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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Why did two fine stories leave me flat?

I had the flu. So I read. This is one redeeming thing about the flu.

When I’m sick I want either comic novels or good suspenseful stories — mysteries, spy novels. I also like historical fiction, and I love to get taken to different places in the world. So this time I read one spy novel, then another, by a well-known and very skilled writer, who set both books in 1945 at the end of the war, one in Berlin, the other in Istanbul.

The stories were excellent, deeply researched and finely crafted. I was happily immersed in their time and place ... yet at the end, I didn’t much care. Close to the end of the second, I almost didn’t even finish it. Didn’t seem to matter, really. Yet the writer did such a good job, in so many ways ... why did I not think about the stories after? Why did I not care?

Then I understood: I never came to care about the characters.

I should have, right? I mean, a dark time in deep settings, lots of moral complexity, struggling with serious evil ... and the characters were complex. They made mistakes. But ... I just didn’t care.

And that’s something to notice. A novel can’t be great or even really that good if the characters don’t come to life. They don’t have to be good, but they can’t be empty. Or leave you empty. If they do, then nothing else can really matter that much.

There’s no formula, no trick, no technique for this. It’s alchemy, I guess. Paul McCartney teaches songwriting to young people sometimes, and he starts by saying, “I really don’t know how to do this.” I doubt that any writer could tell another person how to make characters that connect with readers, I know I couldn’t ... but I think of the Harry Potter books. I think of Nick Hornby’s novels about rock ’n’ roll and soccer and guys, I think of John LeCarre’s spy stories. These are all so different, but their characters are alive.

I think that’s we’re looking for most of all. Good stories grow out of good characters, not from plotting or anything else mechanical or contrived. Great novels have life because their characters have life. I don’t know how you could ever teach that. But you know it when it happens, because inside you it is real.

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