I’m very pleased to welcome Barbara Venkataraman to BetweenTheLines today. Over to you, Barbara…
THEN, WHY ARE YOU HERE?
Picture yourself in the stands at a baseball game, not just any baseball game, but the last game of the 2014 World Series–winner takes all. You’ve invested a lot to be here, having spent a small fortune on a ticket (that was very hard to come by) and an entire day of your life driving, parking, and fighting the crowds, all so that you could watch this game. The man sitting next to you, clearly a Giants fan, is decked out in so much orange and black that he could be an advertisement for Halloween. In between cheering for his team, your seatmate observes how quiet you are and asks: “Hey, man, who are you rooting for?”
“Nobody in particular,” you answer.
The man is flabbergasted. “Then, why are you here?”
Why, indeed? When you have no stake in the outcome, no skin in the game, why would you stick around? That is the reader’s dilemma. Authors are asking a lot of them: to invest money in a book and to spend precious time reading it, but what’s in it for them? What do they get out of the experience? For a reader to enjoy a book, to be satisfied with his expenditure of time and money, he doesn’t necessarily have to like the characters or have anything in common with them, but he must be invested in them. In other words, he needs to be rooting for somebody, to care about at least one character’s plight, to wonder how that character will resolve the issues in his life and whether he will learn anything along the way.
A good example of the reader’s dilemma is The Kite Runner, a 2003 novel set in Afghanistan where the protagonist, Amir, sacrifices (spoiler alert!) his friend Hassan by not rescuing him from his attackers. Amir not only justifies his behavior, but takes out his guilt by treating Hassan horribly, causing him to be ostracized, and possibly ruining his life. This protagonist is not likeable or admirable and we are universally appalled by his actions, so, why do we keep reading to the end? Why was this book a runaway bestseller? With an initial printing of 50,000 copies, this book went on to sell seven million copies and was also made into a movie. Everyone loves Harry Potter, the boy wizard, but nobody liked the jealous, weak and morally-bankrupt Amir. Even when Amir tried to redeem himself years later by helping Hassan’s son, the reader felt no respect for him. Too little, too late, we thought. But we read on–and not just to find out how Hassan’s life turned out. We kept reading because we were both fascinated and horrified, convinced that we would have done the right thing if faced with the same choices. In other words, that we were not Amir! But then, we wondered whether we would have been too scared to try to rescue our friend from his vicious attackers, whether we would have been willing to admit that we stood there and did nothing. The novel struck a chord because it made us explore our own characters; it made us think about how we would act in such an impossible situation. How would we deal with jealousy? With guilt? Would we be willing to risk our lives to redeem ourselves or to right a terrible wrong?
As readers, we were invested, big time! But then, just when we thought the stakes couldn’t possibly get any higher and that Amir’s regret and guilt couldn’t get any worse, we learned that Hassan wasn’t only a servant boy, he was also Amir’s illegitimate brother! Gut-wrenching stuff, for sure. And that’s the answer to our question–we stick around because of EMOTION. A novel without emotion is like a paper doll. It can be a beautiful paper doll, but it will never be three-dimensional no matter how hard it tries. Clever dialogue, sharp prose, interesting characters, lovely scenery, may be enough to hold our interest, but we will always leave feeling dissatisfied.
My Jamie Quinn Mystery Series opens with my protagonist Jamie Quinn mourning the death of her mother. Nothing can pull her out of her depression until her aunt calls in a panic because her disabled son Adam, Jamie’s cousin, has been accused of murdering his music teacher. The love Jamie has for her aunt and cousin, the guilt she feels for not being there for Adam in the past, for not being there for her aunt in the present, all motivate her to come back to life. In this first book, Death by Didgeridoo, there’s enough guilt to go around, as well as some jealousy, revenge and regret, but there’s also playfulness in the dialogue and some fun scenes between characters. Emotion gives a story genuineness, but not necessarily realism. Until I wrote my book, I’d never heard of anyone else being killed by a didgeridoo, so that’s kind of far out there, but the interplay between Jamie and the other characters, as well as the doubt and insecurity Jamie expresses are sentiments the reader can relate to.
To sum up, I will quote you an Amazon book review I once read: “I wasted eight hours of my life reading this book and I’m writing a review to save you from the same fate!” What a kind soul, to want to save strangers from wasting their time! As an author offering advice to new authors, I hope to do the same because, if you’re not going to write with emotional resonance, then, why are you here?
About Barbara Venkataraman
Award-winning author, Barbara Venkataraman, is an attorney and mediator specializing in family law and debt collection.
She is the author of: The Jamie Quinn mysteries; “Teatime with Mrs. Grammar person”, “The Fight for Magicallus,” a children’s fantasy; a humorous short story entitled, “If You’d Just Listened to Me in the First Place”; and two books of humorous essays: “I’m Not Talking about You, Of Course” and “A Trip to the Hardware Store & Other Calamities,” which are part of the “Quirky Essays for Quirky People” series. Both books of humorous essays won the prestigious “Indie Book of the Day” award.
Coming soon, “Jeopardy in July”–the next Jamie Quinn mystery!