Thursday, May 20, 2010

It takes a village

Oh hey, it's Thursday! The day I blog! Which... I kind of forgot about last week. You'll have to forgive me that; I was making this:

Phew! Let me tell you, it took some effort, and it used up so much of my creative energy (in a good way) that I'm now smack in the middle of a CompuServe writers' house party which I'm supposed to be hosting, and I can't come up with a single word to write. Brain= not cooperating. If I feed my neurons enough chocolate over the coming week, though, I feel sure of a quick recovery.

Anyway. Like Jen, I've still been thinking about Diana Gabaldon's fan-fiction controversy this week. The discussion is still carrying on in a number of places, though the original blog posts have now been removed from Diana's blog.

Leading on from the post I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to give my take on what makes the kind of story that people *want* to write fan-fiction about. Pay attention here, because I'm not telling you how to go about attracting fan-fic writers- I'm telling you how to pull in any and all readers, and to do it in such a way that your story will not let them go for a long time.

Here's my theory: I think the key to grabbing your reader and changing their lives with your words is all about the sense of community that you build in your story.

This applies to any kind of story, from crime fiction to literary saga. When I say "community" I don't necessarily mean that you have to introduce all the neighbours of your character, and their parents and their best friends. Not every story needs that. But it's that sense of connection, place, realism, that enables the reader to do the most important thing they can while reading: to feel as if they themselves were in the story. Not just reading about the events, but experiencing them.

I think that Diana's work is a particularly obvious example of successfully pulling the reader into a whole and complete world. But it's not just about the scenery being described in a realistic way- it's about feeling like you're part of the family. In the Outlander series, we see the main character Claire adopted into the clan and family of Jamie. Together, over more than thirty years, they build an even bigger family- not just their daughter and grandchildren, but through adopted family, lifelong friends and associates, and through their neighbours and allies. Even their enemies form a part of the community- and if you don't believe me when I say that, just take a look at the amazing number of discussions that have been had in the past about the redeeming features of rapists and murderers Black Jack Randall and Stephen Bonnet.

When readers enter Diana's world, they're not just processing words on the page. They're living along with Claire and Jamie and their family. The characters, major and minor and everything in between, are so real that they jump off the page. You read about characters like those, and you think, "Man, Dougal MacKenzie is just like that guy from ____". Or "Ned Gowan- ha! Typical lawyer." You identify with them. You get them. You root for them. And you become a part of the story by reading it.

It's not a long jump to feeling so involved that you want to write about it. You absorb that world by osmosis; no surprise that people feel they can sit down and write it. After all, you're part of the story, aren't you?

You are, but as we've seen, there are many arguments to say that it doesn't mean you'll write great fiction as a result. Regardless, that's not the point of this post.

The point is about developing that sense of community in your story to the point where your reader feels completely absorbed by your world. If you can do that, not only will people finish your book with a regretful sigh and recommend it to all their family and friends, but they'll be first in line to buy your next.

A couple more examples of authors who I feel have built community amazingly well (and I can bet for each example I give, there'll be other readers out there who disagree- but them's the breaks).

First up, the lovely Deanna Raybourn, who we interviewed a couple of months ago on this blog. I picked up her first novel, Silent in the Grave, around the time of our interview- and I couldn't put it down. Thank goodness for the Kindle, because I was able to nab the next two books immediately. I read all three in three days. They were so, so good.

A major reason, in my opinion, is that the sense of community in Deanna's books is brilliantly strong. Lady Julia Grey, the central character, has nine siblings, numerous servants to whom she's very close, her part-nemesis, part-love interest Nicholas Brisbane, and a whole host of other vivid characters. When I started reading and discovered that she had nine siblings, I thought there was NO WAY the author would be able to individualise them all enough that I would even know which was which. But I was absolutely wrong- all of Lady Julia's siblings are individuals, and all are fascinating. Her interactions with her big family are unique and amusing, and I tell you what- I'd defy anyone who has a sibling of their own to read the book without finding something they recognise of their own interactions.

With all those siblings, plus wonderful backstory for all the characters (I'm thinking especially of Brisbane's background), the reader is pulled immediately into a living, vibrant world, one that generates real feeling, too.

Another author who creates fantastic community is Janet Evanovich. Stephanie Plum's family mayhem is a huge part of the appeal of those books- but they're not about a New Jersey family. They're about a bounty hunter. It just happens that the character's life is so vivid that it's an integral part of the story, and one that draws you in. Whenever I read a Janet Evanovich book, I feel like I'm round at the Plum's house for dinner. I feel like Grandma Mazur is *my* grandma. Even Stephanie's interactions with the hard-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside employees of Rangeman Security have the ring of family to them- they all love her like she's a sister.

Stephanie's low-rent, often-blown-up apartment, her routinely self-destructing cars, her boyfriend Joe Morelli and his Aunt Rose's house, Bob the dog, Rex the Hamster, her high school arch-nemesis Joyce Barnhardt- all these characters and settings are so familiar that the reader becomes part of Stephanie's madcap life.

You can bet there's Evanovich fan fiction out there, too.

So, my thesis- if you want people to love your writing and your characters, build that sense of community. Make your characters realistic, vulnerable, interesting and individual. Make your settings sparkle with detail. Make your interactions recognisably real. And people will love you for it.


  1. That's a great analysis Claire! I hadn't looked at it that way before but I found myself nodding as I read your post, thinking "that's true, that's why Diana's world is so compelling."
    Now off to write and edit my own wip *again* in light of this...

  2. Georgous cake, Claire. :)

    I loved Deanna's books because of that too. In fact, one of my favorite movies, A Room with a View (nope, don't love the book as much, go figure) has that sense of community. Everytime I watch it, I want to be with those characters. Truth be told Harry Potter has this in spades as well.

  3. That's an amazing cake, Claire. Clever you!

    I agree with you; wanting to hang out with characters in their fictional worlds long after you finish the story is the sign of a great book. For me, Deanna and Diana's books definitely have this quality, and so does the Mistress of the Art of Death series by Arianna Franklin. Oh, and the Sebastian St Cyr mysteries by C.S. Harris, too.