I'm not adept at writing series and sequels that stick with one major character. All of my novels differ from one another. I like focusing on people, themes and situations as varied as the memories that pop into my head: artists in crisis, race relations, crime and violence, horse racing, sports, and smart people who still require luck to survive.
My new novel (my seventh young adult book) centers on American politics. The year is 2025 and Washington D.C—shaped by lobbyists and hypocritical politicians who have been creating chaos for fifty years, are the target of public rage, including from high school students tired of their leaders’ ineffective polarization. The "guide" in
The Beginner's Guide to Winning an Election is nothing less than history itself--or perhaps it's Mr. Wilson, who exposes his AP class in an Indiana high school to the intricate patterns of history. Those who run for student office, like my heroine, Brit Kitridge, may lack an outgoing personality and charisma, but their knowledge of the past leads them to understand where the future is going. Novice and “science brain” Brit takes on a popular incumbent, a boy whom everyone loves but no one really knows well. His secrets, she eventually learns, are tied to the agenda of a mysterious lawyer with his own agenda for public education. Brit knows her chances of winning rest on sorting through the shadows of her117 year old school, the hidden life of her opponent, and developing a strategy to withstand the lies of his team of supporters.
Try to have one of your characters do or say something in the course of the narrative that’s totally original…something that’s never been done in another movie or film. This is not easy to achieve, but if you have an imagination, have some fun with it. You’ll go down a lot of dead ends, but if you’re lucky, you’ll end up on a mountain peak. Remember that the event has to be plausible, but originality is usually memorable. No matter how many crime stories we read, for example, the great ones take our thoughts and emotions to unexplored places. It’s what readers talk about in reviews and blogs.
Most writers are more comfortable delineating one sex (or gender) over another, which often dictates their main characters and the genre a writer chooses. You can still be a male and write fantasy romances, or a female skilled at describing war scenes, but whatever your strength, play to it.
Very few writers do everything well. The best write about what they know, and their characters evoke passion, empathy or curiosity in a reader.
It’s great to surprise a reader with the unexpected, helping give a twist to the plot and the character, but whatever transpires, it must have credibility. Unless she’s a prodigy, a twelve year old girl is not going to solve the murder of her parents that happened ten years earlier. A surgeon who graduated from Harvard is not likely to leave a sponge behind in his patient’s abdomen. If you go for low probability events, or extreme twists, you have to back them up with plausible explanations. The “willing suspension of disbelief” only goes so far. Once a reader becomes skeptical that the writer doesn’t know what he or she is talking about, it’s tough to win them back.
Great characters, to enhance their arc, should have a fourth or fifth gear that seems to come out of nowhere. For example, villains can turn into heroes with an act of kindness that we would never have anticipated, yet when we read the novel closely, we realize that the seed of kindness was planted by the writer from the beginning. Similarly, characters we start off admiring suddenly disappoint us when they hurt someone they love. If they don’t realize what they’ve done, figuring out the “why” makes them even more interesting. Well-conceived characters can help with plot troubles, too, if the writer wakes one morning and isn’t sure where his or her story is going (happens to most of us). Instead of robbing a bank, for example, your destitute character decides to give away his last fifty dollars to a stranger. The wife who has been cheated on, instead of taking revenge on her husband, is filled with insights about her father. A deeply-felt, richly-imagined character is your writing buddy, your co-conspirator, and their importance to the final product can’t be overstated.
I hope readers of the novel can relate to [the characters'] struggles and impulsive judgments, even when we react by thinking, “no, please don’t do that!” Their lives twist and turn like ours, and realistically not everything ends up tied in ribbons. But life lessons are real.
I try to challenge myself as a novelist by communicating what I understand the world to be. I like reading other writers who storytell a different vision than mine, as their narrative is as unique to them as mine is to me. Everything is about a point of view, realized through three-dimensional characters embedded, hopefully, in a compelling and memorable plot.
In Once Upon a Lie, a story of the Eighties, my two principal characters seem as different as the Americas they live in—one in a white and privileged enclave in Los Angeles, the other a Texas town with walls to climb if you’re poor and black and have the ambition and talent to escape. Their paths cross and a relationship as complex as their differences begins to bloom. Jaleel and Alexandra (“Alex”) deal with societal problem as well as the personal ones they make for themselves. I hope readers of the novel can relate to their struggles and impulsive judgments, even when we react by thinking, “no, please don’t do that!” Their lives twist and turn like ours, and realistically not everything ends up tied in ribbons. But life lessons are real. Jaleel and Alex even have their own Facebook pages, their interweaving stories continuing in the present, picking up where the book leaves off.
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.