreds of thousands of readers.
Liz and I were having a conversation about my book recently and we were talking about the main character, who I love, of course; I made her. But as we talked, a little light bulb went off in my head and I realised that it was my own fault that some people didn’t like Gaelle in If I Should Lose You. It’s because I sometimes hold too much back.
On wanting to trust my readers, but perhaps not giving them enough
Let me explain. I underwrite. My first drafts are around 50,000 words and editors are always telling me to flesh out the story and the characters. I have a natural aversion to spoon-feeding my readers; I trust that they are smart enough to work out what is going on without me having to tell them.
But sometimes this makes me leave things out entirely, things that are really important to making people care about my characters. The stuff I’m referring to is the full and deep explication of my character’s thoughts and feelings and emotions; sure, readers want to be shown a lot of this stuff, rather than told, but readers also want to feel. And how can they feel if the feelings are hinted at, suggested, but never quite there?
For me, this means bringing my characters fears more fully to life. I believe that fear is at the heart of all good drama: what we are afraid of doing, or of not doing, what we are afraid of feeling, what we are afraid or learning, what we are afraid of losing, what we are afraid of loving. I’m so glad I’ve made this discovery now. Because I was in danger of sending another book out into the world which some readers would have enjoyed, but which other readers may not have cared enough about because I hadn’t given them enough to care about.
So I’ve returned to do another edit and this edit is FUN! I feel as if I know what I’m doing. And the image on the left is my thinking process in every scene; it’s making my book so much better. And longer! At last count, it was 109,000 words! For someone whose previous books have been around the 65,000 word mark, this seems excessive. But it’s always easier to trim, once I have everything in there that I think it needs.
On not knowing everything
So, you see, even after publishing two books, I don’t know everything. I’m still learning and working things out and making mistakes and trying again. And that’s all part of the fun of it.
How about you? Have you read a book where you just couldn’t muster up enough emotion to care about the characters? What makes you care about characters you read about?
And if you’re a writer, do you over-write or under-write? Do you pour all the emotions in, or do you hold it back, like I’ve done? Please leave a comment below and let me know.