Thursday, March 27, 2014

Authors, have you been "leading" your audience?

We've all been there. You've picked up a new book and you're whipping through pages. You love some of the characters, the story has got you hooked and you're definitely enjoying the ride. But then you begin to notice something strange. You seem to be "led" in certain directions, not by the character or the narrator, but the author. You notice the way certain characters are described seems over the top, while other major characters are mostly ignored in comparison. How does it make you feel when you realize the author is trying to manipulate you into feeling certain ways about their book?

It sounds like a bit ridiculous, doesn't it? But it's true. As authors, we attempt to manipulate readers in many different ways. We ask ourselves "How can I make readers sympathize with this character?" "How do I play out this relationship so X character will not be seen as an idiot?" It's not a bad thing to be aware of what effect our writing is having on our readers. After all, we want readers to feel sympathy if we kill off a character, we want their hearts to swell and sink with each exciting plot point. But I believe there's a limit, and after a certain point the author is not so much telling a story as leading a reader through it.

The book I'm currently reading has a bad habit of trying to "lead" me, and it's not a new occurrence among young adult books. When the MC is introduced to a new character, "leading" authors tend to specialize the introduction. Is this your character's love interest? They'll probably have a cool entrance where they are the spotlight of the scene, where your MC is overly focused on them. Their descriptions may seem overdone, or they over focus on features that are supposed to be desirable--their attitude, their clothing, or even just the fact that they're "a good person but a little crazy in certain respects." Not all of it is negative, but it definitely feels like the author is pushing a character forward, like a helicopter parent putting their child on a pedastal and saying "Okay, go ahead and adore him."

It's perfectly reasonable that your MC should see your love interest as the spotlight, but sadly it's come to a place where it seems a character's role can be predicted based solely on how the author presents them upon their first couple scenes. When you MC meets the "third wheel" character, the person your MC may flirt with but not ultimately "fall in love with," the way that character is presented takes away all our mystery. They're introduced as a side character, with some thrown in tidbits about their life, but for the most part they recieved about as much attention as the description of your MC's house. So, why should I care about this character, when based on your introduction, I know he not only won't stand a chance of being with the MC, but that his part will probably be cut down or minimized? The author is saying without words that he is not worth me paying attention to.

There is a thin line between narrator and author at times. The narrator can be your MC, or simply the voice that has developed to tell your story. When you're in the MC/narrator's head, you need to ask yourself what it is they are focusing on AT THIS VERY MOMENT. I think a lot of authors get caught up in what's to come, and it ends up tarnishing the moment. Take the introduction of a love interest. Your MC has no idea what future lays between them and this new character. It's exactly the same as meeting a new person in real life. Yes, there are moments (especially as a teenager) when meeting someone is love at first sight, where birds are singing and the heavenly choir is christening your union. But about 99% of the time that is NOT the case, so why is it that YA likes to paint it the opposite way? When your MC meets their LI, you need to focus on the real moment feelings of the characters, instead of instilling little author clues of "Hey, there might be romance here!" Because honestly? The best romance is the one you never saw coming.

Leading readers in this way can be severely limiting, but also can be used as a great tool if you're aware of what you're doing. A great example of this would be Unearthly by Cynthia Hand. Throughout much of the book, the author leads you to focus on Christian as being the main love interest. The way she paints him makes the reader make a lot of assumptions about him, meanwhile Tucker was introduced and played out in many of his initial scenes as a side or background character. And this made so much sense for the book, because our MC, Clara, at the time is fully invested in Christian, putting him in the spotlight in her mind, while Tucker is just that annoying kid in class. As opposed to many other books, which use leading to bring the reader to the conclusion the author wants, Cynthia Hand led her readers to cliched conclusions, allowed the reader's assumptions to get the better of them, and then twisted it and changed the entire flow of the story to create a thrilling and surprising tale. (If you dig angels and haven't picked it up yet, YOU MUST.)

I like to think of leading readers as using blinders on a horse. As an author, you can highlight certain traits, bring the reader's attention to specific details, and by doing so you are putting blinders on them. This is not necessarily a negative thing, as sometimes readers and horses need to be focused, but if you leave them on all the time, the reader will not be able to fully experience your world. They will only have the story you drew for them, the conclusions you led them to, which takes away from one of the most important and exciting parts about reading: discovery.