A weak counter-narrative might make a book boring, but a weak narrative makes it unsalable.

Hobbit_coverDoing more thinking about narratives and counter-narratives. This is especially coming up in the context of revisions for my middle grade novel, Everyone Hates You. Novels about bullying are a bit trite because we get it: bullying is bad. You don’t need to read an entire novel to know that.

The narrative here is that people are bullying you because they’re awful, and the counter-narrative is that people are bullying you because you are awful.

What makes my book so harrowing, on the other hand, is that the counter-narrative is treated seriously. The main character is a bit weird and a bit sensitive, and he seriously does wonder, throughout the book, whether he maybe deserves what he’s getting.

And I think that’s good. The essential point I’m trying to make is that bullying is a self-fulfilling prophecy: you torment someone for long enough, and eventually they’ll become so antisocial and weird that they start to invite torment.

The problem with the book, though, is that the counter-narrative is too believable! The kid is weird, and you’re like, huh, maybe he does deserve it. This is such a frustrating problem to have.  Everything else is clicking well–the thriller plot, the chaste middle-grade love story, the twists and turns and central mystery.

My problem is that my narrative is too weak. Books work best if, at the beginning, you wholly believe in the main character’s central narrative (no matter how false it might be).

For instance, take The Hobbit. This is a book that should not work.

The central narrative is that Bilbo Baggins is a settled bourgeois who only wants a comfortable life, while the counter-narrative is that he’s a conniving burglar who hungers for gold.

The problem here is obvious. If he’s so bourgeois, why does Baggins go on the quest in the first place? Obviously there’s a hole you could drive an ent through. But you know what? No matter how ridiculous it is, you still believe, right up until it finally gets shattered (and then amended) near the end, that Baggins is bourgeois at heart.

And why is that? It’s because Tolkien takes the first twenty pages to thoroughly sell Baggins’ narrative. He describes Baggins’ life in such vivid detail, and brings you so thoroughly on board, that you can’t help but buy into the hobbit’s view of himself.

That’s my problem. If I could just sell my readers, even if it was for only the first ten pages, on the idea that my protagonist was being unfairly victimized, then the novel would sail along smoothly (better than smoothly, because the uncertainty and discomfort caused by the strong counter-narrative would have more effect).


P.S. The Hobbit is far superior to Lord of the Rings precisely because it, unlike LotR, has a strong counter-narrative.

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  1. Dustin Katz

    Hey, this is some cool stuff to think about as I plan my first solo novel attempt! Thanks! Also thanks for making me feel better about devouring The Hobbit but getting bored and stopping halfway through The Two Towers in middle school.

    Also also! I don’t know if you intended this, but this might be a funny typo: “The central narrative is that Bilbo Baggins is a settled bourgeois who only wants a comfortable lie,” instead of “a comfortable life.” I like “a comfortable lie” better anyway. Isn’t that what we all want?

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Haha, maybe I’ll keep it then. Yeah, I finished LotR I think, ages ago, but even as a kid I can recall preferring the Hobbit. Your first solo novel attempt!!! Exciting. Let me know how it goes.

      1. Dustin Katz

        Well thank you for all the exclamation marks! They are much appreciated. I will definitely let you know.