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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Why there's a James Patterson section at the bookstore

I recently finished reading the first Maximum Ride novel, The Angel Experiment, to my kids. It had annoying stylistic issues, uneven plot structure, and way too many chapters. One hundred forty something? Seriously?

Still, I can see why, when I was shopping for the sequel (at some awful chain store - sorry, Mike!), I found among sections titled "Mystery" and "Young Adult Fiction," one called "James Patterson."

I was wondering about this from a writer's perspective, as well as a reader's. Please excuse the pomposity of what follows. I am opining, and asking for you to read. It is a pompous exercise by nature, and unlike Newt Gingrich, I will own up to my pomposity.

How does a story attract readers and hold them? One attraction is familiarity, which allows for empathy. We like Huck Finn's impish disdain for authority not because it is good, but because we feel the same sometimes, even into adulthood, yearning to kick off our shoes and run away to the river.

Another attraction is exoticism. The strange world of Gethen Ursula LeGuin reveals in The Left Hand of Darkness, beginning with the celebration of the completion of a public works project in the Karhide capital, not only introduces us to the cautious, patient protagonist Genly Ai, but also to the cold, damp, and fusty civilization that evolved there.

There is also the appeal of coming to know someone new, to make a new friend (or a new self) through reading fiction. For me, one of the best was the self-righteous and lethally impulsive Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. He is nettled and worried, alone and betrayed, wronged and reckless.

And here's why (aside from diligence, volume, and effective marketing) James Patterson's Maximum Ride succeeds: Patterson takes readers from ignorance of the world and people he created, through knowledge of Max, her family, and their world, into empathy. (Pompous enough yet?)

  • at the stage of ignorance, readers have familiarity and empathy with their own stories
  • at the stage of knowledge, readers acquire familiarity with the protagonist, and are developing empathy
  • at the stage of empathy, readers begin to feel what the protagonist will do next, and to care about the outcome
I've been thinking about making readers care about protagonists a lot. Patterson, to me, clearly has this down. Not only is Max almost instantly empathetic (there's a quick step in Angel Experiment from a tiny bit of knowledge to strong empathy), but the supporting characters are all deeply likeable, though my favorite is Nudge.

I'm a lot like Nudge in some respects, so I think the difference between my identification with her and with the other characters is based on that, whereas with Max, it's more about the convincing empathy of the situation. It's Max's situation in the world Patterson creates, more than Nudge's or even Angel's, that generates empathy.

How does someone like George R. R. Martin do this with a dozen (I've honestly lost count) characters? I'm on the third (have I lost count of that, too?) book of the Song of Ice and Fire septology (wouldn't that be appropriate?), and I am absolutely stunned at how much I yearn for the next bit of news about each of the characters. I'm even hungry for news from Theon Greyjoy!

The reason, or a good chunk of it, for this eagerness, is that each lead character has strengths I wish I had, and weaknesses I feel a need to avoid. Jon Snow is resourceful, but impulsive; Jaime Lannister is a champion, but unfettered by ethics or sympathy; Catelyn Tully Stark is proud and kind, but badly governed by those good emotions; Daenerys Targaryen is resilient and a strategic thinker, but in well over her head, and my favorite, Arya Stark, has the heart of a hero, but the body of a not-quite-ten-year-old girl. (Okay, that's not my problem exactly, but physical weakness is kind of a universal fear.)

And with each character-centered chapter, a part of the story is told, and knowledge is gained, but the characters' strengths and weaknesses make them more empathetic. And then Martin cuts us off from the newsfeed, the supply of knowledge. And we're stuck, waiting for more.

So why is there a Patterson section at B&N, and not a Martin section? Patterson tells single-narrative stories in great proliferation, allowing less polish, and inventing less of the world. He has less knowledge to convey (though he has plenty in his world), and fewer characters to bring to life, than Martin does.

I wonder if any of this will be useful in writing.

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