While I’ve been finishing my teen novel and working on a few other projects–I know that I’m so due for blog post forgive me–I’ve been cheering on my colleagues, because nothing makes me happier than seeing people I know achieve their dreams.
VCFA alumni, Lyn Miller-Lachman‘s new novel, Rogue, is about Kiara, a young person with Asperger’s who has difficulty making new friend. When Chad moves across the street, Kiara is determined to make this friendship work. Lyn read part of this novel at her Grad reading and I still remember the visual and emotional impact of the scene where Kiara swipes a girl with a tray in the lunch room, so I know that this novel will resonate with you long after you’re done.
As you all know, I love bringing authors here to talk about how they approach craft. Today Lyn is discussing what tools she used to help her readers fall in love with a character that no one in the story likes. Welcome, Lyn!
My first editor, the brilliant and irreplaceable Alexander “Sandy” Taylor of Curbstone Press, never wanted me to enroll in a MFA program. He said, “Why do you need a MFA when you can work with me?”
I believed him, and learned much from working with him on a collection of short stories by Latino authors that I edited and the adult novel that I wrote and he published. But when my young adult novel, Gringolandia, was in production, he passed away suddenly.
In a matter of days, my mentor was gone.
Gringolandia was a work that, I feel, honored his legacy. It received enthusiastic reviews and won major awards and distinctions, including a spot on the ALA Best Books for Young Adults list and an Americas Award Honor Book. Despite that acclaim, I didn’t feel I was ready to make my way alone, without a mentor.
I was right.
I had writing experience and credits when I came to Vermont College of Fine Arts for my MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults, but I felt my work lacked something. I could write other people’s stories—such as the refugees from Latin American wars and dictatorships with whom I worked in the 1980s and upon whom Gringolandia is based—but my own story remained hidden from view. After a troubled childhood and adolescence and continued struggles in the workplace, I was diagnosed with the mild form of autism that, until recently, had the separate name of Asperger’s Syndrome. Having the diagnosis answered a lot of questions about why I failed to fit into most social situations, regularly became the target of bullies, and was convinced that few people actually liked me.
The protagonist of Gringolandia is a teenage boy, and it was easy to write a character so different from me. When I wrote the companion novel from his sister’s point of view, I got the response, over and over, that the main character was unlikable. With the encouragement of my first advisor at VCFA, An Na, I decided to face my own difficult past and to create a character that nobody likes in the story, but who gains the sympathy of readers.
Through workshops and lectures, I learned how to make protagonists likable. I also learned what doesn’t work. For instance, while whining definitely makes a character unlikable, not whining and always trying hard to be helpful doesn’t automatically make one likable. I guess I should have figured that one out from real life. Plenty of times when I was younger, I did stuff for people only to discover later that they didn’t really like me but were only taking advantage of me.
So what did I learn to make Kiara, my character in Rogue, likable?
I learned that other characters should like the main character, because the reader tends to follow the lead of other characters. That was hard for Kiara (as for me in real life) because she had no friends at school. I ended up creating two secondary characters who show Kiara’s essential kindness that lies behind her lack of social skills. One is an older neighbour, a family friend who has cared for Kiara since she was small, and the other is a vulnerable six-year-old boy for whom Kiara (at first reluctantly) assumes the role of playmate and protector.
More importantly, however, I learned that characters become likable when they have a strong desire and pursue it against all odds. On the surface, Kiara desires a friend. But her desire is more complex, woven into her belief that she is a mutant like the X-Men superheroes with whom she is obsessed. She believes that mutants have a special power, and they can use their power to wreak revenge, or else to help the society that has excluded them and thus build understanding of mutants. Kiara has not yet found her special power, and she has not yet committed to making the world a better place. In fact, at the beginning of the novel, she smacks a popular girl’s face with a lunch tray and gets suspended from school.
Despite rejection and the appearance of some very bad options, Kiara doesn’t give up her quest for a friend or for the special power that will give her a place in her world. My efforts to find the strengths of my character—the things that make her sympathetic to readers—have allowed me to reexamine my own childhood and to find something good in my own struggles as well.