I just finished an intriguing book. It was the kind of book that sits there taunting you – “Come on, you know you want to read me… forget about all of your other obligations and pick me up!” It was suspenseful, romantic, had colorful characters and made me think. The most surprising thing about it, to me, was the author’s name: Stephen King.
I grew up reading Carrie and Cujo and It and all those other one-word, terrifying tales by Mr. King. The book I just finished – 11/22/1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated – is nothing like those novels. King throws in some scary bits, but this is a drama, not a horror show. It’s a book about time travel, and how one decision can shape the world for decades to come. But it’s also about love and control and kindness and authenticity and tenacity and pride.
Enjoying that book got me thinking about what makes a good novel. Teachers of fiction writing stress that you have to draw the reader in, create conflict and transformation, make the reader care about your characters. The people in your books can’t be “too good to be true,” but neither can they be so flawed that readers don’t like them or identify with them.
How do writers balance all of this while they write? When writing A Scottish Ferry Tale and Scotland by Starlight, I did think quite a bit about making my characters real people, with flaws. Cassie, as I’ve heard from several readers, can be so whiny and indecisive that she irritates people. J Ralph, on the other hand, might have been crafted a bit too smoothly, as I’ve been asked more than once if he exists in real life. (Answer: not as far as I know, though my significant other is Ralph-like in many ways, minus the Scots accent and the large blue dog.)
Conflict and transformation are standards of fiction writing, be it a novel, short story or play. You could argue that some genres of fiction are perfectly predictable. In romance novels, there’s almost always a happy ending; in mystery novels, the mystery is solved. In chick lit, the lead character “grows up” in some way, and changes. So why do we keep reading? Why was I drawn toward 11/22/1963 for over a week, taking nearly every spare moment to sit down and soak up a few pages of a world that didn’t even exist?
My off-the-cuff answer is that we cannot see our own futures, but there’s a part of all of us that aches to know what will happen next. I have no idea what’s going to happen to me today. That unknowableness (yes, I made up that word) is frustrating and magical, all at once. When we get a chance to know the unknowable – through a good novel, film, TV series or play – we can scratch that itch that can never be scratched in real life.
Thank you, Nancy for sharing your thoughts with us.