Thursday 20 June 2013

Important In Story: What Happens Or Who It Happens To?

For most readers, once they finish a book that they have enjoyed, it is the characters that make the strongest impression on them. They may well read more stories about these characters based on their affection for them.

But this is how they feel at the end of the book.

When you’re reading a book for the first time, you don’t know whether you will feel that way.

As a writer you may approach writing a story with a character in mind, creating a three dimensional person in your head and only then finding something for them to do.

Or, you may come up with an engrossing premise that touches on various themes and ideas that interest you, and only then do you populate the story with characters who will bring those events to life.

It doesn’t really matter how you go about it; each writer will have their own approach that works for them. However, the reader’s experience of story is not quite so open.

When someone wants to know about a book (maybe the one you’ve written) they don’t ask, Oh, who is it about? They ask, What is it about? 

So the first instinct is to inquire about subject matter, premise, setting and things of that nature. In effect, what happens in this story that will be of interest to me?

But is it possible to have an interesting story when you know little or nothing about the character? Undoubtedly it is, if the events are interesting enough.

For example, if I tell you that there’s a guy at work who got into a fight with a Michael Jackson impersonator, that in itself is weird enough to hold a person’s attention. This almost perfect lookey-likey of MJ (silver glove, fedora, epaulets) comes into the office and we think it must be someone’s birthday and this is one of those singing telegrams, but it turns out Fred in acquisitions has been having an affair with MJ’s girlfriend (a Beyonce-style strippagram) and MJ wasn’t happy about it, so he smacked Fred around while singing ‘Beat It’ and then moonwalked out of the office.

Now, I’ve made the story as absurd as possible so that Fred has the least interesting role to play. You don’t know anything about Fred, but even if you did, it probably wouldn’t add anything.

However, this approach only works if you keep things extraordinary (although not necessarily as extraordinary as my story), and even then only for a limited time. Eventually the reader will want to know who this Fred guy is.

But that’s okay. As the further adventures of Fred are revealed, you will at the same time start learning who he is. It can’t really be avoided.  What he does and how he reacts will allow the reader to start judging him, as we judge people in real life.

So as you can see at the start of the story the reader is only interested in what the story is about, right?

Well, not exactly.

Let’s say my story is about Godzilla rampaging through London during the 2012 Olympics. That gives you a pretty good idea what the story is about and either you’re into that kind of tale or you’re not.

But here are two versions of that same story:

1. It’s about a teenage girl who has to save the city of London from an attack by Godzilla.

2. It’s about a super soldier who has to save the city of London from an attack by Godzilla.

As I change the person at the centre of the story, even though the premise remains the same, it has a big effect on how you view it. And it also gives you a much better idea of the kind of story it’s going to be.

Without knowing the detailed backgrounds of these characters you are instantly aware of the difference in approach. Because in effect you view the premise through the eyes of the main character. The battle a young girl faces will be very different to the one faced by a seasoned soldier.

So what if I add more details? If I were to tell you the girl was very pretty with long red hair, or that the soldier was angry about his wife leaving him, would that change your view of the story?

Those details certainly give you a better picture of the character, but they don’t affect how they’ll be approaching the story, at least not in an obvious way. They may in fact have some impact we’re not yet aware of (maybe Godzilla has a thing for redheads, or from a certain angle Godzilla reminds the soldier of his wife and fires him up), but if the reader can’t see the connection then it makes no difference.

On the other hand, if I told you the girl is in a wheelchair or that the soldier has a phobia of lizards, how about now?

Information directly related to the objective will give you a stronger sense of the kind of story this will be. Unrelated information about the character, won’t. Bear in mind I haven’t given you any idea of the personalities or characteristics of either MC. Learning to love a character comes from seeing them act in context, you can’t win over readers by telling them how great and interesting a character is going to be, they have to see it for themselves.

What a story is about is closely connected to who it’s about and very much dependent on whose eyes we see it through. While there are going to be a multitude of traits your characters possesses that will appeal (or not) to the reader over the course of a book, it’s the ones that directly relate to the mission they will be faced with that need to be addressed first.
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Sarah Foster said...

I feel whenever people ask me what my book is about, I start by describing the main character. If I wrote a new character into the same premise, the story wouldn't be the same one anymore. Different characters bring about different stories, even if the structure is the same.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Initially, sell the book on the storyline. Once the reader is engaged, sell the character.
I was always taught characters first, storyline second.

mooderino said...

@Sarah - I think that's true, but hard for others to grasp.

@Alex - I think the writer can approach it in any order they want, but how you sell the reader on it will be a little more constrained.

Catherine Stine said...

Plotting & characterization are two halves that make up a whole. You need both! I liked your funny story about the MJ impersonator.

21 Wits said...

I agree and found your thoughts to be quite interesting. If I may add, sometimes for me it's the writer's style throughout the story that makes me connect closely with or perhaps even dislike a character. Alice Hoffman is one of those writers, that brings me so close to her characters (almost as if I've slipped within the story) and she does it seamlessly.

Unknown said...

You've written a lot of great posts, but I think this is my favorite. It's so important to get the right balance between plot and character - both have to work together to win over the reader, and making them as unusual and intriguing as possible certainly helps. Thanks! :-)

Rachna Chhabria said...

Yes, people always ask what a book is about. Like Lexa, I too believe that a balance between plot and character is important as both are vital to win readers' interest.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I guess this is why people say there are only so many plots, yet infinite stories. Tiny nuances about personality can shift a story in degrees that make one super enjoyable and another not so much.

mooderino said...

@Catherine - two sides that have an impact on each other, hopefully.

@Karen - i think that's something that works (or doesn't) across the breadth of a story. You need to spend some time with a book. Unfortunately the modern approach seems to be hook 'em on the first page.

@Lexa - thanks!

@Rachna - They ask what it's about, but I think they want it from the perspective of the character.

@Michael - and i think different people will be drawn to the different approaches of particular characters.

Elise Fallson said...

I agree.
The way a character reacts in a particular situation gives the reader information about them. It's these actions that drive the story and (hopefully)engages the reader.

Wish I knew what Fred's next move was,you know, after being smacked by MJ... and what about the strippagram gf.... the absurd does intrigue...

Charmaine Clancy said...

You had me at Godzilla.

mooderino said...

@Elise - I doubt Fred's love of poor imitations will lead anywhere good.

@Charmaine - I bet that's not been said very often.

Lex from Bohemia said...

Great thoughts. It is interesting to think through that fine line between character-driven and plot-driven work. If you can find that sweet spot between the two, you're gold.
I'm an aspiring novelist and have just started a blog. Check it out:

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