Haruki Murakami, author of Blind Willow and Sleeping Woman asked, “shouldn’t there be cats in a zoo? They’re animals, too, right?” Then he continued, “Cats and dogs are your run-of-the-mill-type animals. Nobody’s going to pay money to see them. Just look around you–they’re everywhere. Same thing with people.”
I don’t know if this Murakami quote was about writing characters, but that’s what it made me ponder.
Do all my characters need to have something totally unique about them? Is that what makes a reader turn the page? Do people who buy books want to read about ordinary people? Or is it the hook — the out-of-the-ordinary circumstances in which ordinary people find themselves?
I think it’s the hook. For me to engage with a character I have to relate to them in some way. Age, gender, personality, vocation, avocation, relationship issues, family drama, memories of a previous time in my life. It could be lots of things, but for me to keep reading I want to know what happens to the character. That’s the hook.
J. K. Rowlings captured a whole generation of young readers with her ordinary kids who had something extraordinary in common. As a former therapist I believe those books are a model for mastery. Living is about mastering the new stuff that shows up daily. And the things kids need to master can be scary. If Harry and his friends can master wizardry and all the associated terrifying events, a reader might realize she can get through a new school year, fail a test, or talk to her parents about an embarrasing subject. Mastering a life experience prepares us for the future. And how I loved those books. I could imagine myself as Hermione. They are some of the few hard covers that remain on my bookshelf.
The Hannah Swensen cozy mystery series is about an ordinary young woman who bakes cookies for a living. She just happens to live in a small Minnesota town where other ordinary people get murdered at an alarming rate. Author Joanne Fluke has recently published book 23 in this series. By now the population of the town should be decimated and everyone remaining obese, but fans can’t get enough. Why is that? I think it’s because Hannah is ordinary and readers can relate. She always thinks she needs to lose ten pounds and compares her looks to her stunning sister. Her mother thinks Hannah can’t be happy unless she’s married. Hannah’s is a loving family with lots of family drama. Who can’t relate? And between helping the local law inforcement guys solve all those murders, she eats cookies for breakfast.
The other thing about cozy mysteries is that while people die in sometimes nasty circumstances the author doesn’t dwell on the details. These are easy reads in a time when many of us need diversion from the real world. In cozy mysteries the good guys always prevail.
Recently I put The Light of Fireflies by Paul Pen on my Kindle. I can’t remember why I bought it but I get alot of “hard to resist” offers from Amazon. I might have gotten it for $2.99. I really have a problem buying any e-book that costs more that $10.
I started the Pen book and stopped reading after thirty pages. It was way too creepy for me. Burned people living in a sealed off basement with no access to the world. Hints of incest. At first I thought it was a dystopian novel, but it’s personal not global dystopia. What the hell? It’s gotten thousands of four and five star reviews, but I gave it a one star. I don’t care if it was well written. Later I made myself go back to The Light of Fireflies. I couldn’t relate to these people so I didn’t care what the hook was. Everytime there was a choice people took the wrong one. I plowed my way through it and then archived the novel on my Kindle. If this is what Paul Pen writes I won’t be buying any more of his books.
My reading habits have evolved since I was an English major at Goucher College (back in the day when it was an all women’s school). I now rarely read novels that are considered literary, rather I read for pleasure, entertainment and diversion. And sometimes to put myself back to sleep in the middle of the night. That requires a book I have read before, sometimes many times, so there are no surprises. Nothing grisly or bloody or one of those soft porn romances. I want to go back to sleep. Jan Karon novels do the trick quite nicely.
Here’s what I’ve read in the last six weeks. The Sewing Machine by Natalie Fergie; The Other Woman by Daniel Silva; The King Tides by James Swain; A Merciful Death by Kendra Elliott; The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry; Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly; Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder and The Betty Davis Club by Jane Lotter. The last two were re-reads. The book I am currently reading is The Key by Kathryn Hughes. Next in the queue is Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.
What have you read recently that you recommend?
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