Sunday, September 18, 2011

Tell me why I care, or: the plot thickens.

While I was waiting in line at the grocery store today, my eyes fell upon the latest copy of Oprah's magazine, and I found myself musing about why Oprah continues to be popular, even now that she has quit doing her syndicated show.  Sure, she's made buckets o' money with her media empire.  Yes, lots of women identify with her continuing struggle with her weight.  And she did a pretty good job of acting in "The Color Purple" and "Beloved".  But I think one of her key selling points is her rags-to-riches story.  We Americans love a good pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps yarn, and Oprah's is exactly that:  the poor, abused black girl who not only made it big, but who redefined the phrase.

Would Oprah be as big a star if it weren't for her backstory?  Maybe not.  She's made her humble beginnings so much a part of her persona that, in a way, we're still rooting for Oprah the Underdog -- even though she's a billionaire a couple of times over.  And of course, the story's not over yet -- another powerful reason to keep watching.

As writers, we can take away a few lessons from Oprah's world, and we don't even need to consult Dr. Phil for advice.
  1. Know your characters, and let your readers get to know them.  Maybe none of your characters is an underdog; nevertheless, they need to know why they should care about them.  We care about Oprah (well, some of us do) even though she's rich, partly because we identify with her weight problem.  It makes her seem human to us.  Make your characters well-rounded.  Make them human.
  2. Don't let characterization replace the plot.  Oprah's got a deep backstory, but she's moving forward and rising above it.  Now I know, I know -- literary novels often concentrate on characterization at the expense of the plot.  Some years back, on the strength of a good review, I picked up a novel by a well-respected author.  (The name of both book and author escape me now; perhaps it's just as well.)  The main characters were a middle-aged couple and their adult children.  As best as I can recall, the story involved the couple's sticking their noses into their children's lives and bailing them out of various scrapes.  Along the way, the parents' habits and prejudices were challenged in multiple ways.  And at the end of the book...the couple were back to business as usual.  They didn't grow or change; they didn't reconsider any of their opinions; and it was abundantly clear that they weren't going to stop sticking their noses into their kids' lives.  I nearly threw the book across the room.  I guess maybe you could classify story as a "charming character study," if the couple hadn't been so annoying.  As it was, what was the point of the book?
  3. Don't let plot usurp your character-building.  Oprah's current career trajectory wouldn't be nearly as compelling if she were a more private person.  If we didn't know (or didn't think we knew) so much about her, we wouldn't care as much about what happens next.  This is why most action movies bore me.  The filmmaker introduces us to the Reluctant Hero and the Girl In Danger (or maybe it's a Kid In Danger) and puts them into a situation where Stuff Blows Up Multiple Times.  Yawn.  So what if the girl is beautiful and the hero is attracted to her?  I need more information before I can get worked up enough to care about either one of them.  (Come to think of it, a deeper plot might intrigue me, too.  If all I'm after is one explosion after another, I could stay home and play a video game.)
So there you go -- plot and characters are equally important.  As a reader, I want to know the characters well enough to be emotionally invested in them.  I also want to see them challenged.  And then I want to see what effect that challenge has on them -- and there had better be an effect, or I'm going to be pretty annoyed with you.
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