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?


Christina said...

A book that made me care about the character from the first page was Francine Rivers' "Redeeming Love" - I could easily picture the scene in my head because the little girl (Sarah) represented EVERY little girl. The questions she was asking are questions every little girl asks: Am I beautiful? Do you love me? When her little heart was broken, so was mine and I had to keep reading to make sure that God healed this little girl's heart - and with it my own. The book made a huge impact on me because it connected with the very essence of my femininity. I doubt I'll ever forget it.


Nicole said...

If we're talking recently as in the past couple of months, it would be easier to cite the characters I didn't much care about or who annoyed me. Sigh.

However, June Bug captured me with both John and June Bug. Back aways, Sister Mary-Margaret (The Passion of Mary-Margaret), Ty Buchanan (Try Dying, Try Darkness, Try Fear), Raleigh Harmon (The Stones Cry Out, The Rivers Run Dry), Patrick Bowers (The Pawn, The Rook, The Knight).

Even farther back: Elisha (The Eyes of Elisha), and, yes, loved Sarah in Redeeming Love.

Carrie Padgett said...

Thanks, Brandilyn! I needed to be reminded of this. I struggle with making my own characters likeable. They're often too snarky, too sarcastic, or too abrupt. I can't imagine where they get it!

Recently I loved Jodi Picoult's The Tenth Circle. I cared about that family and if they could survive, especially Trixie and her dad.