Beware the Ides

As today is the Ides of March, it seems appropriate to talk warnings and cautionary tales. I’ve cracked open two books recently that have completely failed to grab my attention, and both are critically acclaimed bestsellers. The first, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, lost me after about twelve pages and has been chucked into my Goodreads “Did-not-finish” shelf. I’m stubbornly still keeping the second, J.K. Rowling’s Casual Vacancy, on my nightstand and will get through it one of these days. I’ve heard a few other comments about Rowling’s first outing for adults, mostly that the book is too dark, too disparate from the HP series. This hasn’t bothered me at all. I love authors like Audrey Niffenegger who can create novels that inhabit completely separate universes. No, I had the same problem with both books. Despite their flawless depictions and gorgeous language, I couldn’t sympathize with any of the characters. Franzen’s cast seemed like they existed under a glass dome, every feature and habit brightly lit but in a clinical, airless environment. Rowling’s characters are breathing, but she cycles through at least a dozen different people in the opening pages, never stopping on one long enough to develop a reader relationship, and the only thing they have in common is that they all hate each other.

While I’m not exactly enjoying myself–yet! I still have high hopes for Rowling–the experiences are invaluable for me as a writer.

Warning: There is no substitute for character sympathy.

It doesn’t matter if you are a critic’s darling or the richest, most successful writer on the planet. If you can’t create a connection between your characters and the reader, the book becomes challenging. And who am I to say that’s not exactly what Franzen and Rowling wanted? I’m sure they do like to throw a good gauntlet down when the fancy strikes. It’s just not the way I like to be challenged as a reader. I want someone to root for, someone to identify with. Some of the negative feedback I received on The Dragon Keeper traveled this exact ground. Readers could not identify with my isolated and defensive heroine. If I could re-write her today, I wouldn’t change her, but I would try to foster a reader connection with her earlier in the story. I would give them a quicker way in. So thank you to two literary gods, for helping me navigate the ides.