So in NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem!, he brings up an exercise in which you make two lists. The first consists of what you believe makes a good novel. The second is what bores and depresses you about a novel. I usually remake mine every October, but I figured I would post this year’s magna cartas.
Magna Carta I, Good Novel
- Ambiguity between the perceptions of the narrator and the reader. I kick myself regularly for allowing another’s opinion on first-person perspective to influence how I write. I’ve only started experimenting with first person for the first time in years and this has been my favorite aspect of it. If the reader is unquestionably following the narrator’s perception and opinions on events and others, you can really have fun with setting up twists and character growth. There’s also that whole “narrator is innately sympathetic due to intimacy with the reader” part that also is prime for toying with. Basically, I’ve fallen in love with the first-person perspective and wish I had done it sooner.
- Diverse characters. Not everyone is white, middle-class, twenty-something, straight, cis-gendered, neurotypical. In fact, that character is a distinct minority. I admit, I struggle with racial and spiritual diversity (most of my characters end up agnostic or atheist), but the learning journey is innately worthwhile and I seek to improve all elements of this to better reflect the diversity of the world.
- Complicated relationships. Nothing is simple and straightforward. Characters love each other with great caveats. Enemies find common ground and argue with themselves over why they hate each other. Families that love each other but are haunted by pain they caused each other in the past. Give me relationships rife with potential conflicts, giving way to…
- Character centered plots. Basically, the complicated relationships and conflicts between characters, as well as a character’s personal motivation and wants, drive the plot. Often, this means the plot is a bit floaty and indistinct, especially at the beginning, but when the dominoes fall, it’s the characters that pushed them.
- White-haired guys chucking wrenches into the plot. Bonus points if they have an intense and complicated relationship with the narrator. Anime and video games have given me an unfortunate preference for the hair color. Funny enough, my Nano 16 project has a complete lack-of white-haired guys. This year’s wrench tosser has black hair.
- Modern settings with touches of Something Different. I like slight tweaks to the nature of reality, especially if the narrator perceives the Something Different as completely mundane. A seemingly contemporary United States is plagued by prolific cults both doomsday and saccharine. Magical realism with a very light touch, basically.
- Description. Lots of it. Give me your poetic turns of phrase, your purple prose, your long strings of alliteration that would make an English professor swoon. As long as it builds the setting, characters, mood, and tone (and isn’t meaningless) I will adore it.
Magna Carta II, Not a Fan Of
- Historical settings that go out of the way to show off the author’s research. I could never write a historical piece due to the sheer amount of research, but I will read it. However, if the author goes off on nowhere tangents that serve only as a more wordy Works Cited page, I’ll fall asleep.
- True love and its associated tropes. Unambiguous love at first sight. Sex and/or marriage being the endgame for the relationship, whereupon its achievement means the relationship is Perfect and all conflict between them falls away. In truth, I loathe romance being depicted as supernatural, transcendent, mythical, pedestals being erected under every person involved. When love is depicted like that, it seems unattainable. Give me your casual love stories where two equals come together. Give me your conflicts, even with establishing the couple has lots of sex (and that fact is treated as natural, even casual).
- Needless description. I like seeing what a character wears…The first two, maybe three, times. It establishes their style (or lack thereof) and gives indications as to social and economic status. But if every day opens up with describing every article of clothing your character tosses on…Or there’s a bunch of description for settings that are irrelevant…I start to lose track and doubt what’s important to remember. And that’s when I start skimming.
- I am x because I am x. X being good, evil, right, wrong…Whatever the dichotomy may be. No one goes out deciding they will be evil. All behaviors exhibited by a person are for a reason; even if that reason does not make sense to anyone but that person, there still is purpose behind it. Give me your villains who break down others and sway them to their cause, benevolent or otherwise, for that sake.
- Symbolism for the sake of showing off. I’m blaming Nathaniel Hawthorne and the way his works are taught for this one. This isn’t the pinnacle of writing, but an option. If the symbolism you include ties into the overall mood and plot, great. If every little thing MEANS SOMETHING MORE, then all the little things are functionally meaningless in their sheer proliferation. And it drowns out the symbols you do want the reader to notice.
- Trauma as shorthand for drama. This is my biggest problem with Margaret Atwood’s Madd Addam series and why I stopped reading after the second book. If you’re going to include graphic depictions of trauma, at least don’t brush it off and have the character act like it didn’t happen. Just a one-off description of something awful and then dropping it…It’s the literary equivalent of a jump scare and is just as gross. Note that I am not against trauma and characters inflicting it or suffering from it. If you are going to include something that is a horrific experience, do something with that character’s trajectory and influence on the plot as a result. For an example of this executed well, see Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower.
- Stories about men and the younger women they want to sleep with. The market is saturated with this and, frankly, they were boring me back in college. You are allowed to break the “write what you know” rule, especially if you back that up with research.
Curious to see other people’s magna cartas!