Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Writing Fiction, American Idol Style
What can novelists learn from watching American Idol? Character empathy.
As the show started its new season last week, my daughter watched with a friend who's never seen it (can you imagine?). Amberly told me her friend said, "I thought this was a singing competition. Why do they run all these vignettes about contestants?" To which Amberly replied, "That's what makes you care about the people!"
I had the same thought as I watched the show. On the second night we saw Jermain Sellers, a 17-year-old "church boy" who takes care of his mom who has spina bifida. And Vanessa Wolfe with her heavy southern accent, from a tiny town in Tennessee : "I don't really have a life. I'm stuck in Vonore ... I feel trapped here ... I know these judges are high profile people. I don't want 'em lookin' down on me or nuttin' like that." When Vanessa was put through to Hollywood she cried, "I'm gonna ride on an ay-ro-plane!" My heart couldn't help but go out to Vanessa. I find myself thrilled for her--and terrified. She's never been anywhere. Hollywood could chew her up and spit her out. What will happen to her there?"
These vignettes of chosen contestants are only a minute or so long. But they (1) capture the contestant. They show something that immediately makes you want to root for him or her. (2) They raise the question: How will this person do in Hollywood? You have to stick with the show to find out about this particular contestant.
But AI is about singing.
Yes, and a novel is about plot. But neither AI nor a novel works if the viewer/reader doesn't care about the people involved.
What novel have you read recently that made you care about the character right away? What happened to make you care? What question was raised in your mind to keep turning the pages?