5 Good Examples of Character-driven Novels

My third novel, Perigee Moon, is done! That is to say, it’s written and mostly edited. I find I edit and edit some more and edit a little more. Then I let it sit around for a while, reread it and edit it once again. I’m at the point where I’ll “edit a little more” then leave it alone. Put it on the backburner for a week or two.

I have the critique of my first reader, my very good friend, who pronounced it “a very good book”. My friend said “I think you’ve got something here.” My friend didn’t like Second Stories but did like Whatever Happened to Lily? and says this is my best work so far.

I like your writing, my friend said, it’s very polished and I like your style. But nothing happens in your books. I keep waiting for the payoff, and it doesn’t come, or if it does come, it comes much later than I would have hoped. And then my friend said that the humor works well and that parts of it are, in fact, pretty funny.

Happy though I was with the news, that the first person likes it enough to say this, I was disconcerted about the “nothing happens” part. My books are more about characters, developing them such that the reader comes to really understand them, which is “character-driven” as opposed to “plot-driven”. This might be the problem. My friend is more of a plot-driven aficionado, who wants action.

In thinking about some of the books I had read in the past and whether they are character-driven or plot-driven, to the last, they are all about the characters, how they evolve, how they think and make decisions and change as time goes on.

In novels that are plot-driven, action takes priority and the characters are there to have things happen to them in order to advance the plot. In a character-driven novel, it’s all about the people, and what they think and how they interact with each other, with the emphasis on emotion and reflection and what happens to them, the action, is there to advance the development of the character.

Occasionally, it’s both. A good plot-driven novel that has characters you care about is likely to be a winner.

Here are five excellent character-driven novels. There are many more but these are a sampling of what I consider to be some of the best:

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler – All of Ms. Tyler’s novels are character-driven. Stuff happens to them but sometimes not much, and the reader gets the impression that the stuff that happens only contributes to how the character will react to it. This is a bit darker than some of her novels, but I thought the characters were diverse and interesting and quirky. Some are not likable at all, in fact most of them have things about them not to like, except for one, a guy who is the solid steady one, who just wants a family and a normal life. He is lovable and kind and you find yourself rooting for him. Unforgettable book, but like I said, dark.

Say When by Elizabeth Berg – I was hooked from the first page. The story of a divorce, and in first person POV as the man, Griffin, who is such a wonderful character it doesn’t matter whether the plot is good or not. In fact, the plot wasn’t not too believable (at least in my opinion), but a great character study of a guy who wants a normal life, a family, and comes to wonder if he is a bit too boring. I like stories about regular people because what we find is that while each one of us might be “regular” we still are all different. Ms. Berg does a really good job of thinking like a guy. She is a consummate women’s fiction author. She doesn’t write romance, or include a lot of sex, but covers topics which are interesting to women, or anyone for that matter. Stories about families, and problems, and breast cancer, and friendship. And in Griffin’s case, how he comes to know himself better because someone he cares about no longer wants him in her life.

Endless Love by Scott Spencer – This dark love story leans towards obsession rather than love. It is deep, emotional and depressing at times. I guess an apt description would be that it is complex. The longest sex scene probably ever written is in this book and it is as explicit as erotica, so be warned about that. It seems a bit superfluous in its detail. The reader gets to feel David’s love and obsession, as well as his eventual loss and wants so much for it to end well. David simply can’t get over Jade. He can’t let go, it wouldn’t be possible and the reader feels his misery. The last lines of this novel are some of the best I’ve ever read. There was a movie made of this book. Don’t bother, it was cheesy. It’s not possible to capture the emotion in film that is in this story, in my opinion, because it is internal to David. It isn’t anything he talks about or can tell anyone, it just is.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – The consummate character-driven novel. It’s 400+ pages of pure joy of reading, about the funniest dysfunctional family on earth, yet they are all kind of believable somehow. Enid, the semi-crazy, ditzy housewife and Alfred, the stoic, male patriarch who is now in failing health, so the tables appear to be turning as to who is in charge, and neither Alfred nor Enid is completely comfortable with that. Their three grown children Gary, Chip and Denise are all delightfully screwed up in their own ways. My favorite was Gary, who’s wife was a control freak, and it was maybe the best example of “Show – Don’t Tell” I’ve ever read. There is a lot that can be learned by studying Gary and his familial situation. The underlying theme is Enid’s hope there can be one last Christmas in the old homestead with everyone in attendance, and a lot of the action is in the backstories of the characters. It was very funny to me, but a lot of people don’t seem to care for Franzen’s particular style of humor. Probably the best example of character-driven fiction in the www (Whole Wide World).

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – If you like stories about the Indian culture, this is for you. And if you don’t know whether you’d like stories about the Indian culture, try it. It’s a great character-driven novel and educational as to what life in India is (or was a few decades ago) really like. If you don’t know much about India, you will when you’ve finished this novel because there’s a bit of Indian culture on every page. Be forewarned that some of the back story of two of the characters is quite brutal. It’s the story of a woman, widowed unexpectedly, who strives to make it in a country where women are of little value, and three men whom she employs to work in her home-based dressmaking business. They come to really care about each other in the years they were together (not only did they work together but they lived together too), and develop a lifelong friendship. I guess it could be said that this is also a plot-driven book because there are plenty of things that happen, but the story of these four people and how they came to depend on each other was the main point of the novel.

The above five books have not been read by my friend who read Perigee Moon. My friend is a guy, who only reads non-fiction. So getting him to read this was a bit difficult, probably because he assumed he wouldn’t like it, and I assumed he wouldn’t either. But it seems he did.

How Not to Write a Novel Back Blurb

I thought I might see a lot of interest in the subject of independent adoptions yet there were only two comments, and those from people who read this blog faithfully. Thank you loyal supporters, you know who you are!

Not even the friend who suggested I write it and to whom I submitted it for an accuracy check commented, so I guess everyone is otherwise occupied with more important matters. Even though it seemed the readership was quite substantial and a modest increase from my usual traffic, still not much comment action.

I did receive some “likes” though which is always fun.

WordPress sends a congratulatory email when someone “likes” a post. Congratulations! They say. Someone liked your post well enough to press the Like Button. Pressing the Like Button isn’t exactly a physical challenge, now is it? And it’s not like they brought me a Chili Macaroni Casserole or anything. But still, WordPress considers it a moderately big deal.

I’m back to writing about writing.

I finished up my novel, Perigee Moon, this week so I’m on to the next task, that of designing a book cover. To do this, I must write a “back blurb” and I’m not sure why I need it since the book is self-published and is never going to be sitting alongside the likes of books with cover pictures of Fabio on the bookshelves at Wal-Mart. The blurb is to sum up your novel, to “sell” it and, much like the headline at the top of a sleazy tabloid magazine, is supposed to tempt you into picking it up and tossing it into your shopping cart.

“Bill Clinton Dying!” Yes, probably. Aren’t we all?

“Nick & Jessica’s Sham Marriage: Why Are They Still Faking It?” Who’s this again?

“Jen Tells Pals: Angie’s a Monster!” Really, Jen. Get over it.

“Possible reconciliation between Kim Kardashian and Reggie Bush?” Could someone please remind me why we should care about these people?

Based on your willingness to give the teeniest of shits about any of the above topics may in fact influence you to purchase the magazine in order to get the true scoop. Of course, you could be really tacky and stand there and browse through the magazine while the clerk zips your cat food through the scanner, but he’s trying to engage you in conversation because 1) you are incredibly good looking, 2) you are incredibly interesting, or 3) he’s bored. Any bets?

Back to our subject at hand. The title has to grab you enough that you want more. The headline “Bill Clinton Suffers Sniffles” isn’t quite as compelling as the fact that he might be dying. And while this is not a dissertation on Bill, I suspect many people might be interested in what the Old Guy has done now to put him in such ill health. One can only imagine.

The back blurb of a novel has to grab you, make you want to read it. So it needs to contain lots of good keywords and it should be true to the type of novel it is — only more so. It should be exaggerated, and enticing, and earth-shattering. But it’s a PITA to write one and I’m not very good at it.

If I said something like “action packed, tense suspense and drama on each page”, this would not be indicative of what my novel is all about. The people who don’t want action packed won’t buy it and the people who do want action packed will be pissed off because it’s not that kind of novel.

I found five pieces of back blurbs that I find tempting:

Compellingly written, running the literary gamut from menacingly dark to hilariously funny, this is an epic saga of one family’s trials and triumphs in a world of sin, guilt, and redemption.

I’m hooked on all of this. Compellingly written (although, says who?) and menacingly dark and hilariously funny and epic saga always grab me. Not to mention sin, guilt and redemption. It isn’t any wonder that I found this paperback in my possession.

…a brilliantly crafted story of parallel lives, familial secrets, and the redemptive power of love.

Brilliantly crafted, I like that. Is that better than compellingly written? I love the idea of parallel lives and familial secrets. And you can’t beat the redemptive power of love.

But for his wife, who feels like a tiny gnat buzzing around her family’s edges, “walking away from it all” is not a premeditated act, but an impulse that will lead her into a new, exciting and unimagined life…

I love that she feels like a tiny gnat buzzing around her family’s edges. This portends to be about a woman who feels diminished, unimportant and I’ll just bet she does something really cool and then her family takes a second look and says, Well, I guess Mom wasn’t as much of a loser as we thought she was.

An extraordinary, moving story, this novel explores the complexities of love — how it survives time and heartbreak, and how it transforms us forever.

Ah, the idea of the complexities of love and how it survives time and heartbreak. How it transforms us forever. The romantic in me can’t resist this.

This intense new novel follows a middle-aged man as he contends with a past he has never much thought about — until his closest childhood friends return with a vengeance, one of them from the grave, another maddeningly present.

An “intense” novel, that sounds good. A middle-aged man, I like it that the character is the same age as the ones I write about, and I really can get into the idea of a past he never much thought about, and childhood friends returning with a vengeance, and from the grave. Wow, that’s got to be great.

Here’s how I might write my back blurb:

A compellingly written, beautifully crafted story. Menacingly dark yet hilariously funny, an epic saga which crosses the boundaries of four generations, of a man who feels as unimportant as a mosquito being batted outside the familial edges as he attempts to remember the complexities of love yet fears it can’t survive the test of time. A heartbreaking story of forgotten pasts and uncertain futures emerge as his closest childhood friend returns with a vengeance from Buffalo.

What do you think? Pretty good huh?

No?

Back to the writing board. Back blurbs are killers to write.

Oh, and one more thing, Bill Clinton is not dying.

Independent Adoptions and Not So Happy Endings

Once upon a time there was a couple who were married after they had gone to school for a really long time. They were smart and good looking and successful. They would live happily ever after. They would have a family, live in a nice house, adopt some dogs, contribute to the world with the research that they do in lieu of big-dollar salaries, and generally live responsible, rewarding lives while helping others.

Life would be good to them because they did all the right things.

Everything worked out pretty much that way except the babies didn’t come, so the couple thought they would adopt a child, as they very much wanted a family, to care for a baby and make a difference in that child’s life. They decided to try an independent adoption.

The difference between independent and agency adoption is the method by which the birthparents give their consent to adoption. In an agency adoption, the birthparents relinquish their parental rights to an agency, and the agency, in turn, consents to an adoption by specific adoptive parents. In independent adoption, the birthparents give their consent directly to the adoptive parents. In a private or independent adoption, prospective adoptive parents are advised by an adoption attorney.

Since independent adoptions are specifically authorized by law in most states, broadening the search for a child will ensure a better match, or a quicker resolution (or both) so most people opt to search in all states where it is legal to do so. The state the couple lives in is one in which independent adoptions are legal, and so they contacted a lawyer who was supposedly the “best adoption lawyer” in their state.

Enter Lawyer #1:

The couple’s first attempt at adoption failed because the birth mother changed her mind at the last minute. It is not clear why she did this, it may have been racially motivated (the baby was not the same race as the adoptive parents) or it may have been a case of mother love, a last minute remorse, the I-just-can’t-do-it response. This is completely understandable, even though one would have hoped such emotions might have emerged just a bit sooner for everyone’s sake.

The second adoption seemed like it was a perfect match. The birth mother wanted the couple to raise her baby, she picked the couple specifically. Everything was going along smoothly, communication via phone and email, and arrangements were made, that the couple would arrive at the hospital at the appointed time for a C-section delivery and they would be given custody of the child. The birth mother lived in another state.

Enter Lawyer #2:

Everyone knows we couldn’t possibly have just one lawyer involved. That would be too simple. No, of course not, we need another lawyer who knows all about the “state regulations” in that particular state, the state where the birth mother lived.

Here’s the part that didn’t end well. The not so happily ever after part. The excited couple got on a plane and flew to the birth mother’s state in order to be there in time for the C-section, all set to live there for one week, as that state’s laws require. They had all the baby paraphernalia, the car seat, the clothes, the wipes, everything they’d need for the baby’s first week. They got to the hospital, only to be told that the mother had had the C-section three days earlier, had checked herself out and taken the baby with her and no one had a clue where she was. For the couple, it probably felt like a death to them. They were devastated, and dejected, and had lost hope.

I see two problems with this.

  1. Lawyer #1
  2. Lawyer #2

The couple paid the “best adoption lawyer”, Lawyer #1, quite a bit of money to represent them. The fee is, of course, non-refundable. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars here, which is not chump change to the couple, since they are not Working for da’ Man, as many in their field do, but are making smaller salaries so they can do research in their chosen fields in order to make a difference (aka help people). Bottom line, the money is a big consideration and they had to borrow it in order to go ahead with the process.

Why wasn’t Lawyer #1 on top of this situation? I use the generic “he” here. He’s the one who recommended Lawyer #2, and so he should have been working with Lawyer #2 on behalf of the couple. He should have made sure that everything was on track to go forward, but of course he didn’t do that. No, he was real good at collecting that fee, but not so good on following through.

It gets worse.

Lawyer #2 failed even more miserably. He collected his fee too, and he was to meet with the birth mother at least one time. He failed to do this. Either she didn’t show up or he didn’t contact her to come in for a meeting. Either way, Lawyer #2 – you suck. So he collected a bunch of money and did not add much value. Make that none. Nada. Zilch.

I can’t even figure out which lawyer is worse. They both got paid a fee for not doing a job.

The couple can still go forward with a third attempt. They’ve paid the fee for Lawyer #1 so he will still be around to “help” the couple. What does this lawyer do exactly? Cross his fingers and hope for the best? How about checking up on Lawyer #2 (you know there has to be one in nearly every case)? How about making sure Lawyer #2 is doing what he’s supposed to do? And Lawyer #2? How about getting off your ass and setting up the meetings you are required to conduct? Lawyer #1, how about asking Lawyer #2 if that meeting ever took place?

It’s easy to blame the birth mother here. She received a few bucks for her care, maybe $1200 or so. She didn’t make any money off this deal, unless just getting medical care was her motivation in the first place. “I’ll pretend I’m going to give my baby up for adoption so I can get it paid for, then I’ll just take off. Let them come after me. So sue me. Good luck with that.”

But really, it’s the lawyers in this case. The ambulance chasers of the adoption industry. They aren’t paying attention, they aren’t doing their jobs. They put in a few years of hard work, gain a reputation as being the “best” in some area of law, then put their feet up and relax for thirty years.

While searching for illustrations for this posts, I came upon a joke:

99% of lawyers give the rest a bad name.

It’s not that bad of course, but just watch your local TV ads, all those guys who want to “help” you when you’re in an accident, or when you’ve been exposed to asbestos, or when you’ve been prescribed a drug that they now find will kill you. They don’t want to help you, they want your money. We can pretty much forget about finding the John Grisham lawyers, the Atticus Finch’s or the Matlocks. And when you do find one of these, you won’t find him advertising on TV.

Lawyer #1 and Lawyer #2 are in the “I’m Here to Help” (big eye roll here) category. They pretend to care, but they don’t. They are in it for the fees. Those huge sums that people will pay, when they are desperate to start a family.

These (the couple) are good people who want to raise a child. A child who would have had everything he could ever want or need. Two parents who love him, and a stable home, and given every opportunity to succeed.

It’s just too bad that crappy things have to happen to good people, who just want what everyone else wants, a family.

And too bad there are lawyers out there who will take advantage of that.

 

Komen Foundation: Race for the Consumer

Life in the Boomer Lane

For those of you who believe that Komen’s decision to pull breast cancer screening from Planned Parenthood goes against what Komen is supposed to stand for, read the following words from Ed of ginandtacos.com:

I have been of two minds about how to approach this. One option is to be thorough, do some research, and make a careful, reasoned argument about why the Susan G. Komen Foundationtm is a marketing consultancy masquerading as a charity, a fact only reinforced by their recent actions regarding Planned Parenthood. The other is to put my gall bladder on the keyboard, crank the Dillinger Escape Plan, and let the bile-laced invective fly. Press A for the first option or B for the second.

That’s what I thought. No one ever picks A.

As a preface, please consult Lea Goldman’s outstanding, well-researched article “The Big Business of Breast Cancer”, which represents what may…

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Meaningless Political Phrases

Back in the year 2000, I remember having a short discussion with my father about the upcoming presidential election. We never talked about politics much because I suspected we might have differing opinions, even though I was pretty sure he was an independent with a bit of a lean to the right. I had always thought discussing politics something we might want to avoid. But this particular day, he mentioned to me that it was “time for a change”. This meant that because of all the scandal during the Clinton administration, which must have really disgusted a lot of people of that generation, it was time to throw the Democrats out.

People all over were saying it, that it was time for a change. It was a phrase circulated, spread from conversation to conversation, and it started me thinking about those kinds of phrases and how they become important, if said often enough, and can affect elections, which of course, is the desired outcome. Naturally I had to write about it in my new novel, out this spring (self-promotion alert!), Perigee Moon.

Gertie and Randy didn’t seem to be too well-informed and could make no real valid arguments that defended their position that it was “time for a change”. When asked exactly why that would be they could only point to the Lewinsky Matter. So it would seem that no matter that Mr. Clinton was an adept politician and had kept the peace for eight years and balanced the budget and governed rather well, the fact that one naïve girl, rather sluttily inclined, could tempt and tease and torment a man who, as are many powerful men, might be more sexual in nature than the  average eight-to-fiver, it was still time for a change. Luke saw this, in that instant, that people around dinner tables all over the country were saying the same thing that Gertie and Randy had just said.

 “Al Gore is going to get screwed, because of Clinton,” Luke said.

This year, we have similar phrases circulating around, and two have caught my attention:

Obama is bad for our country. Okay. Just how is he bad for our country, could you elaborate on that please? No, he’s just Bad. Bad for Our Country.

We must take our country back. From whom must we take it back? The House of Representatives is controlled by the Republicans. The Senate is split pretty evenly. The Supreme Court, even though they are directed not to, seems to be a little top-heavy which is causing that right lean. Yes, the President is a Democrat so I guess we need to take the country back from him.

This is not meant to be a political blog, it’s a blog about writing. I was interested in the way phrases circulate and people begin to say them, without knowing why they are saying them. And besides I like to throw a bit of politics into my novels occasionally.

Recently, I went to a Newt Gingrich Rally. There are many reasons one would attend such a rally.

  1. One is a die-hard Newt supporter and wants to yell and scream so Newt knows someone loves him.
  2. One is a supporter of Mitt Romney and is out to gather information, which can be used against Newt in the future.
  3. One is an Independent voter and is out to become educated about each of the two men, one of which will surely be the Republican Nominee.
  4. One is an Obama supporter but wants Newt to win because they believe he will be easier for Obama to beat in November.
  5. One who has nothing else to do but visit an airplane hangar on a 75-degree day in Florida.
  6. One who wants to see Callista’s hair up close.

Because I don’t want to offend any readers of my blog who might be of a different political persuasion, I will refrain from saying which category I fall into, except 6 for sure. The turnout was disappointing, only 300 or so supporters or “supporters”, but we got to get pretty up close and personal to Newt and Callista, who was wearing a beautiful shade of blue suit that day.

We were stopped outside and interviewed by CBS who, while they paraphrased what my husband said, they did not show him on TV. This was a big disappointment but I’m pretty sure they liked what he said, which was, “With Newt, what you see is what you get. If he’s elected he won’t flirt with liberals.” And he also said, when asked about Newt’s marriage baggage, that “we are Christians and as such we believe in redemption.” Now, this may or may not be the true feelings of my husband, depending on his reasons (see above) for attending the Newt Rally.

Once inside, there was a cheerleader, who yelled out periodically “We gotta take our country back!” and when that began to fall flat she’d just start up the chant, “Newt! Newt! Newt! Newt!” Here is out cheerleader:

Is this Ben Kingsley?

Bill Gates?

I believe Ellie Mae Clampett was there, and she looks real good:

Mike Raegan was there:

Herman Cain was there:

Finally! Newt and Callista arrived! The crowd went wild! Or as wild as 300 old people can get. Here they are arriving at the hangar:

Newt speaks, and says that between the swearing in and the inaugural balls, on the day he becomes President, there will be a working session and he expects to be sent bills from the House that will:

Repeal Obama Care! (applause, hollers, whistles, and sign pumping)

Repeal Dodd-Frank! (applause, hollers, and sign pumping)

Repeal Sarbanes-Oxley! (applause, hollers, whistles)

I turned to a woman and acted dumb. “What’s that?” I asked, meaning SOX. “It’s got something to do with Medicare,” she said. Well, actually not. People are clapping and yelling to repeal something and they don’t know what it is they are repealing. That’s okay, it must be good. Newt says we should repeal it.

Callista clapped at everything Newt said. You can’t see it here, but the rock on her hand sparkled while she was clapping. Damn phone cameras aren’t worth much, they can’t even capture the flash of a multi-carat.

Other observations at the Newt Gingrich Rally.

Is this Michael Moore? What’s he doing here?

I don’t think this person is a Republican, do you?

This guy looks like his rug shrunk. Aren’t those square pieces supposed to go in front of the ears?

I think this is Barbara Bush, but I’m not sure.

Here’s a nice elephant hat, complete with American flag. And that’s Tiger’s ex-wife behind her there.

Does this man have pants on?

Is this Viggo Mortenson? If only I’d known he was going to be here, I’d have worn my I Love Viggo pin.

It’s Stephen Colbert! Are we going to be on the Report?

Alas, Newt did not take Florida. But I did get both his and Callista’s autograph on the back of my “DON’T BELIEVE THE LIBERAL MEDIA!” fan.

Disclaimer: The people in these photos may or may not be who they are depicted to be by their labels, which may or may not be misleading, and should be left to the discretion of the viewer and/or reader to discern if they are or are not, who they are or are not.