When writing a novel, one of the most basic pieces of advice is this: Know what your protagonist wants. Give him/her something specific to strive for – a deep desire, an all-encompassing goal – and then make him do everything in his power to go and get it. Otherwise, the reader won’t care enough to keep turning the pages. And if that happens? Your beloved book will end up in the bargain bin at your local Wal-Mart. Or worse, sitting next to a copy of Writing for Dummies at your next-door neighbor’s garage sale. Ouch.
Unfortunately, this advice is not as straightforward as it seems. What if you’re writing for children – middle grade, in my case – and it’s not clear what your protagonist wants? Or what if your m.c. thinks she wants one thing but actually wants another? Or (here’s when it gets really tricky), what if she changes her mind 50 GAZILLION TIMES and still doesn’t know what she wants? It’s enough to drive a writer up the looney tree.
At the same time, it’s normal for tweens to feel ambivalent; to change their minds more than their underwear. That’s how they roll. That’s why, for us as writers it’s important to recognize and respect this tween-age trait, rather than to get frustrated by it.
I came to this conclusion when writing my first MG novel, KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN. In this novel, the protagonist, Kat, is trying to cope with her mom’s OCD while dealing with her own problems at school. When I asked myself, “What does Kat want?” I didn’t have a clearcut answer. Sometimes, Kat wanted to ignore her mother’s problems and pretend nothing was wrong. At other times, she wanted to reach out for help but felt as if she couldn’t. No wonder Kat was confused. So was I.
And then it hit me: What if it’s OK not to know what the main character wants? Or, even better, what if the two of you can figure it out together? How amazing what that be?
So that’s what I did. Together, Kat and I decided that she could want several things at once – and even change her mind along the way, if that’s what suited her. No one would be the worse for wear.
With hope, I will never see my novel in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart, or at my neighbor’s garage sale. And if I do? I won’t blame Kat. Like all tweens – real and fictional – she was trying to tell me what to do all along.