Four Key Ingredients – Part Two

Wrestling with Originality:  A real-life Example.

It’s easy to talk in the abstract about things good fiction needs, but “originality” is an issue I have been wrestling with for real lately.  Recent “market research” – checking book jacket blurbs in stores and online – revealed a mass of new titles in the fantasy sub-genre where I have been working, in a two steps forward one back fashion, for several years.  Now that even the diehard fans are satiated with vampires, many hopeful writers have trooped to Faerie.

How many?  Well, two of the first half-dozen titles I sampled featured half-human/half-fairy protagonists – like mine.  A few discoveries like that throw the very possibility of being original into question.

I noticed something else too – several of these new books reuse a plot that was common in 1980’s adult fantasy – a war of good and bad fairies in which a human participant somehow tips the balance.  What I suspected then, I am sure of now – that storyline originated in the world of Dungeons & Dragons and online role-playing games.  It is simply not present in the original sources.

Given this seeming recycling of recycled plots, my choice seems fairly straightforward – give it up or dig deeper.  Donald Maass’ writing is full of encouragement for the latter choice, and I’m getting excited about some of the new ideas welling up since I started this process.  Here are a few of my current thoughts:

  • Go back to original sources.  In traditional fairy stories, there are no “good” and “bad” fairies – all encounters are problematic for humans.  Maass’ criterion of “inherent conflict” is built into the old tales and ballads of the relation between humans and the fey.
  • I’ve found a simple way around my heroine’s ancestry, since being half-fairy is now a cliche.  I like this even better.
  • I am probably going to rename the fairies and Faerie the way Sharon Shinn did in her 1995 YA story, Summer’s at Castle Auburn.  There the land and people are called, “Alora.”  Everyone gets it in “quack like a duck” fashion.

The point of giving these personal details is to underscore my belief in Donald Maass’ suggested lines of digging deeper.  “What if?” is a good question for any storyteller.  I have a long way to go, but I am enjoying the process again, and confident that I am on the right track.

Gut Emotional Appeal – Donald Maass’ Fourth Criterion for Really Good Novels:

There’s a formula for this:  create a likable character who must struggle to achieve something important.  Good as far as it goes, which is not very far.  And never mind that someone like Jonathan Franzen can throw out the advice and still win critical acclaim – the rest of us should not try that at home.  Most writers I know really care about their characters; the problem is how to make an audience care.

At a recent conference, a presenter used the Michelangelo analogy – chipping away what doesn’t belong – for the writer’s craft as well.  I think this is pertinent to the character breakthroughs I watch others make – they keep working, and eventually come to characters who somehow embody some of their own deeper truths.  In practice it isn’t nearly as weighty and ponderous as it sounds.

One critique group friend has long been enamored of Raymond Chandler type hard boiled detectives, with a dash of James Bond thrown in.  My friend worked and worked, creating better and better versions of characters we have seen before.  Recently, his own humor and mischievousness got into the mix, and a hero emerged who parallels, in my opinion, the tongue-in-cheek charm of the chick-lit detective who curses the bad guys if she breaks a nail while taking them down.  My friend’s character, Jonathan, a wastrel ex-Royal Marine, returns fire when assassins attack him on the golf course, furious that they ruined his score.  The battle had me in stitches as it caught up a foursome of startled ministers who realize the Lord moves in more mysterious ways than they had imagined.

Another critique group friend, writing about a troubled teen, made a quieter but equally profound breakthrough.  You see it in a little shift.  The bravado falls away, and the character is quietly real and telling her truth beyond any stereotype.

We have to start with characters and situations that matter to us, and then go deeper into ourselves that we expected – this much I am sure of.  How and when that happens is a mystery.  None the less, I find Donald Maass’ criteria:  Plausibility, Conflict, Originality, and Gut Emotional Appeal valuable questions to ask of my own or anyone else’s writing.

You can’t always say what or how but you know writing that has these things.  And if they are missing?  It simply means there is more chipping away to do.

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