Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

NaNoWriMo tip: Feature your protagonist’s worst fear.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 07•17

Reading fiction makes us scared. And I’m not talking about only horror or thrillers. If a reader isn’t afraid about what awaits the central characters, and if the main characters aren’t vulnerable, then the story won’t work properly and readers won’t lose sleep to discover if the character survives.

In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See readers follow a  blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and young German soldier, Werner Pfennig, in Germany and occupied France. The backdrop for the story is the period surrounding World War II before D-Day.  Marie-Laure understandably fears being alone amid a world gone mad. And indeed, she ends up alone because the Nazis capture her Papa and she’s left to survive by her wits and senses and the lessons her father has taught her.

Werner and his sister are orphans and as a techno-prodigy who can build and fix radios he’s swept up into the relentless Nazi machine. He joins Hitler Youth wanting to escape his fate of becoming a coal miner–his chief fear.  However, he’s a gifted boy. His mind is too active, curious, and mechanically inclined for this dark and brutal work.  But will he survive while tracking down the Resistance radios operating in France? Will he come to realize the truth about the brutal regime he serves?

Another technique Doerr used was to introduce Marie-Laure and Werner during their childhood before the war. As in real life, meeting characters when they’re children makes readers invest more in them.

It’s an intricate and carefully plotted tale with many of the events drawn from history. Their paths collide by story’s end and the novel makes us think about the most vulnerable victims of war. Doerr discusses how he came to write their stories here.

Circumstances are a huge factor in creating fiction–in this novel Werner is born in a mining town and Marie-Laure loses her eyesight at six.  Circumstances will be linked to the trajectory of your plot. In All the Light We Cannot See the Germans occupy Paris  in 1940 so Marie-Laure and her father flee to the Saint-Malo on the coast of Brittany. Her great-uncle Etienne lives there, but he’s a recluse suffering from the effects of WWI.  The French  oppose the Nazi occupation and form the Resistance. Marie is drawn to help and is an asset because of her blindness and youth. The story also includes a rare and cursed jewel that increases the ante because a Nazi  sergeant major knows of its existence. He’s been tasked to collect French artifacts that Hitler covets. And woven through the story is magic of radio waves and their practical role in the war.

She cannot say how many others are with them. Three or four, perhaps. His is the voice of a twelve or thirteen-year-old. She stands and hugs her huge book to her chest, and she can hear her cane roll along  the edge of the bench and clatter to the ground. Someone else says, ‘They’ll take the blind girls before they take the gimps.’ The first boy groans grotesquely. Marie-Laure raises her book as if to shield herself.

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