Elizabeth’s Midnight: How to Read Like a Writer
Every once in a while, you come across a story that satisfies you at the end. The resolution and conclusion speak to you or happen the way you want them to and are earned. Aaron Michael Ritchey’s novel Elizabeth’s Midnight satisfies. Ritchey achieves this by focusing on the main story, giving his characters weaknesses to overcome, and constantly using the writer’s adage “What could be worse.”
Telling One Story
Despite its contemporary beginning, Elizabeth’s Midnight is a young adult urban fantasy. Most fantasy novels require significant amounts of world building and contain a plethora of subplots, but Ritchey’s doesn’t. Fantasy is usually about the magic or fantastical elements. Readers choose the genre to feel a sense of wonder and escape to a place with different possibilities. Because of this, the magic and worlds of fantasy novels are just as important as the characters and plot. Readers return to Harry Potter for Hogwarts. Elizabeth’s Midnight is different.
Ritchey’s novel isn’t about fantasy worlds or even magic. It’s about a girl rebelling against her abusive family to find herself and grant her grandmother’s dying wish. Yes, it has painted men and princes and secrets, but the focus is always Elizabeth. Instead of exploring the fantasy elements of the story and weaving in a bunch of subplots, Ritchey sticks to her. That’s what makes the novel engaging and unique.
The seemingly simple plot and focus is something you can apply to your own writing. Just because your story takes place in another time or place, doesn’t mean that time or place has to be a major feature. You don’t need a bunch of points of view or pages of description to set the scene. You can choose to focus on a single character and tell their story. The unique time and place should still affect the plot and characters, but they don’t have to take over.
Elizabeth’s Midnight is about the protagonist’s arc and plot. Even though the other characters change and are affected by the outcome of the story, Ritchey never loses sight of his true focus: Elizabeth.
What Could Be Worse
One of the ways Ritchey makes a single character’s story so compelling is by constantly making things worse for Elizabeth. Although weak, Grandma May is able to offer advice and support Elizabeth for the first half of the story, but soon Grandma May’s age catches up to her. Instead of being content to allow Grandma May to act as a mentor and adviser, Ritchey asks “What could be worse?” and sends Grandma May’s health, consciousness, and helpfulness into a nose dive.
Mentors are excellent characters – your protagonist has to learn from someone. However, the loss of a mentor often adds more conflict. In Elizabeth’s Midnight, Grandma May’s failing health slows Elizabeth down, endangers them both, and deprives Elizabeth of her main support. What would happen if your main character lost their mentor in a critical moment? How would the conflict and tension change? How could losing a mentor make things worse?
In a tense scene, Elizabeth and crutches-bound Quincy have to travel to a tiny island, while being chased by the antagonists. In a tiny row boat. In choppy waters. During a thunder storm. One aspect of your story that can usually be worse is the weather. If you want to increase the tension and suspense of a chase scene, make the terrain just as deadly as your main character’s foes.
The rain is especially dangerous in Elizabeth’s Midnight because of Quincy. Disabled and unable to walk without his crutches, he can’t help Elizabeth row, would likely drown in the agitated sea, and struggles to make his way across wet cobblestones. This slows their pace significantly, raises the stakes to literal death, and increases the tension. By making the weather worse, Ritchey made this scene much more exciting and climatic.
Bad weather worked and was needed in Elizabeth’s Midnight, but this particular “worse” can feel cliché if not executed well. If your characters don’t need to be outside in the awful weather, don’t force them to be. Find another “worse” to add conflict and tension to your scene.
One way Ritchey constantly sets Elizabeth back is by taking away her necessities. She is robbed of her physical possessions multiple times in different ways. This forces her to be more resourceful. Often she has to choose between information and money or safety and a clue. These choices not only advance the plot, they define her character. A character who chooses to be caught is very different from one who abandons a friend to save themselves, even if they later return to help their friend.
Give your character hard choices. Force them to choose between the money they need and a sentimental item or information or a loved one. Take things away. Your character finally steals that thing they’ve been after for the whole story and immediately loses it. How do they feel and react? What do they do next? What could be worse?
Representation Serves the Story
Today’s readers want to see themselves in their stories. That means writers are asked to include people of different races, genders, religions, socio-economic stasis, and ableness. However, you don’t have to fit every group into every story, and you shouldn’t force characters to be something they aren’t. Two of Ritchey’s characters speak to underrepresented groups: Elizabeth and Quincy.
The protagonist Elizabeth is curvy in a world where thinness is ideal. Her family and peers have put her down her entire life because of her weight, leading Elizabeth to believe she is less than others. Elizabeth’s Midnight is about a girl on a magical adventure, but more than that it’s a coming of age story, where an overweight girl learns to see herself for who she is and who she wants to be, not the person others have defined her as to make themselves feel better. Through Elizabeth, Ritchey speaks to girls who have been bullied and might not have the body type plastered on magazines.
Ritchey didn’t force Elizabeth to be curvy. He didn’t describe her as having that body type then move on. He made Elizabeth’s body central to the story, her internal conflict, and the overall plot. It is both a weakness and a strength. Every aspect of your character should affect their thought process and decisions. A girl who believes she is pretty will respond differently to a catcall than a girl who believes she is ugly.
Quincy is Elizabeth’s love interest and must walk with crutches due to a disability. This is both a weakness and a strength. In the rainy boat, it is a weakness. In other places, he is underestimated to his and Elizabeth’s advantage. If one of your characters is disabled or different, think of ways this can both hinder and help them.
Quincy’s disability does not define him. Yes, he must use crutches to get around, but he also owns a comic book store and isn’t afraid to risk an adventure with a pretty girl. He is a rounded character. When developing your characters, remember they aren’t just blind, trans, athletic, Hispanic, female, or anything else. They could be all of these and more. The more specific and faceted you make your characters, the more real they will be to your readers.
Why an Editor Recommends Elizabeth’s Midnight
For me, Elizabeth’s Midnight was a refreshing read. I didn’t have to keep track of multiple point of view characters, wade through beautiful, dense prose, or learn the rules of a whole new world. As a reader, I could focus on one character and her story. By the end, I was just as thrilled and inspired as I have been with more complicated tales. Ritchey stripped away the bells and whistles, tangents and darlings to give his readers a clean, deceptively simple tale. Elizabeth’s Midnight by Aaron Michael Ritchey is a page turner. By focusing on one character’s story, always making things worse, and developing believable characters, you too can Ignite Your Ink.
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Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.