A few weeks ago, I reviewed a new chick-lit book, Soup in the City, by Kelly Hollingsworth. I really enjoyed the book, but had made a comment about how over-the-top I thought the main character was. I said I find this happens in many of the chick-lit books I’ve read and I wondered why.
Well, Kelly asked me about these comments. I responded to her and then asked if she would be willing to write a guest post on this subject from the author’s point of view. I thought it would be interesting to hear an author’s thought about her protagonist. So, with no further ado, here is what Kelly had to say>>>>
Is She Done Yet?
A not-too-serious analysis of overblown chick lit characters
In her recent review of Soup in the City, my first novel, Nicole Baker wondered why chick lit characters are so often “a little overdone.”
This question scattered my thoughts in a zillion different directions, which surprised me, because I’m usually pretty solid in my opinions. Immediately upon reading Nicole’s review, however, I felt the following simultaneous and somewhat paradoxical emotions:
- embarrassment that my character was so overdone;
- complete denial that anything about this character was overdone;
- smug confidence that the character was just the right amount of overdone;
- freaked out that I have no idea what I’m doing as an author.
I wasn’t at all worried about the freaked-out part, because if I wanted to feel good about myself, I definitely wouldn’t have become a writer. But the feelings about whether or not this character was overdone were so conflicting they fairly screamed for further examination.
In the face of my angst, Nicole generously offered to let me analyze my thoughts on this topic in a guest blog spot. I’ve been pondering over-the-top characters for the last few weeks, and here’s what I’ve come up with:
First, for those of you who haven’t read Soup in the City, Avery is a well-meaning but misguided NYC girl who decides a sable coat will catapult her into the social life of her dreams. She finds a gently used sable on E-Bay and picks it up for a cool fifty grand. This purchase, coupled with the abrupt end of her income, topples Avery’s house of credit cards. She winds up homeless in the high-rent district, squatting at her friend’s ultra-high end apartment but without money for basic necessities like food or even bus fare to look for a job.
Is this over-the-top? The evidence certainly points that way. The fraction of women who are able to buy any sable coat, whether used or new, is infinitesimally small. In doing research for this book, I tried on a new sable at a Fifth Avenue fur salon. The coat was on clearance, but it still had a six-figure price tag ($130,000, to be exact). Even among those women who could afford such an extravagant purchase, most would put the money to better use (although with the state of the markets today, I’m not quite sure what that use would be). In any case, under these facts, I must admit to writing an over-the-top character. There’s just no way to sidestep this accusation.
But the more important question is whether this was necessary. After much analysis, I’ve decided that it was, for a few reasons.
First, I wanted to explore several themes with this book, and illumination is usually found in the extremes.
Of course it’s over-the-top to buy a sable coat thinking it will change your life, but most of us have purchased something we couldn’t afford (shoes, handbags, $180 jeans) to impress someone or simply to maintain our place in the social circle we inhabit. Our purchases and credit-card problems aren’t as notable as Avery’s, so we generally accept them as a necessary part of life.
But are they really? Probably not. I wrote Soup in the City as America’s financial crisis was just gathering steam, and I was kicking myself for all the seldom-worn, sadistic sandals in my closet. When I plunked down the cash for these shoes, I thought they would change my life. But the shoes seemed quite silly once mortgage payments and health insurance premiums were breathing down my neck like hungry wolves.
Because Avery enjoyed a rather fantastic income, she was able to indulge the tendencies we all have, but in a much bigger way. When a closet full of fancy shoes, clothes and handbags failed to impress, she decided to bludgeon her way into a Carrie Bradshaw-like existence with one purchase so noteworthy everyone would have to sit up and pay attention.
And guess what? It didn’t work, and the catastrophic consequences of her failed one-upmanship were abundantly clear. By drawing Avery in the extremes, I hoped to illustrate the folly of our own, more mundane financial decisions, and how damaging they can be.
The same goes for the nature of addiction, another theme explored in the book (in Avery’s case, extreme dieting and the crazed binging that inevitably follows). Lots of chick lit books deal with addiction of one sort or another, and addiction is necessarily extreme, particularly when it’s not white-washed with social editing. If you know an addict, you probably don’t know the depths of her problem, because it’s highly sanitized for public consumption.
With an addictive fictional character, on the other hand, you get to live in her head. You get to see, first-hand, the self-destructive things she does to herself, and how out-of-control she really is. This rare glimpse into someone’s private thoughts is bound to seem overdone, because it’s not diffused through the politeness screen that filters almost every conversation.
I also think it was necessary to make Avery a little larger than life for the pure entertainment value that creates. We all know lots of girls with credit card problems, a few extra pounds they’d like to lose, and slimy boyfriends they should lose. That’s the stuff of everyday life, and not what inspires us to pick up a book and read it from cover to cover. Most of us use fiction as a means of escape—we want to be taken somewhere new, and perhaps witness something a little outrageous in the process.
For all of the foregoing reasons, Avery is a little outrageous. But I love her and stand by her, just the same.