I’m not too embarrassed to admit that I’ve learned some things from little kids–things I should have known long before I did.
A nine-year-old taught me out to clean a fish when I was about 31. An eight-year-old taught me a better way to memorize poetry when I was in my early 20’s. A ten-year-old girl taught me how to find available disk space under DOS 6.2 (this was a while ago).
And more recently, a six-year old showed me something critically important about writing fiction.
I delight in sharing things I remember from my youth with my son. One of them is the TV show Emergency!, which is now streamable on Netflix. When I was his age I never missed an episode when my family could get to a TV set. There was so much excitement and adventure and camaraderie among the cast. It still holds up as a good show, though of course today it would be politically corrected with a “diverse” cast. It would probably also be made edgier in some way–perhaps with calls involving cell phones stuck up someone’s bum. (Hey! It happens!)
It was easy to predict that he’d find the adventures of paramedics Roy DeSoto and Johnny Gage interesting. What I didn’t predict is that as soon as the playback started, my son would be in front of the TV, evaluating the different characters and deciding which he wanted to “be.”
After a few seconds, he said “I want to be this guy!” With that, he chose Johnny Gage and settled in to watch the story unfold, and that’s where he’s been for months.
So there it was, laid out before me: Just as Vonnegut in his 8 Basics for Creative Writing said that writers needed to give the reader one character to root for, so my son showed that he needed to root for a character before he even started watching the show. It was a pre-requisite to viewing. And all without even having read Kurt Vonnegut at all (though as a young hipster that’s probably not far away).
As a writer you need to ask yourself which character your reader is likely going to want to be, then let the reader be that character, just as my six-year-old chose to see the world of Emergency! through the eyes of Fireman Johnny Gage. If you don’t have a character that’s worthy of such an embrace, you’re likely going to find it harder to engage the reader.