Last time, I posted about identifying a probing question at the heart of a novel, something not limited to the book’s plot, something which readers could relate to, something which had implications for the real world in which they lived. Some of these questions may be broadly moral (when is it OK to take a life?) or philosophical (which is better, to live in happy delusion or to face up to painful truths?) but I was struck by how many of the questions raised in subsequent comments centered on identity. I had raised this focus in my Harry Potter example, so maybe that stacked the deck a little, but I think that the popularity of such questions speaks to a basic truth about readers; we may have different moral, philosophical (political, religious etc.) viewpoints, but we all think about ourselves as individuals, as people with problems and potential. This is, I think, central to the very idea of the novel in which character is king, in which (contrary to film, say) getting into a fictional person’s head has always been one of the form’s special intimacies.
At its heart, a novel is, I think, the intellectual, emotional, even spiritual journey of a central character or characters (though that plural should be taken as suggesting a very small number), a journey which the readers share. Along the way, through partaking of the fictional character’s crises, dilemmas and discoveries, the reader is invited to ask Who am I? What do I want to be? What happens to me when things I take as central to my sense of self change or die?
Tricky though, particularly in fantasy, I think, where we put such a premium on world building, on action and adventure, on magic and other things which, if not well handled, can make the book feel remote, disconnected from reality entirely. If the book is purely escapist, something quite apart from the reader’s sense of herself and the world, it misses the opportunity to raise the central question I have been discussing in a compelling way. It might be wonderful fun, but its pleasures are only in offering a vision of what is not, and I think that for thinking people—for thoughtful people—that kind of appeal pales quickly (or becomes a pathology, though that’s material for another post).
So how do we write the question which will extend beyond the fiction so that it twines itself around the reader’s life?
I have, of course, no formula, no sure answers (only questions: only ever questions), but I can offer some possibilities.
First, I think that we need to believe in the power of the question and see how it works. The key to this, I think, simply comes from mulling our favorite books as I suggested we do last time, probing for the issues our conscious mind may have passed over, but parts of our imagination had seized upon anyway. I’m convinced that the books we love, particularly as we get older and more reflective, speak to us directly, connect to our lives and sense of self. Look at the things you read most fervently, the books you want to reread, the books whose sequels you look forward to and ask yourself what you think the book is asking of you.
Second, think about your own life, its hurdles, its rewards, where you want to be in five years, ten, fifty, and what it is about those goals that appeal to you. Their specifics may be yours alone, but the impulse toward them, the kinds of satisfaction you hope they will bring are likely to be common to lots of other people. Save these thoughts and use them, find ways to build versions of them (as modified to fit the universe of your story) into your novel.
Third, discover the question through the writing of the book. You may be able to build a great novel from the starting point of the question, but for most of us that approach will feel clunky, the question itself seeming intrusive or overworked. Rather, tell the story you want to tell, but at some point—for me it’s usually as I complete the first draft—step back from it, think about it and ask yourself what the book is about. You may have to angle the book in the light to see it, and you may need to change parts of it to develop the question more fully, but it’s probably already there, albeit embryonically.
Fourth, point it up, underscore it, but carefully, without allowing the question to turn into a hammer with which you beat the characters or your reader. A few words here and there, a snatch of dialogue, an unusually precise bit of insightful thought from a character, a particularly rich or developed image from the narrator may be all you need.
Fifth, as with all things in writing, accept that not everyone will get it. Some will, and others will without realizing that they have gotten it. That latter group is, perhaps, what you want to be the largest constituency of your readership. You aren’t trying to show off your cleverness (always a danger for some of us!). You’re trying to make a connection with the reader which doesn’t get in the way of the story and its characters. Better that they stumble upon the question a week after reading the book, while they’re talking about it to a friend, or walking the dog, or taking a shower. If you can leave a reader making discoveries about themselves as well as the book a week after they’ve finished it, I think you may have something.