I was working on my WIP recently when I started talking about my book with a librarian friend. Specifically scenes where my main character fixes up an old sports car and starts racing around her country town. To my surprise, my friend assumed she would crash the car and eventually learn that this behavior is unsafe. But nope. That isn’t my plan.
My character will learn many life lessons in this book, but will she learn everything she does wrong is wrong? No.
I have literally no plans of writing a scene where her reckless driving results in a massive punishment or obvious lesson. It isn’t the theme of the book. It isn’t necessary to the story. But being a thrill-seeking teenage girl is. She will fix up a car. She will speed with the windows down and her hair whipping wildly about. She will know it’s wrong, and she won’t care, and she will get away with it. Other parts of her life, though? Not so much. There is a lot that will go wrong in her life, and she will grow from them, but I still wouldn’t necessarily call those moments a lesson.
A lesson insinuates that you plan on your reader learning something—generally the same thing from the same content. But books aren’t lessons. They are stories. If lessons or messages happen to come across, great. But I don’t believe an author should set out to write a lesson to a young reader. Sure, we have fairytales where that was the intention. (You know the ones. Don’t go into the woods; they’re wicked witches and scary animals in there!) Those certainly serve a purpose. I would even say there’s room for both kinds of books—stories that are designed to teach and stories that are just stories. That doesn’t mean stories that are just stories won’t have lessons that readers can infer in between the lines. It just means that the story did not intentionally set out to teach anyone anything specific.
To me, it isn’t the author’s job to teach. It’s the author’s job to tell a great story. It’s the reader’s job to identify their feelings about the piece. If that means they learned something, great. But it’s also fine if the reader walks away just feeling happy, sad, or simply entertained. (Not to mention that young readers are super attuned to an adult trying to “teach” them something. Spoiler alert: that’s often the worst way to teach a young person anything.)
In my WIP, my character likes to put the windows down so that she can feel the Kansas winds whipping through her hair while driving down country roads. It makes her feel alive. It puts her in the present. And when I personally think of being a teenager, it was moments like these that I remember best. I didn’t learn to slow down until I was older. My character might learn that lesson when she’s older, too, but she’s only a teenager in this WIP. That lesson simply isn’t going to happen in her life yet. The reckless driving serves a different purpose in the story. It’s a metaphor for her internal struggle. One that doesn’t completely end when the story does. Hence while she’ll continue to speed all the way to the last page. In contrast, my main character in my paranormal romance, the Timely Death trilogy, crashes his car and learns from it. So, I have written that “lesson” elsewhere—where it worked, for both the story and the character. And, of course, my main character in my current WIP will confront other life lessons throughout the piece. But in the end, I don’t expect my reader to walk away with any lessons internalized. Most lessons folks have to learn for themselves. I only want to tell them a story.
In the end, I believe that characters must learn and grow in a story, but that doesn’t mean the reader has to. And your character and readers do not have to have the same feelings/thoughts. In fact, the gray spaces are where the best stories often take place. Sometimes that means
driving writing recklessly on a backcountry road with all the windows down, full speed ahead.