From Dynamite Dinahto Dinah Forever:
Managing a Character's Growth through a Series
I have a feeling that down deep every author would like to write a series, or at least a sequel, or at least, having written the first book, finds herself hankering for some glimpse into the future, some peek into her protagonist's later escapades and adventures, some need to discover wha thappened after happily ever after. I know that in my own case, having created a fictional world and the characters who inhabit it, it has always been hard for me to let go at the end of one book and go on to the next.
On the other hand, for many years I doubted whether I would ever write a second book about any of my characters for the following reason. While all good fiction, I believe, deals with the growth of its characters, my books center on the protagonist's growth so strongly that at the end of the book my main character is different enough from the girl she was in the beginning that there begins to seem no point in writing about her rather than about some other girl with some other set of problems and challenges that will occasionher growth. My characters seemed to me almost defined by the problem that grips them in Chapter One, and as they overcome this problem and mature toward their growth in Chapter Fourteen, their change along the way is extremely deep. They are shaken to the core of their being. And how many times in a row can you shake the same character to the core of her being? So after triumphantly scrawling THE END at the conclusion of each of my books, I moved on, reluctantly, to the next.
But when I wrote Dynamite Dinah (Macmillan, 1990), I knew at the end that I simply could not bear to move on. I had to know more about what happened to Dinah, even though Dinah, as much or more than her predecessors, had been shaken to the core of her being and was thoroughly transformed over the course of the first book.
The central problem in the first book, the problem that defines Dinah as a character, is, not to put too fine a point on it, an over-abundance of ego. Both at home and at school, Dinah has always been the center of attention. An indulged only-child, a talented actress, Dinah believes that a disproportionate share of the world's attention is rightfully hers. After all, interesting people should be the ones talking, and boring people should be the ones listening, right? And in her own view, Dinah is exceedingly interesting. In my other life, I teach philosophy; so to throw in a bit of professional jargon, we could say that Dinah is an adherent of the philosophical view known as solipsism, "the view that nothing exists or is real but the self," here, Dinah's self. Thus, when Dinah momentarily forgets the text of the poem she has memorized for a class recitation, she compares this failure to her best friend Suzanne's past memory lapses at piano recitals: "This was like Suzanne's piano recitals, but a hundred times worse. Suzanne's piano recitals had happened to Suzanne. This was happening to Dinah." But in the courseo f the book Dinah is faced with a brand new baby brother at home and a teacher at school who casts not Dinah, but Suzanne, as Becky Thatcher in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (To her disgust Dinah plays Village Girl Number Two.) And by the end of the book, Dinah learns to accept that she must sometimes share the spotlight, that "The way she felt about herself was the way that other people felt about themselves." What could I possibly do in the next book, given the centrality of this revelation to Dinah?
Now, as an autobiographical aside, I must say that as a child I was very like Dinah, only it was my kindergarten teacher who failed to cast me in mya ccustomed starring role. At Christmas time we performed a little class play based on The Nutcracker, and I was the girl who danced around the Christmas tree with tinsel in my hair. At Valentine's Day we offered another holiday play, and I was Miss Valentine, wearing a big red heart, all edged with lace. Then we put on a classroom production of Peter Pan. When I talk to children, I ask them to guess what part they think I played. "Peter Pan!"they call out. "Wendy?" "Captain Hook?" "Tinker Bell?" No, I tell them. My teacher decided that it was someone else's turn to have a part! I served on the backstage crew. I never got over it -- probably I still haven't -- and that experience was very much the seed for Dynamite Dinah. I also remember distinctly the moment that my own solipsism was first explicitly shaken. I was in third grade, at a rehearsal of the Crusader Choir at our church, sharing a hymnal with a girl named Paula Jo Hatfield, when suddenly it occurred to me with an electrifying vividness that Paula Jo Hatfield was aperson, with her own thoughts and feelings, her own inner life. Just as I thought of her as the girl who sat next to me in choir sharing my hymnal, so she thought of me as the girl who sat next to her in choir sharing her hymnal. But of course real life is not fiction, and in real life this realization, however earth-shattering at the time, never quite "took." To this day, my ego is very large -- maybe a writer's ego has to be, to survive the criticism and rejection that is part of our job description. In any case, I still run into trouble at the dinner table for operating on Dinah's principle that interesting people should talk and boring people should listen. Here, my husband, I must admit, is assigned the listening role, for his preferred topics of conversation tend to be things like "Features of WordPerfect 6.1 that differ from features of WordPerfect 5.1," while my stories are, quite frankly, far more scintillating. Still, sometimes I must at least pretend to listen, and, good wife that I am, I do -- but grudgingly.
So, in real life, we don't ever "learn our lesson" for once and for all. We don't overcome our problems neatly at age ten, or fourteen, or forty, but have to keep facing the same problems over and over and over again. Yet, in fiction, we do expect some progress forward. I had provided this for Dinah inDynamite Dinah. Now, how could I take this character forward to the next book, still recognizably Dinah, still a child with an overly large ego, but with an ego chastened by her experiences in the first book?
Luckily, the action of Dynamite Dinah takes place in the spring of fifth grade, so I could advance by moving Dinah to a new setting, on to the start of sixth grade in middle school, where her growth from the first book could be tested against a whole new range of challenges. All children, I think it is safe to say, experience some shock of adjustment on moving from elementary school to middle school, and the shock will only be intensified if the child has had an inflated sense of her own position in the former. So Dinah, once a big frog in a small pond, is moving to the big pond, where no one knows or cares about her erstwhile glories. Casting about for some way to make her mark on her new surroundings, she hits upon a run for the office of sixth-grade class president. There is nothing she particularly wants todo or achieve as president; she just wants to bepresident. President Dinah: it has a satisfying big-froggish kind of sound.
I myself ran for class office unsuccessfully three times -- in seventh, eighth, and ninth grade -- before I finally astonished myself (and everyone else) by being elected president of my sophomore class. Each election had its own particular pains and humiliations: the time I ran against three boys, and the balloting produced a three-way tie, three winners, and only one loser -- yes, you guessed it, me; the time I ran against a boy I fancied myself in love with, and so on. Like Dinah, or at least Dinah at the outset of her race, I never had any platform or program for what I would do if I should actually win -- I just liked campaigning, especially the part where I would make a passionate speech to the entire student body, assembled as a captive audience in the school auditorium. When I finally did win, elected largely by a hefty "pity"vote -- "Poor Claudia -- it will look pretty bad if she doesn't get anyvotes!" -- I was faced with the dreary task of having actually to be class president. Let me tell you, the president of the sophomore class in North Plainfield, New Jersey, does not negotiate many peace treaties in the Middle East or unveil any packages of historic legislation or get to drop any nuclear bombs on anyone.
Dinah's race for class office, however, forces her to adopt, opportunistically, a platform of promised action. Half-heartedly, she settles on trying to establish a recycling program at her school and finds that, as she campaigns for it with her usual reckless exhibitionism, she ends up convincing herself that a school wide recycling program is urgently needed -- indeed, that it is more important to the future of planet Earth than even her own election. It doesn't matter in the end, Dinah discovers, whether you are a big frog in a little pond or a little frog in a big pond: what matters is what kind of pond you live in, and what you can do to make it better. So in Dinah for President (Macmillan, 1992), Dinah takes another step forward in overcoming the self, this time as she takes her part on a larger stage, entering and learning to care about a world beyond her own school and family.
I thought I was done with Dinah then. But I had long harbored the seed for another book, one that stubbornly refused all my attempts to grow it into a novel, until I suddenly had the idea of bringing Dinah back -- of course, Dinah suitably matured through the course of the first two Dinah books -- to star in it. I had always wanted to write a book about unrequited love, mainly because this was my chief activity from the fall of eighth grade -- October 17, 1967, to be exact, the day I fell in love with one poor, persecuted boy named Dick Thistle -- through the summer of my sophomore year in college, when, back in North Plainfield once more, I remember spending many a Saturday afternoon driving ten miles to the shoe store where Dick Thistle worked, glancing in the window to see if he was there, and then driving back home again. I still have a box of poems I wrote to him -- mostly sonnets, addressed to Apollo, the Sun God, from Clytie, the maiden who turned herself into a sunflower for love of him. One stray couplet I will quote here, because it combines the intensity of love with the still ample size of the lover's ego: "I love you more than the rainbow's sweet shades. I love you more than all my good grades."
I had to write a book about unrequited love. Now, there are several ways that such a story can end. (Usually the story doesn't end with the girl six or seven years later still driving by the shoe store where the boy works.) In variation one, exemplified by the greatest of all unrequited love stories, Beverly Cleary's hilarious and heart-breaking Jean and Johnny, the girl discovers that the unattainable boy isn't really worth attaining and that she will be much happier with the kind of friendship between equals that she can find with the attainable boy. I was intrigued, though, by variation two, encapsulated in a quote from Walt Whitman that my sister found for me. Walt Whitman apparently said something to the effect that there was no such thing a sunrequited love: you always get something back. In his case -- and in mine --it was the poems he had written out of that love. In the most elementary case, it is just -- having loved. As in, "It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." So I kept trying to write this second kind of unrequited love story. The only problem was that the heroine in the grip of her unreturned passion invariably turned out to be a strikingly unsympathetic figure -- mopey and drippy and pathetic. That wouldn't do at all.
It was then that I had my idea: What if Dinah were the heroine of this story? Dinah could certainly do up unrequited love if anybody could. She could persecute her own quarry -- I called him Nick Tribble, in obvious homage to my Dick Thistle -- with real theatrical flair. Then at the end of the book Dina hwould realize that she had never really been in love with Nick Tribble at all; she had only been in love with love, or more precisely, in love with the idea of Dinah in love. Once again, Dinah's ego would play a real role in the story, but she wouldn't be left learning the same tired lessons from the first two books all over again.
I was ready! I sharpened my pencils! -- figuratively speaking, for I always write with a Pilot Razor Point pen. I chose a new pen and stared down at the blank page on which I had written Chapter One, Page One, with an expectant shiver. I began to write. Nick arrived on the scene with suitable fanfare. Dinah responded with suitable fireworks. The only problem was that by the end of Chapter One, Dinah wasn't the slightest bit in love with Nick. In fact, in her words, she hated the very marrow of his moldy bones. On to Chapter Two --but at the end of Chapter Two, Dinah was no closer to love than at the end of Chapter One. By this time I knew better than to think she'd capitulate in Chapter Three. It was plain to me that if Nick could win Dinah's heart at all, it would be at the end of the book and not at its beginning. In short, instead of my longed-for story of unrequited love, I had instead the chance to play fondly with the conventions of traditional romantic comedy, situated in the sixth grade. My favorite review of Dinah in Love (Macmillan, 1993), from Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, said of it, "It's predictable, sure, but so were Tracy and Hepburn." What does Dinah learn at the end of the book that ties the story line into her ongoing but ever evolving preoccupation with herself? All along Dinah has asserted that "Dinah Seabrooke isn't the type to like a boy"; at the end she realizes that people don't come in types, and that she isn't locked in to any particular image of herself. Dinah Seabrooke is whoever she is, and as she grows and changes, Dinah will, too.
Now I was done with Dinah forever. Or so I thought. But then it seemed to me that there was still one remaining project for a young woman with an overly sturdy ego, who has learned to share the spotlight at home and at school, learned to care about the wider world, and stumbled, over her own fierce inner opposition, toward her first experience with love. She should face the truth of her own mortality -- the fact that she -- even she -- will not live forever. I had tried to address this theme -- one near and dear to my philosopher's heart -- in an early, failed novel: All the Living(Macmillan, 1983), in which the protagonist, Karla, chiefly sits on a rock brooding about death throughout most of the book. Dinah's brooding, true to her nature, is a much more flamboyant and better publicized affair. InDinah Forever (Farrar Straus Giroux, forthcoming 1995), it's triggered by the seventh grade science teacher's casual announcement, on the first day of school, that the sun, like all stars, has a finite life span and is scheduled to burn itself out in another five billion years. Only five billion years?! Dinah is horrified. Her enduring legacy and immortal fame are plainly threatened, and her own inescapable death for the first time seems real to her. The book ends, as it has to end, with Dinah finally accepting her place in the universe, as one human being on one planet circling one of the hundred billion stars in one of her universe's hundred billion galaxies. So Dinah has come along way from her initial pre-Copernican view in Dynamite Dinah that sheis the center of the universe. That feels like a good place to end a series.
A good thing, too, for, in writing four books about the same heroine, I've found myself increasingly burdened in each successive book by the weight of all the accumulated characters and concerns of the previous books. In Dynamite Dinah I introduced Dinah's best friend, Suzanne; I gave Dinah a new baby brother, Benjamin; and I established her enduring interest in drama. InDinah for President I added an important new friend, an elderly woman, Mrs. Briscoe, and I ignited Dinah's concern with environmental issues. ByDinah in Love, I was beginning to be worried: I still had to have Suzanne, and Benjamin, and plays, and Mrs. Briscoe, and environmentalism. These things were intensely important to Dinah in the other books; I couldn't just ignore or dismiss them now. And then, since a new book had to havesome new elements, I added Nick Tribble and a budding interest in debate. (Dinah debates capital punishment with Nick, as I once debated capital punishment with Dick Thistle.) It was beginning to feel like the fairy tale about the goose girl who goes dancing through town accumulating a motley train of followers all stuck to each other and unable to break free. Could I really craft a story that made use of all these diverse elements? I think I did, though many the time I rued the day I had ever given Dinah a baby brother, as I would find that seven chapters had gone by with nary a mention of Benjamin (he goes to bed early). And I was lucky that I had decided in the second book that Dinah couldn't sing, so I had an excuse to keep her out of any play that was a musical, thus freeing her for involvement in other activities.
Dinah Forever adds an interest in poetry, aroused by Dinah's seventh-grade English teacher, and a fascination with astronomy and the cosmic questions it inspires. And yes, it keeps Suzanne, Benjamin, plays, Mrs. Briscoe, environmentalism, debate, and Nick -- though I was sorely tempted toget rid of Nick somehow. Anthony Trollope briskly killed off his hero's young Irish bride between the ending of Phineas Finn and the opening ofPhineas Redux. But you can't really get away with the offstage death of the heroine's first love in young adult fiction; I couldn't just make some breezy statement in passing somewhere in Chapter One of the new book: "Dinah was still sad that over the summer her first boyfriend Nick had unexpectedly taken ill and died." Instead, since I essentially had no other choice, I decided to take on the challenge of a second installment of Dinah and Nick's love story. There aren't a lot of books for young readers that deal with what happens in an evolving relationship after the first kiss which ends the first book. So I'm glad that I made myself canvass this rocky and stormy terrain. And the parallels between the twin concerns of the book -- the inevitable mortality of both life and love -- made for a stronger story, which I stumbled upon almost in spite of myself.
So Dinah is done. I will write no more about her, ever.
Unless... What if.... ???
Claudia Mills writes her Dinah novels and other works for young readers inBoulder, Colorado. She presented this article as a part of the 1994 ALANWorkshop.