Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, May 16, 2014

How Not to Drive Away Readers: Narcissism

Last Friday, we began looking at what’s needed to keep a reader’s interest and what can drive them away from a book and, often, a writer. We looked at the necessity of internal story logic, the fact that, within the story, everything must make sense. Today, we’ll look at another potential pitfall: narcissism.

It’s a fact that, as writers, we need to love what we write. We need to enjoy the characters we spend time writing. We should find our settings fascinating and get excited about our own plots. How we feel about our stories transfers to the page and is then picked up by our readers. So, theoretically, the more we demonstratively love our characters, worlds, and plots, the more our readers should, right?

Not exactly.

There’s a point at which our love for our work can become a problem. It’s the point where we become more like Narcissus, gazing fondly at our reflection--or in this case, the reflection of our imagination--and forget that we have an audience to please who is far less tolerant of our egos.

It’s easier, I think, to avoid narcissistic writing than it is to write it and then try to cut it back. So before beginning to write, bear these things in mind:
  • Nothing in our setting or characters is perfect, and that the way it should be. Imperfection is what makes things interesting. Imperfection allows room for growth and change, which is, in essence, a fundamental basis of story. Don’t try to make perfect characters or worlds.
  • No one enjoys reading a writer as much as that writer himself. That means, no matter how eloquent you are, write in a direct, to the point manner. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for beautiful turns of phrase or the occasional bit of philosophy, but all such things should serve the story, not anyone’s desire to show off either their skill or the fruits of their imagination. Leave that to Mr. James Joyce.
  • Don’t make things easy from your characters. If they’re easy, either the characters are too perfect or they’re not being challenged enough. Daringly threaten characters and those things they most treasure. That’s what makes conflict, the essential ingredient of a good story, and that’s what holds reader interest. Readers want to see characters succeed, yes, but they want to make sure they’ve truly earned that success. Readers only enjoy free handouts when they come in the form of bags of books, not the content therein.
  • Write with humility. There is always someone better, cleverer, and more skilled.
  • Write with confidence. No, this does not negate the last point. Confidence as a writer comes from writing boldly and knowing you have some skill. It is very much not the same thing as arrogance, the true opposite of humility. Confidence is writing without giving in to that voice that constantly second guesses every decision and word. Confidence is attractive; arrogance repels.
Be especially cautious when it comes to your narrator in a book. A narcissistic narrator can be a death sentence. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but until a writer becomes quite skilled, he shouldn’t try to become that exception. Breaking rules requires precision.

A narcissistic protagonist can also be dangerous. Most readers don’t like people, much less characters, who are all about themselves and how great they are. A protagonist should have flaws, and a good writer acknowledges those flaws and utilizes them to create an interesting story. And, yes, narcissism can be a flaw, but it might be better reserved for villains and minor characters. That way, a reader can enjoy disliking the character but still feel drawn to the book.

But the greatest challenge with avoiding narcissism in our writing is becoming aware of it. Narcissism can come from a genuine belief in greatness, but it can also spring from fear of failure, a much more common danger for writers. All writers have their moments, but acknowledging the risk of narcissistic writing and how it tends to drive readers away is the first big step in avoiding it.

We’ll resume this series next Friday and look at more ways to keep reader’s interest. Until then, join me on Monday for the next part of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, where we’ll break down his book for insights into accomplished writing.

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