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Malibu Rising: It's All About Character

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Malibu Rising: Jenkins Reid Taylor: 9780593355268: Books - AmazonIf the people are real, then the story will be too!

I went on a real Taylor Jenkins Reid kick last year, as you might be able to tell. In 2021, I tore through basically her entire catalogue. It was heady and wonderful to have an author that just kept delivering, just kept impressing me, and just kept giving the exact reading experience I was looking for.

Now, knee-deep in the doldrums of a reading slump, I find myself looking back and wondering what it was about her books that captured me so thoroughly (and, conversely, why the last 20 or so books I've picked up have not). Why did this author blow me away with such predictable regularity? What was she doing that the other books in my TBR list are failing to accomplish? 

The answer, I think, lies in her latest bestseller, Malibu Rising.

On the surface, it's a pretty classic book club type piece. The four children of a famous but dysfunctional Hollywood star (one of them famous in her own right) throw the party to end all parties. It's tense and dramatic and ends in (literal) flames. It's a voyeuristic insight into rich-and-famous culture and a complex and melodramatic family saga, which alone elevates it to high-concept territory.

But what really works in Malibu Rising, which is also true of her other books, are the characters. Every sibling in Malibu Rising is richly textured, deeply understood, and achingly real. They're all in pain for various reasons and dysfunctional for various reasons and familiar for various reasons. Each of their points of view feel both fascinatingly different and like you're reading about yourself. And watching them all learn and grow and deal with the oh-so-real problems that life or luck or they themselves have created makes one feel inspired to do so in your own life.

As a writer, I spend a lot of time ruminating on the point of stories. It's literally make-believe, often with ludicrous elements like space travel or dragon fights or romantic melodrama. And yet stories are integral to our culture. Why? I've come to think that following a character through a set of challenges in which they grow and learn is humanity's equivalent of virtual reality. It's a safe way to experience the vast complexity of life and learn painful lessons without actually needing to go through them. Seen through this lens, the brilliance of Taylor Jenkins Reid is that her characters are so well done, and their problems so familiar, that it makes them the perfect conduit for this kind of crash-course in life.

Malibu Rising is, on it's surface, a flashy, lush narrative about a big Hollywood party. But deep down it's about a group of complicated people dealing with the issues we all find ourselves facing (although admittedly not in beachfront mansions). The messiness of love. The crushing responsibility of family. The burden of success and the burden of failure. And by reading about these characters struggling, falling, and then succeeding, we too can grow.

So think about your characters and what a reader can learn from them. If your story is meant to mimic a life lesson that a person can then apply to their real-world existence, what is it they're going to apply? Without telling or preaching, what will your character (and therefore your reader) gain through the course of the story?

If you make their problems real enough, human enough, and offer a solution to them, then there's no limit to the audience you can reach.

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