On occasion, I run into books that aren’t novels. They may be clever, well-written, or even interesting, but they don’t fit the category of being “fiction,” in the novel sense of the term. So I wanted to discuss three things that make up a Not-a-Novel.
The Focus: The whole point in a novel is to tell someone’s story. It isn’t to show the plight of orphans in England, at large. It is to tell Oliver Twist’s story. It isn’t to show the miseries of miserhood; it is to tell Scrooge’s story. It isn’t about a particular location (though that may play a large role in the story). The strength of a novel (and what makes it interesting) is the story of the person or people in it.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t use a story to show a large problem (both the above-mentioned novels demonstrate this, for they use a single example as a microcosm of a class of people in England at the time). And it doesn’t mean you can’t have a beautiful, memorable setting. But, unless you want to write travel-fiction, or some other kind of Not-a-Novel, you have to make decisions based on the character’s story.
This is often seen in Christian fiction, where characters spend a great deal of time praying or listening to sermons or witnessing to others, even if that doesn’t fit the character’s nature, because the focus isn’t just on telling a character’s story, and telling it well, but on trying to encourage the reader in their Christian walk. I’ve also seen it in other novels, though, like when a book is about environmentalism…and also about a young girl who has trouble breathing and is from a fantasy world in Earth’s atmosphere (Magonia). Whenever something else creeps into a story–no matter whether the something else is good and noble and laudable, even, in its own right–it is still working to corrupt a novel into a Not-A-Novel.
The Theme: In focusing on a theme, an author will sometimes put words in character’s mouths or embellish (or create) scenes that really don’t strengthen the character’s story…they just further the theme, and in a true novel, the theme is something you have to muse upon. You have to draw it out, by turning it like a jewel in the light. It doesn’t hit you on the head on the first page (or last, or any pages in between). Think Pride and Prejudice. The themes are undeniably in the title, yet after that point, it’s hard to pinpoint them because they are hiding in the story, incarnated, as it were, in the character’s lives to the point where you can’t stop and say, “Ah ha, here! I’m being preached at!”
The Characters: Usually, characters are picked because they belong in the story, but every so often (and especially in Not-A-Novels), it feels like certain types are being chosen, just to be politically correct or to demonstrate something (often related to the theme or the larger problem the author is trying to promote). There are the token-ethnic characters, who’s only claim to being different is their skin color, or the token gay couple, who act like a couple of spinster aunts (or uncles). There are the Super-Christians, who inspire and gently rebuke the others, or the Super-feminists, who are just as dangerous as any guy (if not worse).
But these characters have no resemblance to real people. If you’re going to write about characters who have a different ethnic background, make it real. Show how they are genuinely unique, or, if similar, show how that similarity complicates things, because of ____ (skin color, hair color, age, race, height, etc.). The hobbits weren’t different from elves just because they lived underground. They were different because they have a whole array of cultural differences, and the similarities (fondness for songs and stories, say, or for plants and trees) becomes stronger and more interesting because they aren’t superficial.
So, in summary, it isn’t easy to write a novel. You have to push past your personal convictions, your personal tastes, and your own ethnicity to truly understand your own characters. Who are they, and how are they different from you? How are they similar? What happened to them? These are the questions a novel seeks to answer…and it’s harder to write than it sounds.
Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren
Photo courtesy of Gratisography