I have always been in awe of J. K. Rowling, both for her amazing financial success and for her positive effect in attracting millions of children to take up reading. However, I’m not alone in wondering whether she is the one-trick-pony with the most astounding trick that ever hit the publishing world. Unfortunately, “The Casual Vacancy,” her first foray into adult writing, does nothing to dispel this impression. Perhaps a few lessons in basic writing would help.
First Lesson: The Title
Beginning authors who are unsure of their craft have a tendency to politely water down the impact of their writing with limiting adjectives, probably with the intention of not sounding melodramatic. They have to be told to be bold. Don’t get your characters “slightly angry,” or “sort of bothered.” It doesn’t make your writing subtle; it makes it blah. Have the courage of your convictions. Give your characters strong emotions.
So when I pick up a book where the title contains “casual,” I am already underwhelmed. Since I am not from a country that uses this political term, the title means nothing and sends no emotion. Had I known what it meant, I would have thought “Civic politics? Blah.” The title is the author’s first (and often only) chance to sell the book. A glance at this one, and I would have passed along to something that sounded more interesting.
Second Lesson: Start Your Conflict Early
If readers don’t get excited early on, they put the book down. The main conflict in this story starts on page 96. In the first 95 pages, we are introduced to a bewildering number of characters and their petty conflicts. And if we aren’t drawn in by an exciting conflict, we had better be strongly attracted by the characters, right?
Third Lesson: Get Readers Involved in Your Main Character
If you must, use Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” scene from his how-to screenwriting book of the same name. Even if the protagonist is a typical anti-hero with all sorts of nasty qualities, he or she has to do something early in the story to allow us to connect, so that we care about the outcome. Otherwise we would put the book down.
In this book it is page 100 before we see enough of the protagonist to figure out that we should feel sorry for her. Her ‘save the cat’ scene happens far too late in the book, and she is just too nasty a person, no matter whose fault it is and how hard she tries, for us to connect.
Fourth lesson: Only Children Want Comic Book Characters.
One of Rowling’s main skills, required by the huge casts that populate her fantasies, is the ability to create and handle large numbers of characters, quickly and effectively limned out. The downside of this? If you check out the Harry Potter series, you will see that the characters are black-and-white. There are the good guys and the bad guys, and only Professor Snape in between. And he’s really nasty most of the time. Rowling hasn’t spent any time working with multi-faceted characters. So in a book where all the characters are negative, she has no knack of giving them interesting positive qualities that will create reader empathy. Bottom line? I don’t connect with any of them.
Fifth Lesson: Humour Requires Sympathy
Unless readers are fans of the old Ricki Lake show and its ilk and are entertained by nasty people saying and doing nasty things to each other, I don’t think they are going to find this book very funny.
Sixth Lesson: The Plot Would Be Great If Only the Characters…
“The Casual Vacancy” is the story of the politics of a small town and all the people involved. The conflict comes from a vacant position on the town council. The twist is that someone has hacked the council’s website, and is using it to air everyone’s dirty linen. Caught up in this distasteful stew is a disadvantaged teenager who is desperately trying to keep her small family together and give her little brother a proper upbringing, with no help from her drug-addicted mother. You can see the “save the cat” possibilities, but this young woman is a nasty bully to everyone else, so her sympathetic protagonist potential is limited. This plot is a useful vehicle for realistic conflicts between the characters, but if you don’t care about any of the characters enough to be interested in who wins these little conflicts, the whole construct falls down.
A TV Series? Sure
Word has it that Rowling intends to make a TV series of this idea. It must be nice to have enough money to indulge your artistic impulses, regardless of artistic merit. However, in this case I predict success. This show has a chance of emulating another story with similar unpleasant characters. “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is far better as a film than as a book because of the acting.
The way to accomplish success with “Casual Vacancy” is to cast the show with charismatic actors. This overcomes the empathy problem, and lets the story ride on its other strengths: the neatly intertwining plot, the realism, and the nasty humour. You don’t need to put any cats in danger if you have Maggie Smith and Judi Dench playing crusty old ladies.
Maybe the television experience will teach Ms. Rowling something about characterization, and allow her next book to connect with its audience more. Or maybe she will go back to the genre in which she excels. She has made a great contribution to children’s literature, and she deserves all the success she can get.