Quieter, character-driven books

I’m well aware of the fact that I tend to write books that are quieter and more character-driven than many modern books. I’m writing what I know, what I grew up reading—books that are primarily about a journey through life (growing up or adulthood), self-discovery, growth, change, development, inner-struggles. I didn’t read much of any genre fiction growing up, but I honestly have a hard time coming up with any children’s and young adult books I read way back when that were very high stakes, fast-paced, dripping with action and conflict, very plot-centric.

It makes me sad to think of all the classic children’s and young adult books that would have a hard time getting published today because they’re so quiet, episodic, and character-based instead of built around some breakneck plot and with high stakes. I’m thinking of books like:

Understood Betsy

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years

The Ramona Quimby series

The Five Little Peppers series (yes, Margaret Sidney had a number of limitations as a writer, and the books are kind of dated in other ways, but I do have a fondness for them)

Just about anything by Carolyn Haywood (Primrose Day, her Betsy series, etc.)

Lois Lenski’s historical fiction books set in various geographical regions of the United States

Judy Delton’s delightful Kitty series (set in St. Paul during the 1940s), which held up very well for me upon rereading as an adult

Anne of Green Gables

The Little House series

Many Jude Blume books

Pippi Longstocking

And the types of books I saw in the children’s and young adult section of my libraries back then were typically contemporary (usually issue-based, like divorce, eating disorders, bullying, etc.), historical, mystery, fantasy, and sci-fi. We definitely didn’t have paranormal, post-apocalyptic, or dystopian!  If they did exist, they were under different names and classifications. I loved witch books when I was younger, but they didn’t have their own special section of paranormal, urban fantasy, or magical realism. And from what I remember of the witch books I read, they tended to just be simple stories of young witches growing up and experiencing interesting adventures.

I think a lot of people nowadays, agents and writers alike, have forgotten that you don’t need high stakes, intense conflict and action, and a high concept to tell a good story and create memorable, realistic characters. You should never have NO conflict or plot structure, but it’s not as though you need to go in the extreme other direction either.

My chronological first Atlantic City book is just that type of book. It’s just a simple, short story (only 60,000 words after the significant rewrite and restructuring of what had only been 38,000 words) about a young immigrant, Sparky/Kätchen, who dreams of becoming a real American girl so long as she doesn’t have to compromise her Jewish faith. Along the way, her new best friend Cinni learns there’s more than one way to be a real American. And as she’s navigating this strange new world, Sparky also learns a bit about the unusual neighborhood she’s come to. Oh, and Cinni and Sparky’s favorite brother Barry develop a secret crush on one another, though Cinni’s still a bit too young to do anything about it.

That’s really the whole story. No high stakes, no intense conflict, not much of any action. Just a simple, sweet story about two young girls in 1938, along with an interesting cast of characters making up this unusual neighborhood. Once upon a time, that was all that was needed to sell a story for that age group. I personally consider it lower YA instead of upper MG, and hate how there’s not as much fluidity of acceptable age parameters as there used to be in children’s, preteen, and young adult books. During the significant rewrite and restructuring, I made the age of Cinni, Sparky, and their friends ambiguous partly for that very reason. At most, the reader knows they’re under 12.

If I threw in higher stakes or packed it with conflict in a fourth draft, it wouldn’t be the same story anymore, and it would feel really forced and fake. My Atlantic City books have a very episodic feel, as the stories of these characters gradually unfold as they come of age during the late Depression, WWII, and the postwar era. Sure some action-packed things happen, but as part of a big picture, and over time instead of all at once. I just write stories that are quieter and more about building character, and I accept that. Hopefully there are still some agents out there who realize that not all books for young people need to be fast-paced and high-concept.

4 thoughts on “Quieter, character-driven books

  1. Interesting thoughts! I agree that there is definite value in quieter stories. Those were– and still are– some of my favorites to read. I do love the high-concept, conflict-driven stories too. Some books are even sort of a mix of the two– I recently read Code Name Verity, that had high stakes and tension but was very character focused, and loved it. I think it’s good to have all sorts of books in the marketplace. I think you should write what you love, because that’s where your greatest stories come from!

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  2. I love character-driven books (that’s why I write them, too:) I’m guessing there are agents out there who still love a slower pace . . . maybe it’d be considered more literary fiction?

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    • Yeah, I’ve been considering querying this particular book as historical literary fiction, and have been on the fence for awhile about querying certain of my books with younger characters as YA period. My Atlantic City historicals already have a mix of social satire and spoof, which isn’t exactly known as a popular YA subgenre!

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