02 June 2010

A novel centered on a mature, loving character? What??

Angela 1: Starting Over centers on an unusually mature (for her age), coherent, stable, and caring central character. To most readers, that just may be downright weird. I know, it’s just not the done thing if you want to be taken seriously. But I do want to be taken seriously and I did it anyway. You probably ask, Why?
Good question. There are many answers to it and one is that good writers can only write what we are given. Angela Fournier and Angela the book came to me all as a piece one day as I sat at lunch between the morning and afternoon sessions of a writing workshop. I sketched out the main characters, the locale, and a theme for a three-book series (Angela’s 10th, 11th, and 12th grades) and made a broad outline for each book. At that point I really had no choice but to write. I made a more detailed outline for the first book and the rest, as they say (so it must be true) is history.
Now, good characters are practically never at the center of interest in novels or plays. There is a lot of history behind that but, more practically, it’s hard to do. For instance, Charles Dickens. When you think of A Christmas Carol, who comes to mind first? Scrooge, of course. And in Oliver Twist? Fagin, Nancy, the Artful Doger, and all the other criminal element but not Oliver who, after being mildly interesting when he had to pick pockets, becomes superfluous to the rest of the story. And the Cratchitts? One doesn’t particularly care for them. In Les misérables Hugo makes Cosette more interesting than Dickens’ good characters, but she still is quite forgettable beside the tortured and immature Marius or his rancorous grandfather, or even Javert, the police inspector who persecutes Jean Valjean.
Tradition is all against good characters as well. In the ancient Greek plays, the main character is always brought down by his or her own character flaws. The same is true for Hamlet, two thousand years later, and still is now. Besides, when American movies and TV were under Hollywood’s self-imposed code, the scriptwriters fought back by making any good adult a hypocrite or laughably naive, and good children were those who conformed with their parents because they were scared or they were just snitches. All the characters you enjoy are anti-social.
So it was a big challenge to put a person like Angela, who is not traumatized, bitter, or self-seeking, but rather other-directed and well intended, at the middle of a series of three novels. What makes it work is that, without intending to, she sets in motion all kinds of trouble. She calls on the adult world to live by integrity, that is, to practice what they preach, and so of course they see her as a threat and try first to neutralize and then to harm her. Although she is developing good social skills, she refuses to allow peer pressure to make her do what she doesn’t want to or goes against her values. She infuriates the mean girls and the school bully because they can’t control her. And that means that the school principal has it in for her as well.
Angela is not entirely without precedent. Ivanhoe’s Rebecca is a wonderful person who gets only suffering as a reward. But I wrote Angela 1 before I ever read Ivanhoe. Well, I think you will find Angela different.
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