Writing a book? This better be personal!

January 27, 2010 | Articles

A friend of mine, Intrigue author Ann Voss Peterson, has a mantra concerning books and the main characters’ goals and motivations. It needs to be personal and it needs to be important, very important at least to the character—to the world is even better. (but that doesn’t work for every type of book)

Now, I KNOW this, Ann has told me enough times I should, but somehow knowing and doing don’t always go together.

Right now, I’m revising a paranormal young adult novel that my agent had sent to seven houses. Two of these houses in particular had a lot of feedback and said they would be interested in seeing the project again if I chose to revise it.

So, I’m revising. First seven houses is not the world and if two professionals have given me some feedback I’m at least going to give it careful consideration before sending it out to anyone else.

Neither of them said—Hey, dummy, remember the protagonist’s goal should be personal and important. But then I’ve found when people have an issue with a book they seldom pin it to the board quite that neatly. They say things like “I’m not believing this character.” or “I didn’t quite care as much about (fill in blank) as I wanted to.”

So, ignorant to the fact that I had made a basic error that I know darn well better than to make, I started reading.

And there it was—or wasn’t. My protagonist’s goal was personal and it was important…kind of. But it wasn’t important enough. And as I read further past the first plot twist when things start to go south, that personal connection faded. She still had the personal thing going for the initial goal, but now the “get us out of trouble right now” goal…that was weak. It felt like she could have walked away and left the job to someone else.

She personally didn’t have anything at stake. It wasn’t her brother that was in trouble. It wasn’t her life that was going to blow up. Yes, the antagonist winning wouldn’t have been good, but my protagonist could have disconnected and gone on. That wouldn’t have made her a very nice person, but so what? That isn’t the strong emotional tie a book needs to make readers care.

Ugh. Stupid, stupid, meSlap, slap, get up and revise the thing!

Now, despite my above personal smack down, I don’t blame myself too much. In fact I just read a book by an author I really enjoy where the same thing happened. At first, like these editors, I couldn’t quite pin down what the issue was. Then I saw it.

The protagonist had an ugly past. All the building blocks to giving her some very personal reason to hunt down the killer in question, but the author didn’t use it. The author let the killer not be tied in anyway to the ugly things that had happened to our protagonist in her past (not even the same type of crime being committed). Then later when there was another opportunity to make this particular killer personal by having him kill off a secondary character we the readers might have liked the author wimped out again.

It was there in her grasp, the possibility of making a well written book that was just fair into a really great gripping book, and she missed it.

It was very, very sad.

So, if you are writing a book. Is it personal? Why does your protagonist have to be the person to do what he or she does? If he or she doesn’t do it, what will happen? Will his or her life implode? Will she or he lose everything they hold dear?

If not, you might want to look at it again.