Whenever I give workshops, I often talk about how the growth of television and motion pictures has affected the medium of the written word. Like it or not, the popularity of more visual mediums has changed both the way authors write and the way that reader’s perceive that writing. While I often caution writers about the bad habits that come with thinking primarily visually when writing (see The 10 Worst Habits of Today’s Writers), it may be more useful to some of you to provide a positive example of a popular author who is successfully avoiding the pitfalls of visual writing while still taking advantage of some of the expectations and habits that television and movies have ingrained in today’s readers: JK Rowling. Although, in this case, I am not talking about her famed Harry Potter series. If you are a writer and you want to take a look at what a well-written novel for modern audiences can achieve, pick up Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy.
Is it the perfect modern novel? No, and its mixed reviews make that clear. I myself kept reading, with some bemusement, as she slid inadvertently into a true omniscient viewpoint in one chapter and then had to scramble to find a graceful way out, given she was juggling dozens of characters. But it is a great book for other writers to read, with an eye out for recognizing how authors need to communicate to readers whose storytelling preferences have been shaped by more visual media. Rowling has taken popular story expectations (a plot full of surprises, somewhat iconic characters, and a hero’s myth structure) and she has met them all. But at the same time, Rowling also uses the written medium and her own narrative voice to provide depth that more visual mediums lack, especially when it comes to the characters. She has then, rather fearlessly —given the world’s expectations for her at the time she wrote The Casual Vacancy — overlaid the story with her own personal style and values, creating a book that most definitely has her in it. Instead of imitating other writers or attempting to imitate television or movies, she has created a book that only she could have written and one that is deeply moving in many respects as a result.
The story itself is relatively simple.The equivalent of an American city councilman dies, pitching a small English village into chaos, primarily due to differing opinions on whether a nearby low income housing project should remain part of the village or be forced on the metropolitan area that built it in the first place. Whoever takes the dead man’s place on the local council will likely sway that decision. As various village inhabitants cope with the sudden death of their well-liked neighbor, more than a few begin to view the vacant seat as a way to fulfill noble and not-so-noble dreams of their own.
The book tracks how a single death can change the undercurrents of a small town, including how people view themselves and how they treat others. The political plot takes a backseat to very real and evocative portraits of people that I suspect every home town includes: the power hungry local businessman who overestimates his importance and joins his wife in kowtowing to minor royalty… the aging sexpot a bit at sea as her sense of self starts to fade with her appeal… unhappy marriage partners… sturdy, overlooked wives who hold the lives of everyone they love together… terrifying domestic abusers… lonely, career-driven women confronted with a dismal dating field… drug-addicted citizens of the welfare state who may or may not mean well, but who always slide back into poverty’s quagmire… and a handful of very unlikely and ultimately very brave teenage heroes.
In fact, it is Rowling’s ability to paint vivid portraits of the town’s teenagers that connect this book the most to her prior Harry Potter work. You meet the smartass class clown, whose wit and sharp tongue make him more of a bully than his more brutish classmates. You meet the less attractive daughter of high achieving parents whose perfect older sister and unfortunate appearance make her the victim of that bullying, as well as her family’s own disappointments. You meet a loyal son doing his best to avoid triggering the vicious temper of a violent father and who tries to find escape in the ecstasy of possible love. And you meet a tough-as-nails teenage girl whom the deceased nearly rescued from a legacy of poverty and who still clings to the moments of high self-esteem his kindness gave her. Rowling makes all of these characters real in a way no script could ever hope to, and especially shows the relationships between children and their parents in heartbreaking detail. This is an author with endless empathy, a very long memory, and remarkable powers of observation.
These relatable characters form the book’s core and stand out as its greatest strength. As she takes turns delving into their lives, including their innermost thoughts, she reveals nuances to their personalities that make them vividly real to the reader and evoke personal memories. Who among us has not suffered the panic of being pinned in the judgment of others? Or known the man who could never quite make a decision about his life, thus dooming him to drift along, unsatisfied and envious of those who have made clear-cut choices? Rowling manages to make them all real, yet still leaves room for the reader to fill in the blanks. She tells us enough but not too much. She conveys a world of regret and longing by describing a single gesture or unuttered phrase, and by choosing those moments carefully: they are moments we can all remember.
Her effectiveness as an author goes well beyond this character-based approach to telling her narrative. Her technical skills as a writer are evident. She achieves a beautiful balance between description, action, and emotional development, and, without being obvious, she has a very strong viewpoint of her own at the core of the story. J.K. Rowling is, as always, fascinated by how being born to a specific station shapes a person’s destiny. In this book, the author definitely has something to say on the subject and she lets the characters she has so vividly created deliver her message for her with extremely powerful results. No one is all good; no one is all bad. That unexpected choice alone forces the reader to stop and confront their own prejudices. It is a very modern plot, but it is never overtold. It shows how a novel can break new ground and speak to audiences that may bring unrealistic expectations about both what a book can do and how problems are solved in the real world.
All of which means, even if you are wary of reading a non-Harry Potter book of Rowling’s, if you are a writer searching for the answer to key questions like, “How can I put myself in my book?” “How do I achieve that balance between showing and telling?” then I would recommend that you check out The Casual Vacancy. Reading it for yourself can tell you more about Rowling’s mastery of modern narrative techniques than I ever could.