The Rules of Vonnegut / 2
‘Give the reader at least one person he or she can relate to.’
The reader really wants to read about himself, herself: so make it possible. Have one admirable person amongst your den of thieves, one firm apple in the barrel of bad soggy ones. Keep your characters psychologically plausible – that is to say miserable and screwed up from time to time – by all means, but a few simple good folk on the page do not go amiss. A reader likes to identify: what happens to me, me, me? It’s what keeps him or her turning the pages. Acknowledge the flaws your protagonists have, give them a few trivial worries to overcome, let your heroine worry about losing weight, your hero about his inability to put it on: nothing wrong with a wounded hero. Let your unhappy endings be few and your happy endings be many: or else, fearing depression and bad news, readers will flee.
Make your goodies and baddies easy to spot. This can be done in the first few frames in a film so that everyone knows the score. The goodie rescues the kitten from the branch, or the baddie kicks the cat out of the way. So it’s simple for screenwriters, more complicated for novelists. Screenwriters have actors, directors, cinematographers, designers to pave their way. Everything is show rather than tell. The first few frames show the viewers everything they need to know, other than the actual story. Music and lighting define mood: before the actors even open their mouths viewers can see for themselves all the things the writer is condemned to describe or infer – gender, race, looks, age, class, income, education – before the story proper can begin. It is amazing how often young writers who’ve been reared on fiction unfolding on a screen forget to address these things have to be reminded that scenes have to be set, people have to described, backgrounds delineated, before readers have a hope of following what is going on.
It helps to make the ‘person you want your reader to relate to’ likeable. Even Kafka’s black beetle had his good points. No one wants to spend too much time with people or creatures they don’t get on with. See your novel as a bedtime story writ large and long. The child wants to go to sleep feeling that when the light goes out, some order has been made of an otherwise chaotic universe. The good have been rewarded and the bad punished.
The wise psychologist Donald Winnicot saw the bedtime story as another of the small child’s ‘transitional objects’ – like the old piece of blanket the toddler wails and wails about if any attempt is made to part them. The parent dare not get a word wrong when the familiar story is retold, because, Winnicot said, the child is busy working out the difference between reality and illusion. The adult novel is another, more complicated, version of the bedtime story in which right is rewarded and wrong punished: the story we all want to hear, in which heroes win out and heroines find true love. Novels are the little rectangles of compacted paper covered with little squiggles of black and white we carry about next to our hearts on trains and in quiet living rooms and hate to be parted from. Finish one, start another. Or even write one of your own.
The child returns again and again to Pooh or Horrible Henry or Curious George or Orlando the Marmalade Cat, or growing older, to Harry Potter, he of the large be-spectacled eyes. All vanquish their enemies, are us yet are not us. Remember this while you write, solve your readers’ moral dilemmas for them and they will be grateful. Reward the good, punish the bad, and you will have returned at least some reassuring order to a chaotic universe.