Have you noticed how you can relate to some novels, and not to others? Even the ones you’re penning yourself 🙂 Fiction writing can be unwieldy at times.
You know, you’re reading/writing along and either engrossed in the story and people. Or . . . you’re not.
We often think this is due to stories either being about things we don’t know, or sometimes dealing with professions and events we know nothing about (and often don’t want to know).
But is that true, really? Can you think of books you’ve loved, set in circumstances you’d never frequent in real life?
My example is The Art of Racing in the Rain. It’s set in the world of race-car driving—to which I wouldn’t go unless paid a mighty sum—and told from the viewpoint of a dog. At first glance, I would never read this book. Okay, the dog narrator might tweak me, but the car-racing part . . .
Yet, one line has not only stayed with me, but has become a life-mantra: “Your car goes where your eyes go.”
As my Mamaw would say: “Ain’t it though.”
The point being we can relate to people and events from all walks of life. The success lies in the development.
So how do you make your people and plot relevant to your reader? Here are 5 tips for fiction writing to make it relatable:
No matter what your protagonist does in “real life” to begin your novel, no matter if he’s an acclaimed neurosurgeon or a recording artist or works for the postal service, your reader still wants someone he can believe, relate to, and like enough to saddle on for the ride of your tale.
The protagonists in many books are wildly successful in their careers. On the other hand, many are just regular Joes, trying get by in life like you and me.
And then, some—like Enzo in the aforementioned book—are dogs.
Are the common folks more relatable? Or can you make someone running for President of the United States believable and relatable as well?
What I so often see in developmental editing are protagonists I just don’t believe. The reason? The writer is imagining what the world of a world-famous model is, rather than having a clue to it.
And that’s the key in a nutshell: You, as the author, have to understand and more to the point, know the world your person comes from. It has to be organic to the character, rather than trying to paste on character traits you’ve read about.
That’s what creating a character your reader can relate to is all about.
Does this mean you can’t write about a world you don’t know? No. But it does mean if your protagonist is a policeman and your schooling is in teaching, you dang sure better find a policeman to become your best friend. Ride along with him. Get under his skin and find out what makes him tick. As well as learning all the facts that go into police work.
Where your novel is set has enormous impact on the read. And not just because it’s in an exotic locale that everyone wants to go to.
What makes any place relatable, whether if the Cayman Islands or the lower 9th ward, is how you make it come alive.
And like number one above, if you haven’t been there, haven’t spent time there, not only does it often not ring true, but the nuances are missing. And they’re what make a place come alive.
I edit a wonderful writer who’s written a novel that begins during the Bay of Pigs. The protagonist, a 17-year-old boy, finds himself plunked into the action. And while the story was good, I just never got a feel for the place. I.e., it could have been set in Galveston or outer Mongolia (if it has a beach J.
Before going into his third round of revisions, the writer spent two weeks in Cuba. He visited the very beach and spent time in the bars Hemingway (a character in the book) frequented. He sailed where marlin are fished.
What resulted was a different book. Cuba came alive—I could see it and smell it and taste it, hear the sounds, feel the salsa beat through the words.
Now, not everybody can trot off to Cuba for two weeks, or ports beyond where books are set. But, if yours is set in Afghanistan, and you’ve never been there, it will show.
The point being, set your tale in a place you know—the deeper, the better. Or, go visit for prolonged periods, so you don’t just see the tourist highlights, but rather into the background where normal folks live.
Find your Theme and Stick with It
That sounds up-front enough, doesn’t it?
But another thing I see so often while developmental editing, is plotlines that meander from Kansas to Oz, but with no yellow-brick road tying them together.
When I ask the writer to tell me in one sentence what the theme is, he can’t. He flounders around about plotlines and where they go.
The theme is the overall meaning of your book. It’s what it’s about, but is more than that. It’s the stream that flows however slowly but irrevocably onward toward the ocean (the climax). It underpins every aspect of your plot.
Everything that happens in your book has a tributary of that stream, which then flows back into the main of it. That’s what keeps readers engaged.
Type your theme on a piece of paper and paste it to your computer monitor. It’ll keep that at the forefront of your mind, and keep you from wandering and creating those dreaded sagging middles.
Study your Subject
Whether you yourself are a neurosurgeon writing about one, or you’re a teacher whose story revolves around the classroom, or you’ve taken on the task of a profession different from yours (again, making someone in said profession your new best friend), there is always more to know on your subject.
A great tool is to keep engaged in continuing education (whether formal or personal) the entire time you’re writing your novel. Not only are you always learning, but again, those nuances, the little things you never knew or have forgotten, always rise into your awareness.
And in fiction, it’s often those little, often unknown tidbits, which make for such a satisfying read.
Find the Humanity
No matter your characters or the plot points they journey through, the thing that makes a book most relatable is how that person deals with the events.
Make sure your plot points include places of emotional struggle—the kind we all go through.
If you’re scratching your head about how this occurred in say, The Hunger Games (yes, I realize it’s a film series!), that began with Katniss wanting to protect her sister, therefore taking her place in the games. That theme (and struggle) can play out in any genre or setting.
In short: find his humanity. Find within him those things that will cause your readers to empathize with him. Once they come to understand his actions—even the ones we’d classify as negative—readers will care what happens to him. And, invest in his story.
These are just the tip of the iceberg of fiction writing, but will get you off on the right foot. Which will then lead you down the road.
And soon you’ll have it figured out!