Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Two writing groups in two days! Now if only I had some fiction to write.

Honestly, I do have some fiction to write. I just need to extract some stories from my big fantasy world. And that’s hard.

See, it’s not enough to have a big story idea. Stories live and die by the depth of the reader’s connection to the characters. If the reader cares about the characters, you can lead them through just about any plot. If the reader doesn’t care, you’re sunk.

So, how to make the reader care about the characters? The characters must be working on their own issues. Great literature almost invariably deals with characters that change, or at least characters that interact in interesting ways. The only way to do that is by having interesting characters, and putting them in interesting situations. To paraphrase someone in tonight’s writing group, “It’s okay to write a slice-of-life story, if you have the right slice.”

And this is why it’s difficult to write fiction. Many newbie writers have neat plot ideas. That’s good, but a good story idea doesn’t make a good story. You have to have interesting characters that are on their own emotional journeys to give flesh to that neat plot idea.

An example: A friend of mine is writing a story that upends a fantasy cliche. In her story, the grand prophecy of saving the world—which the characters naturally fulfill—was actually written down wrong by the bard to whom it was told. The steps they completed unleashes the doom of the world, not the savior of the world.

Neat idea. But my friend is struggling because the story doesn’t go anywhere; it has no life. Why? Her characters aren’t compelling enough to drive the story to that neat idea. She can think up stuff that happens to her characters, but that stuff manifests as bland obstacles. Since the characters aren’t changing and aren’t deeply affected by the events of the story, the reader doesn’t care much about them, so the story meanders and flounders.

The solution is difficult, and requires a lot of hard thought. But it is necessary. Even stories that don’t feature significant character development or emotional involvement by the characters—such as high-end space opera or hard-boiled detective fiction—involve characters who are deeply committed to their actions, and we appreciate them because of the strength of their convictions.

Monday was a clear, cold day, that reminds me of Russian novels. The wind could cut through solid oak. You step outside for a few minutes and you begin to realize that you simply couldn’t survive this if exposed to it for a couple of hours. It’s as if Jack Frost taps your shoulder and whispers poems about your mortality.

Monday’s was a reasonably productive meeting; nothing of mine being critiqued, and the three excerpts we were reviewing I had either already provided my comments on or had been unable to read before the group met. I did get into a somewhat passionate argument with our resident curmudgeon, and I regret getting upset over it. I dislike hostility over writing, and I felt myself getting hostile over his persistent negativity towards the novel’s protagonist.

In particular, the critiquer disliked how the protagonist takes no action until about fifty pages into the book, and explained that the protagonist needed to drive the story forward. I disagreed, pointing out books like Catch-22 in which the protagonist does very little to direct the plot. And I started to get flustered. Fortunately, the moderator pointed out a few things which gave us the space to cool off.

But I began to lose control there, and I still don’t know why. Maybe I was fed up with the critiquer’s behavior—and he’s been doing this since I first attended the group about six months ago. Maybe I was being maternalistic towards this novel that I really am enjoying. Maybe it was just the culmination of a very, very busy week.

But it was definitely not cool.

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