Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Characters and plots

I've been thinking about what I want to write next. It's not for a lack of ideas, though. It's because I have several ideas and I just don't know which to work on.

All tied up with this dilemma is the feeling that I should pick a type of story, or genre, and stick with it. Except I'm not sure what I'm really best at, or where it would be most worthwhile spending my time. Much of the writing advice I've read recommends that new authors need to write within one genre or literary type. Well, if you look just at the stories I've had published in the last year, I've obviously broken that rule. Some are crime stories, but there's a fantasy story and one that is probably some sort of mom lit. And there's one that doesn't seem to fit in any genre at all -- it's in the class of stories I've written that I think of as parables. (The parables are, by and far, the most rejected of my stories, too. It probably has to do as much with the writing quality, though, as the fact they don't fit comfortably into one category. But they're some of my favorites, too. Go figure.)

My current story ideas seem to be all over the place, too. I have ideas for stories or a novel about Adam Caldwell (the main character of In Transit, which has been published, and April Showers, which hasn't). But I also have ideas for a novel about Troy and his dragon, Cedric. Maybe this seems a silly thing to stress over, but I think I need to figure out what kind of writer I am.

One thing is becoming clear, though. I'm a character writer more than a plot writer. What I mean by that is I have the characters first, then I have to come up with a reason to tell a story about them. Sometimes it takes me a while to come up with a plot structure. I don't think one approach is inherently better than the other -- a good writer of either type will play close attention to both character development and plot structure. But I know the stories that resonate the most with me are character driven and that's how I think.

Two examples come to mind: 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Left Hand of Darkness. Both are classics of science fiction, and were written around the same time. But 2001 is very much a plot-centered story. I first read it in high school and enjoyed it, but it wasn't because of Arthur C. Clarke's skill in writing characters. I could say the same about The Andromeda Strain. But those books have very strong plots that keep the reader engaged. While I was in college I read The Left Hand of Darkness, though, and it has been near the top of my favorite-books-of-all-time list ever since. Ursula LeGuin did such a masterful job of world-building -- and character-building -- that I became completely immersed in the story. I cared deeply about what happened to Genly Ai and Estraven. It's for similar reasons that To Kill a Mockingbird is another of my all-time favorites. Harper Lee even brought Boo Radley to life, even though he doesn't appear in the flesh until the end of the book.

If you're more visually oriented, think about the difference between George Lucas and Joss Whedon. As much as I loved Star Wars (the original movie, especially), I have to admit George Lucas didn't do as good a job with characters as he could have. The characters came to life because of the actors. Joss Whedon is a great storyteller, but he's especially good at coming up with original, engaging characters. Whereas I suspect that George Lucas had a plot idea for Star Wars (what if there was this band of rebels fighting an evil galactic empire ...), I'll bet Joss Whedon had an idea more like this: What if this suburban California girl discovers she's actually a vampire slayer? And what if she falls in love with an actual vampire, who has a soul!? See what I mean? Star Wars does some things brilliantly, and don't misunderstand me, it has great characters. But they're stereotypes who were fleshed out by the actors who played them. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer starts out with great characters and lets them interact and grow up in an environment that is bizarre and recognizable at the same time. Sunnydale, Calif., is Everytown, with the exception that it's also the mouth of Hell. I don't even like vampire stories, but Buffy is, at times, brilliant.

I received feedback this week from a critique partner who read April Showers. It was very encouraging and confirms for me that whatever type of story I write, it will be character-driven. I just need to decide which characters.

1 comment:

beccamercy7 said...

I agree...you're a character-type person. When telling an anecdote, you usually describe the people/persons first. I like that, b'coz it makes me care about what happens/ed to them. And like they always say, "write what you know" (you character, you) :-D Sorry...couldn't resist.