"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.