Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Back in Character

"The core of every good story is a character for whom we care—and not just care a little, but care deeply."  --Chuck Wendig

This feels like a lesson I should have learned years ago, or maybe one I did learn and forgot somewhere along the way.

I've gone on at length here about various stories I've tried to make work.  The most recent problem child of my imagination lives in the contents of a file simply titled "Dragon Saga", because of the world it takes place in.  This is also the would-be 'metal fantasy' I've mentioned before.  Over the past two years or so, I've tried to find the story - or any story that works, really - in this world, and every single one falls flat in the plotting or seems stupid when I go back to it.  And recently, I think I finally found the problem.

Working on stories in this world, it was always about the events, the happenings, the big set pieces.  It was never about the characters.

Looking back, it makes sense to me now why things never worked out.  I had all these cinematic moments planned out, with most stories coming to me in melodramatic glimpses the literary equivalent of a multi-million-dollar special effects scene.  The books had no lack of action and drama, but had little in the way of quiet character moments, the slower times when we really get to know these people we've been reading about.

Largely because there was very little to know about those people.

I had a cast I thought I loved, of course.  The latest version had a bunch of over-the-top individuals with names to go along with them, all made to evoke the kind of world this place is, or was, or what-have-you.  (It's a big world, things can be different in different places.)  But they weren't really characters.  They weren't really people.  They were just a means to an end, a way to drive the story forward.

So at some point, I realized what I was doing wrong, probably around when I read the above quote.  After I stopped feeling like a twit, I started over, sort of.  I took a character I've had living in my head for a long time, and started figuring out his story in this world, who he would be and how he got there, so on and so forth.  For the most part, things worked out well.  Over the course of several days, I focused on character background, only throwing in world details when necessary.  And I came out the end with a small group of new characters whose backstories should make for interesting tales.

This is the part where I'd like to say that I've solved the problem.  And maybe I have.  But I've watched stories in this world fall apart again and again and again.  So I'm wary, of course.  It does help to know that I'm going at this whole thing from a different angle, and not trying to find another way to tell a similar tale.  Things could still crash and burn, but that could happen with any story, and it's a fear I've learned to work past.

It's amazing how much of this whole writing thing revolves around getting past one fear or another.

And now, as I'm working on this, it's nearly time to get back to plotting.  Will any of this end up working?  No way to know.  But I am glad to know that I've figured out at least one thing I was doing wrong.


  1. You're right. Without a character to cheer for, cry with and feel connected to, a story is nothing more than a string of events.

  2. Ah, the humbling experience of realizing that you might have been doing it wrong. That's a ton of ouch. On the other hand, it's not as bad as you think. If you can see where your writing needs improvement--actually see that there are places to go with your development and your craft--you are well on your way to becoming a very excellent writer.

    I think being where you are, seeing where you could go with your craft is sort of comforting in the long road. Yes, it is a pain, and Yes, there is a ton of work ahead of you, but sometimes, it's nice to know that there is a barrier between you and the writer you want to be and that you can actually see how to get over it. Sometimes writing is like bumbling around in a dark cave, and knowing where to go is like having a teensy little light. So Congratulations and good luck. this part doesn't always pan out, but nothing is guaranteed.

  3. Write it. You never know what will happen this time now that you have some solid characters.
    I always get a vague idea for a story and before I go too far with it, I detail out the characters. Then the story unfolds so much easier.

  4. I think stories are character drive or plot driven--rarely both. BUT, like in the musical world, you can get decent ticket sales with epic music, but you sell out the house with an epic story. I think you can compare the story part to the characters and the music to the plot. The characters are the heart of the tale. If people aren't invested in them, they're not invested in the story.

  5. We learn how to write usually by doing things completely wrong! That's how we learn. If we can learn without writing entire manuscripts, great, but most of the time the most powerful writing lessons come from that great idea we ruined through tackling it in all the wrong ways!

  6. I agree with Crystal. This is something that I struggle with (and the frustrating part is how long it takes me to figure out exactly what the problem is) and the only way to really combat it is to write through it. I am actually going through this very same thing for a story that I thought I would abandon, so maybe I need to take a look at the outline again.

  7. I find plot interesting, but it's the characters that do it for me. In fact, my husband will point out plot problems in stuff that I completely gloss over because I was so enthralled by the people.

    For me in my writing, I know about my characters, even weird stuff that will never come out in the writing. I can say what shaped their personalities, why they ended up with certain quirks, and what they sound like when they voice their opinions. Each one has a fairly thorough history. Despite this, I'm terrible at emotions. I don't know if it's something I'll ever master, so there may always be a disconnect between me and the reader.

    Best of luck conquering your character building!