Friday, December 11, 2009

Even fantasies need real world problems

As part of my MA in Writing for Young People, I've been reading ghost stories and analyzing how they work. As a kid, I remember the scariest stories were those told around a campfire or at sleepovers. The final line was always something like: "And the murder happened in this very house."

Now obviously there's no way to recreate that effect in widely published literature, unless you happen to stumble across a novel set in your home town. So what can writers do to help us relate to ghost stories, to feel as if they could've happened in our own house and we might be the next victim?

In my reading, one of the ah-ha moments for me was that the main character needs to have a real world problem. This problem needs to be something the reader can relate to and sympathize with because then readers can believe this story could happen to them, too, no matter how unbelievable its ghostly premise.

I wrote an earlier blog post about the book BOG CHILD by Siobhan Dowd. One of the reasons I loved it so much was because of the main character, Fergus. Fergus has a brother in prison for helping the IRA and the IRA is pressuring Fergus to also join to show his support. Readers might not be able to relate to that, but they can relate to Dowd’s larger themes of peer pressure, family expectations and wanting to be a hero.

In that same blog post, I also mentioned DREADFUL SORRY by Kathryn Reiss. The funny thing about this book is that the main character's problem is very weird and supernatural--she's the reincarnation of a woman with a short and tragic life who wants to make amends. But Reiss makes Molly's problem entirely believable. The woman drowned, so Molly is terrified of water. When confronted with water, Molly is inundated with nightmares and visions. This phobia plays out in Molly’s every day world. She won’t graduate unless she passes her school’s swim test, she’s taunted by her classmates, and physically exhausted from countless sleepless nights.

So even though paranormal novels are filled with ghosts and werewolves and whatever other fantastical plot elements, I think these writers need to work hard to make their characters believable.


  1. I really enjoy reading books with similar stories and comparing.
    Yes, ghost stories around the campfire are best!

  2. Yes! I've done it before, but never while taking notes and being forced to write a paper. I've been amazed by all I've learned. I'm already thinking about other genres I might want to tackle in this way... though without the paper writing this time round!


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