by Dave Rosenberg
A week or so ago, this thing was going around on Facebook that incorporated the "f word" into every sentence. It was advice for copy writers, writers, and artists. One of the statements in this post grabbed me because it is the task of every writer in every genre: "Make me effin' care."
I have often wondered how writers achieve that. Crime writers tend to be great at it. One of my favorites is Robert B. Parker. While not high literature in any sense of the word, his work is truly engaging and he gets you to care in about two paragraphs. How? I'm not sure. Part of it may have to do with the point of view of his detectives -- Spenser, Sunny Randall, and Jesse Stone. Maybe another element is that he quickly introduces you to someone whose problem the detective must help to solve and that person is typically either very sympathetic or very repugnant. You just want to know what happens to them
Making the reader care is no small thing, whether you're writing nonfiction, biography, memoir, or a novel. Maybe this is clearest in books based on an anti-hero. Take Josef K in Kafka's Notes from Underground. Somehow, Kafka gets you to connect to Josef K, despite his personal limitations and egoism. In fact, part of what makes us read about antiheroes is that, despite the awful things they do, they have human qualities that we like and identify with. That is, we somehow care about them. I looked up a list of antiheroes to check this idea out and I'm pretty sure it's right. Think about Humbert Humbert (Lolita), Macbeth (actually, Shakespeare created a slew of antiheroes including Hamlet, Othello, Lear, and more), Scarlett O'Hara (Gone with the Wind), Alex (A Clockwork Orange), Easy Rawlins (Walter Mosely's detective), Gollum (The Lord of the Rings). The list goes on and on.
Whatever else you're doing in your book, making the reader care is a core challenge. I'm wrestling with this in my own work. My main character is not necessarily likeable, so I struggle to find ways to make the reader continue to care about him. I've also seen this challenge in action in my wife Hiyaguha's work too. She's currently revising her book to incorporate the suggestions made by her literary agent. He thinks these suggestions will help to get it published. And I've been amazed that her revisions have made me care more and more about her main characters, despite having read the material numerous times and having cared from the start. In fact, as a result of observing this process, I get the feeling that you can determine whether revisions are worthwhile, in part, by whether they increase the reader's ability to care.
So maybe we writers should embrace this as a motto and enshrine the words on our computer screens, writing pads and tee shirts: "Make me efin' care."