Thursday, January 6, 2011

"The Westing Game" and Character Arcs in YA Novels

I recently read Ellen Raskin's fabulous, Newbery Award-winning YA novel The Westing Game, about an eccentric millionaire, Samuel W. Westing, whose heirs are forced to compete for millions of dollars by following clues and solving puzzles to determine the identity of Westing's murderer. Complicating matters, the heirs all live in the same apartment building, and they're paired up with the least likely people as teammates in the game.

Bonus material (yay!) at the end of the book included an interview with the author.

She was asked about character arcs in children's literature, and she replied: "I'm not the type of writer who wants her characters to grow and develop and change... Children know change, they're changing every day. My attitude toward my characters in my book is to try to describe my characters in one way, a way that children might say, 'Oh, I don't like that one.'... and just when the children know them better, through their actions... to have the readers change the opinion of these characters, rather than have the characters in the book change..."

Her response fascinated me, because I'd had that exact experience while reading The Westing Game. Characters I didn't initially like, or assumed were a certain way, turned out to be completely different than I predicted, but they didn't really change; it was only my perception as a reader that changed.

For those who write MG or YA novels, do your characters grow in the course of the story, or does the reader's interpretation of them simply change?

I think there are merits to both, though I personally tend toward the former. I like to see a concrete difference in my main character from the first page to the last, but I also like Ellen Raskin's idea -- particularly in mysteries -- of holding back information and allowing that to color the reader's assumptions.

To hear more from Raskin (er, literally) here's the complete audio.

Also, next Thursday at 1pm EST, my agent Sara Megibow is hosting a live webinar all about opening pages and how important they are in catching the attention of an agent or editor. She'll be offering a free read of the first 3 pages of each novel for the participants. If you're at the querying stage, this is a great opportunity to get feedback and will be worth every penny.


  1. Oh man, this is SO INTERESTING. I read The Westing Game for the first time as an adult too. I had actually, a few years back, gotten notes from an agent that my manuscript needed more and better descriptions, and one of my friends recommended I take a look at this book for how really nicely done description was--SUCH A GREAT SUGGESTION.

    But I love this too; it's really smart advice, and it makes a lot of sense... it isn't always realistic, and it doesn't always serve the story to have someone end up a different person than they started out. Agggg, great stuff to ponder.

  2. Thanks, Ames :)

    I also wonder if there's a middle ground that could inspire as well, i.e. writing a story where the character doesn't change, but the *way the character views the world* changes. That would seem to combine the two views.

  3. I read THE WESTING GAME for the first time about 6 months ago, so this is so interesting. I'm trying to think back to what I thought about the characters at the time and my mind is all mushy. I think I may need to reread it. Gah.

    I love the idea trying to change a reader's perception of a character throughout a book. I think some of my favorite characters are the ones who change a little, but I also just get to know better and understand by the end of the book. Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind.

  4. Thanks, Natalie, and Happy New Year :) I was impressed by Ellen Raskin's ability to write the story from so many perspectives and characters, too. I usually stick to first person or close 3rd so this was really interesting for me to read on lots of levels -- plus a great story.

  5. The Westing Game is one of my favorites! Great post and food for thought. I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I make another set of revisions to my manuscript and almost wonder if I've started taking things too far. I think Raskin's approach works particularly well for mysteries and the story she's telling, as so much deals with faulty assumptions -- but might leave quite a lot to be desired in straight YA contemporary fiction, say.

  6. Thanks, Kristen, I had a feeling you'd be a fan of this book! :)

    "I think Raskin's approach works particularly well for mysteries..."

    My thoughts exactly. I could learn a lot from her about which elements of a character or his/her behavior should be temporarily kept hidden from the reader or other characters. And I agree that in straight YA contemporary it might work better to have the leads go through a change or two.