I have been trying my hand at the one-soul tale. I totally botched it and couldn’t make it interesting. To discuss this failure in writing, let me begin by defining the one-soul tale. Examples include:
- Island of the Blue Dolphins (Scott O’Dell)
- Hatchet (Gary Paulsen)
- Julie of the Wolves (Jean Craighead George)
- My Side of the Mountain (Jean Craighead George)
- The only movie I can think of is Cast Away – but I’d expect there to be others
These are the examples I know of. For more than 90% of the book, the protagonist is alone. I almost added Coraline (Neil Gaiman) because he does such a good job of making you feel alone (with the character) but there is actually quite a cast, so it isn’t really a one-soul book any more than Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll).
What makes these books successful? Are they coming-of-age stories in some way? Blue Dolphins isn’t, the woman spent almost 20 years alone on that island (by the by, did you know that was based on a real person? I didn’t until recently!)
I’m not sure I would say Julie is either, although I think she is in that “young teenage” stage she isn’t really “discovering” herself. She is defending her lifestyle. Granted, it’s been years since I read it, but that is how I remember her. She isn’t questioning what she wants to be and do – no more than Aragorn in Lord of the Rings questions himself (or is his actually a coming-of-age tale?). In fact, I think none of these really are “coming of age” but more of the “defending individuality” which is a different message.
I think a large part of the success of these novels is their approach-ability. In none of these do we have sweeping landscapes described for pages and pages. I’d be shocked if any of them were 50,000 words (bare minimum for “adult” novels). They don’t use big flowery words, they are straight forward to read and understand (another reason I’m sure teachers love them). At the same time, they don’t talk down to the reader. This is a very difficult line to walk, and one I think I got lost in (I got very happy describing landscapes…)
Secondly, there is something a little timeless about the pioneer story. Oh, I know Blue Dolphins is not a pioneer, and Hatchet wasn’t a willing pioneer… but look at ancient literature. Anyone ever hear of a pioneer story named Odyssey? How many know the story of Gilgamesh? It isn’t a new trope to put someone (prepared or not!) in the midst of a tough situation and relish in their simple survival. I think my failure was focusing on “survival” not “pioneer.”
Lastly, the authors made sure to really get their information right. This isn’t true just of the one-soul books, but each of these has to have their facts sounding accurate in a way that something like Redshirts (John Scalzi) wouldn’t need because mistakes can be shuffled into a conversation and lost in the character interactions. Without those interactions, details about the natural world have to fill that gap. Even when I read what I wrote, I write like someone who has never had to survive by their blood, sweat and tears. I write like someone who has read about survival. I know research, tone, etc. can compensate some for that (I don’t know that O’Dell ever visited the island setting he described, but the fact I can’t differentiate that is important!).
Madeline L’Engle is quoted as saying, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” and I think this might be why most one-soul novels are written for a young(er) audience. Because let me tell you, I’ve tried and writing a one-soul short story is about the hardest thing I ever tackled.