Inspiring Readers with Ordinary Characters

by Jason Black

There’s really no denying that the publishing industry is particularly hot for young adult  and paranormal books right now.  Largely we can thank J.K. Rowling for this, and for the tsunami of paranormal YA books that have followed in the wake of Harry Potter’s wild success.

Yet something about this combined trend unsettles me.  Although I don’t feel that the Harry Potter series itself is guilty of this, I do feel that many of its emulators are doing their audiences a disservice.  I see this in manuscripts from clients as well.  I always make the following suggestion to them:

Consider whether your protagonists need to have paranormal abilities.

Rowling’s Harry Potter books have them.  James Patterson’sMaximum Ride series is all about the abilities.  Does your manuscript do this as well?  If so, please consider whether it’s truly necessary.

I suggest this because of the deeper message such protagonists send to readers.  The message arises from readers’ ability or inability to empathize with the protagonists, based on how the protagonist overcomes the challenges and setbacks in the plot.  For adult readers I don’t think this is an issue, but for kids it is.

You’ve probably heard the rule of thumb that young adult books should target readers who are a couple of years younger than the protagonist, give or take.  It’s because younger readers often read not just for good stories, but also because on some level they’re looking for guidance about what the near future holds for them, in their own lives.

Younger readers ask “can I see myself doing that?"

I don’t mean they read Rowling’s books for tips on spellcasting, nor that they read James Patterson’s for tips on dressing to conceal the genetically engineered bird wings on their backs.  Obviously not.  But they are very tuned-in to portrayals of the emotional and social development of people a handful of years older than themselves. They’re looking for role models of what they can expect from themselves a few years down the road.

For young adult readers, part of the appeal of a good YA novel is the opportunity to try on a slightly more mature persona for a couple hundred pages to see how it feels. Fiction offers a unique capacity to deliver this vicarious experience.

What’s your “meta” message?

If you’ve written a YA paranormal story, what “meta” message does it send?  Your story may have a surface message about the value of persistence, the dangers of hanging out with the wrong crowd, or whatever it may be.  But underneath that, what message will young readers derive from the vicarious experience of living your characters’ lives?

Will they be inspired or discouraged?

In a paranormal book, readers are likely to see one of two things.  You might show them characters a couple of years older than them who struggle against difficult challenges but are ultimately able to handle them.  If you show the reader a situation that the reader feels would overwhelm their present self, yet they also see the protagonist emerge victorious, that’s inspirational.  That sends a message that the reader, too, will someday be able to handle difficult situations.

But it is critical to consider how the protagonist wins the day.

When you show that same protagonist struggle against that same set of difficult challenges but succeed because of a paranormal ability, the meta message is completely different. Your story’s surface message may still come through, but the deeper message changes to a discouraging one.  The message becomes “this character won where you who lack any such abilities would surely have lost.”  I cannot help but feel that this is a terribly discouraging message to send, even if it’s one the author never intended.

Consider the alternatives

Writers of YA fiction have a special opportunity to inspire readers with their own potential, by giving them examples they can empathize with.  This is why I counsel many clients with paranormal YA manuscripts to ask whether they can write story with a normal protagonist, one devoid of powers, who nevertheless saves the day.  Can you?  If you can, chances are it’ll be a better book on multiple levels.  You’ll have to get creative about the character’s solutions to the plot’s problems, making for a better story.  Reader empathy will be higher.  And the “meta” message will be a more inspirational one.

Another option—and it’s a good one—is to give your protagonist super powers if the story requires them, but let victory come from innate human qualities.  Let it arise from compassion, bravery, cleverness, and self-sacrifice.  Let success come from these perfectly ordinary powers young readers can aspire to develop in themselves.

I cite J.K. Rowling and James Patterson for a reason: Rowling does this, while Patterson does not.  The reason Harry Potter is such a beloved figure is because his important successes, the ones that make the difference at each story’s climax, stem not from his magical powers but from his ordinary human qualities.  Voldemort wasn’t defeated by magic, but by compassionate self-sacrifice.  Such noble human qualities—whether exemplified by a boy wizard or a just a boy—cannot fail to inspire.

Conversely, for all James Patterson’s undeniable skill as a marketer, his Maximum Ride series has come nowhere near to having the emotional resonance and inspirational appeal of Harry Potter.  His books haven’t become worldwide blockbuster sensations because, without their powers, his characters would have failed, and failed hard.

Yet without his powers, Harry Potter would still be a hero.  He would still inspire.  What can you do in your novel to inspire your readers with ordinary human qualities?

Jason Black is a book doctor who actively blogs about character development. He will be presenting a session on book doctoring at the 2010 PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at

Jason BlackComment