Where Personal and Professional Life Collide...

My life in 8 words: Organized chaos, by preference. Exhausting, but never boring

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
A quick hit of hard truth about writing
my job
This post has me wearing both Writer Hat and Editor Hat (which is actually a dashing fedora with two feathers stuck in the brim)

Thinking today -- always a bad sign, that -- about what makes a story work.

I'm not talking about the technical aspects here -- I'm going to assume you've got a working relationship with sentence structure, POV, plot logic, etc. No, I'm talking about what makes the reader interact with your story, to the point that they not only keep reading, but want more, both of the story, and of you.

If you're looking for a great long complicated breakdown of the magic, sorry. I got one word for you.


You-the-writer must have empathy for your characters. You have to like them -- or hate them. I'm not saying believe they're real -- that road leads to the Palace of Psychosis, and nobody will visit you there except to mock -- but you have to let them into your heart as well as your head. It's that emotional connection that allows you to care about them, not as the means to deliver a message, or to flip a twist, but as actual individuals going through hell. Once you care about them, you can make other people care about them, too.

If you don't? if you're emotionally removed from your characters, or see them merely as markers to be moved along the story, in order to achieve a final goal? The most brilliant prose in the world won't do you for damn.

Oh, you might win awards, and be well-considered by the literarti...but you won't light that spark in a reader; your world won't ever come alive.

The trick, of course, is to combine technical brilliance with emotional comprehension. Do that, and you're, well... you're probably Neil Gaiman. I rest my case.

  • 1
I agree completely. There have been a lot of movies and TV shows and novels and comics that people recomment the hell out of, which have left me cold because I couldn't make myself care for any of the characters. I couldn't make myself care about the protagonist enough to want to see them succeed, I couldn't care about the antagonist enough to want to see them fail.

On the other hand, there has been a lot of crap published in all media that I actually liked, because I liked the characters despite the project's other failings.

It's what I call the Rowling phenom (simply because she's the most recent massive example) -- a good storyteller will trump a good stylist, almost every day.

(in novels, anyway. Short fiction tends to reward high stylists more, to a certain degree)

I always think of it a sort of integrity - in the sense of buildings not morality.

The characters aren't real (after one unfortunate friendship with someone who believed my characters visited her characters in her brain I like to be clear about that) but I have to act as if they are. The character I've built has to be able to stand on its own and act consistently. If I start pushing them to do things that don't fit the character I compromise that integrity and they require more and more work from me to hold them together.

Thank you thank you thank you! That's exactly what I've been trying to say to my students for ages now (Although, I don't put it nearly as well as you did). A good reader can always tell when a writer cares about a character, or if the writer put the character in for some other reason *cough*fanservice*coughcough*

It's something that feels like it should be obvious, and yet... I've read a lot of should-be-fabulous books where you can tell that the character served plot, and not the other way around. A book can be very good -- it may even be very good, in terms of being interesting and tricksy...but it's rarely emotionally engaging. And maybe I'm prejudiced, but shouldn't storytelling be emotionally engaging?

(I know some litcrit types who would disagree, but they have a different slant on the reading experience than I do...)

  • 1

Log in