A Character Story

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Some readers of The Green Ember, my first fantasy adventure novel for kids, found the ending to be a cliff-hanger. Some kids even shouted at their parents in frustration, “That is a horrible ending!” and “There has to be another book!” Hey, I’ll take any kind of enthusiastic, emotional response. It means they cared. So, I’ve gotten a few emails along those lines. It hasn’t been the majority. Most don’t even mention it, but there’s a few who are fired up about my “cliff-hanger.”

I didn’t mean to make a cliff-hanger. Sure, like all such books, there’s a big part of the story that remains unresolved, remains “out there” for future adventures. What I meant to do was give a mostly-satisfying resolution to the main promises I made in the “contract” with the reader implicitly agreed to at the beginning of the story.

I wanted to have significant resolution to two problems. The, “What’s wrong with the world?” problem, and the, “What’s wrong with our main characters?” problem. I hoped that when the end of this story came, the reader would feel like a big dent in the World problem happened, and that the characters would have grown to the point that the reader felt satisfied. (Of course they are both mingled.) Is Picket the same sort of rabbit when the story begins as when it ends? What about Heather? I hope not. 

That’s what I was aiming for. The majority response from parents and kids has been very encouraging, but I know I have a lot of room to grow.

I think one problem might be that, for some readers, I failed to deliver enough of a Character story to make up for what is unresolved in the Event story.

Orson Scott Card talks about the main kinds of stories in his book Character and Viewpoint. In a minefield of material designed to keep writers from writing and perpetuate the Writer’s Self-help Creed of Tell, Don’t Show, or perhaps more likely, Sell, Don’t Show, Character and Viewpoint is practical, insightful, and generally helpful. Card writes about the different types of stories thus.

The M.I.C.E. Quotient

Milieu

The Milieu is the world—the planet, the society, the weather, the family—all the elements that went into creating that special world.

Idea

Idea stories are about the process of finding information. Think of Nolan’s Inception.

Character

The Character story is about the transformation of a characters role in the communities that matter most to him or her. 

Event

Event stories focus on events which rip the fabric of the universe or disrupt the natural order and cause the world to be in a state of flux. Or, “What’s wrong with the world?”

So all stories fit into these basic types and every story I can think of emphasizes one or two and contains all. Most stories deal significantly in Character and Event.

This example might help you understand what he’s talking about.

One of my favorite parts of The Lord of the Rings is “The Scouring of the Shire.” When this was cut from Jackson’s film trilogy, I was sad. Why? Because Jackson gives us the Event story, but robs us of a huge part of the Character story. The Event is the destruction of the ring and fixing the “What’s wrong with the world?” problem as Aragorn is married to Arwen and enthroned in Gondor.

But what of the hobbits? What of these characters through whose eyes we have seen the Event story? What of the Character story? For me, their return to the shire and its liberation from statist bureaucrats in league with Sharky, is crucial. How many character stories are resolved in those chapters cut from Jackson’s film? So many. Sharky himself, and Wormtongue. Merry and Pippen, both now literally taller and spiritually greater, in profound ways. But also Sam and Frodo. It’s heartbreaking and glorious. It’s smaller than what happened across the wide miles in Mordor and Gondor, but it’s huge for our characters. The story isn’t over until they liberate the Shire. The Character story isn’t over until we are satisfied. And Tolkien delivers an ending to the Character story that is glorious and truthful. Jackson, as with so many other details (cough, Bombadil), misses something good and, I would argue, essential.

Hard-Cover-2_largeI’m sure my efforts in The Green Ember came up short in many ways. I’m sure those few furious kids are going to be unhappy that the next book I release will be a shorter prequel and not the sequel they are demanding. I’m working on the sequel, but it will be a little while. And part of what I’m doing with the prequel, The Black Star of Kingston, is to fill out the world. I’m delivering on some promises and making new ones. It’s a relationship I’m forming with readers. I hope that, in the end, they will be pleased with the journey we went on together.

After all, in and among a thousand motivations I have as an author, the deepest and truest one is love for those readers and a sincere effort to delight them. And what am I? Only another character in a story, not yet what I will be.

But I am going somewhere. I am growing.

You are too.

—–

The Green Ember is available in the Rabbit Room store (in both hard cover and paperback)


7 Comments

  1. Carolyn

    I just finished The Green Ember today and thoroughly enjoyed it… So very well written, gripping, funny, moving, creative, suspenseful, and insightful. You’ve just acquired a new fan. 🙂 (My 3 kids will be fans too, as soon as I read it to them.) I left a review on Audible describing how you wove in favorite elements from Redwall, Watership Down, and Narnia, while also creating an entirely new and absorbing world with tremendous potential for future tales… Very exciting and fulfilling for me as the homeschooling mother of young kids, hungry for more “Narnia-Esque” fiction to feed my young minds and hearts as they grow!

    About the book itself – while I did feel enough of that “cliffhanger” ending to leave me really excited for your next book (hurry!!), I also felt quite satisfied with the way you developed especially Picket’s character by the end. I do wish there had been a little more description and filling out of Picket’s obvious and dramatic internal change from despising and resenting Smalls to being willing to give his life for him (Spoiler alert, for to anyone who hasn’t read it yet!)… that was quite a jump he made, but it was believable given what we also overheard from Helmer and the new knowledge Picket acquired about Smalls…

    Overall I think you did a great job with both Heather’s and Picket’s characters, and I’m definitely in line to pre-order whatever you’re writing next. A prequel filling out the world more will be greatly enjoyed. We won’t mind waiting a little longer to find out what happened to their family – but again, hurry!! 🙂 And thank you, S.D. Smith, for your faithful and beautifully crafted contribution to the vision of The Mended Wood. I will be carrying your images and phrases around in my mind and heart for a good while to come.

  2. JamesDWitmer

    I’m gonna’ climb out on a limb and say that the problem for little readers who cry, “Cliff-hanger,” is their inability to appreciate the character story that is there.

    I thought your delivery of character story was just right. Without it, the prospect of a sequel would be pointless; any more plot development and the end would be too neat.

    But I’m not posting to say, “Kids are dumb,” but because I just now realized that this immature perspective is exactly the problem I have with my own story.

    When I get to the end of a day – or week, or year – and the events of my world are NOT what I wish they were, I want to write the Author a letter and complain, “You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding me!”

    Sometimes His gentle reply amounts to, “You’re all caught up in the Plot. But I’m invested in your characterization.”

    PS: Also, regarding “The Scouring of the Shire”: Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes. That is all.

  3. Loren Warnemuende

    This is great, Sam. I know my nine-year-old is longing for a sequel, but she hates any unanswered questions in general. It’s kind of funny, because no matter how thorough a book is, she’ll reach the end and say, “But I want to know what happens to the character next!” It’s a sign of a good book, I think. I’m trying to encourage her to keep reading those books that don’t wrap every detail up in a neat package because it’s really a picture of our lives and the lives of those with whom we intersect. There are so many stories where we don’t know “the ending.”

    I just reread Lord of the Rings–I think the last time I read them was when The Two Towers came out. To say the least, it was so good to read The Scouring of the Shire again. I agree with you completely.

    Keep writing!

  4. Joe Sutphin

    Good stuff, my brother!
    Gave me a lot of food for thought on the manuscript I’m writing now. Has me thinking there are a lot of things I’ve not considered yet, and still time to build stronger characters, world, and events.

    Thanks for sharing dood!

  5. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Aden– Cheers.

    Carolyn– Thank you so much. I appreciate your kind words and your view on how Picket’s change happened is well said. That certainly could have been better executed. I’m learning. 🙂 I’m so grateful for your thoughtful encouragement. Thank you for taking the time to share.

    James– Well said! Hear, hear. Also, I like to pretend that I came up with the precise ending image, but that was you, my friend. And I think it was a great idea.

    Loren– Thank you! I will stay after it.

    Joe– On your side, brother.

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