It’s a sobering thought to realise that there are certain authors I'll never read again. Or at least, not until one of theirs is the only audio-book left in the library and I'm desperate and about to embark on a long car journey. There is a terrifying Sword of Damocles that hangs over the heads of actors, which says that you’re only as good as your last performance, and the same is true of authors. Somehow it doesn’t seem to matter that you enjoyed their stuff till this latest endeavour; your overriding memory will be of their
most recent work and if it’s a weak one, you don’t want more of the same.
What causes this sudden change in an author who seemed to have a winning formula and then lost it between books five and six?
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but if a book doesn’t have the same "grab-factor" that its predecessors had, even if it’s been highly recommended by a friend, then I just can’t get into it. If we as writers could work out what that certain something is, then we could clone it. If we as readers could work it out, then our bookshelves wouldn’t be so full of almost new books that have had only their first three chapters read.
I’ve narrowed the problem down to one common denominator: characters. To put it simply, I can’t read a book whose characters I don’t like. And I can’t work out which character I’m supposed to like if the author keeps head-hopping from one to the other and not giving us much to like in any of them. If she can’t decide which one she wants to follow, then how can she expect her readers to know?
In my last blog I discussed the magic triangle of Characters, Plot and Setting. An important factor to bear in mind when deciding on those characters is Point Of View, or POV. Which one of your novel’s characters is the most important one, and how can you make this clear to your readers? As a reader, I hate it when writers muddy the waters. If I can't work out by chapter three who the main character is, or if I have worked it out but still don't like any of them much, then the whole book becomes a waste of time, sits on my shelf gathering dust and eventually gets dumped at the SPCA’s used bookshop so it can irritate someone else.
Joseph Campbell tells us in The Hero with A Thousand Faces that all memorable stories have at their heart a hero on a journey. Christopher Vogler re-iterates this in The Writer’s Journey so where does this leave a writer who tries to tell several stories at once, if she wants to avoid a muddied point of view?
That's one of the biggest fears I have with writing multiple POVs, because it needs to be very clear to the reader who he or she is supposed to be rooting for. The Dickensian omniscient treatment of the 19th-century doesn't point the lazy 21st-century reader in the right direction.
I usually avoid reading books that have multiple POVs, and yet I love Kate Morton’s
writing. If there is an exception to every rule, then Kate Morton disproves mine. Why? Because even though she writes in several different time frames at once, she has a definite central character in each time frame and it's pretty clear who you are supposed to be following. She also makes sure that there is something that we like about that character. The woman is a genius!
Screenwriter Blake Snyder wrote a book called Save the Cat! The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need and the reasoning behind his rather quirky title is this: Early in your story, put in a scene where the main character does something that endears him to the audience and makes that audience root for him. For example, a scene in which he might save someone’s cat. If we can see some act of selfless goodness in a character who may otherwise be riddled with flaws, we will want to see more of that, and that makes us root for him and follow him to the end.
If this character is also the one who has the most to lose or gain, then he has potentially the steepest learning curve and thus the most turbulent journey as well. If we feel that there may be redemption ahead for him, then we’re keen to join him on that journey. But if the writer kills him off at 80% of the way through the novel and ends it with a secondary character suddenly growing into his shoes, we can’t help but feel a little cheated. We all enjoy a nail-biting twist, but if there’s no “save the cat” scene for us to remember about that secondary character, then the author has failed us a second time and we don’t want to read another disappointment from them.
So how does this relate to my writing and why am I being so critical?
Well, some months back I had a few problems with my current WIP. I had muddied the waters and allowed too much concentration on a character who wasn’t the main one. Yes, I liked him (I fall in love with all my main male characters while I’m writing them), but the main female was pale and wishy-washy (as they sometimes are before I’ve fleshed them out properly), plus I hadn’t made it clear enough by the fourth draft that she was the main character.
So I gave this character a major re-vamp by rewriting her into the first person. This made me think about the plot from inside her brain instead of from inside my own. Then I worked out which of the male character’s chapters could be told better from her POV, and rewrote them thus, with her inner emotional reaction to them. Viola! She’s grown a personality and a lot more guts to go with it. And the male who counter-balances her has lost none of his strength along the way.
It all works out much better now. At least I think so. One of these days the book will be ready for you to read, and then you can tell me what you think.