Philadelphia Writers’ Conference Address (a fragment)

This past weekend, I had the privilege of speaking at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference on the topic of Contemporary Fiction. In anticipation of this event, I started putting together some notes but eventually abandoned the idea of reading from a manuscript in favor of speaking extemporaneously on the subject. Although what follows is far from complete, it covers a few of the points I made over the course of the weekend.

The Hostage Paradigm and Beyond: Notes on Character-Driven Fiction

Every three months, I meet with the Philadelphia Stories fiction board, and we decide which submissions to accept for publication in our journal. By the time we sit down to discuss our final selections, we’ve pared the pool of contenders down to about eight or nine, and the goal is to select three or four of those for publication. For the most part, we can eliminate a couple of submissions fairly quickly, but the discussion over which stories we’ll ultimately publish can last for hours. Since strong writing (i.e., attention to dialogue, plot, pacing, and other elements of storytelling) is a given at this point, what most frequently wins us over is a strong sense of character. To put it bluntly, if we’re going to publish your story, we need to fall in love with it. And the best way to make us fall in love with your story is to make us fall in love with your characters. What we’re looking for, in other words, is character-driven fiction.

Character-Driven Fiction

As one might imagine, character-driven fiction features believable characters that move the plot of a story forward. This variety of fiction is usually contrasted with plot-driven fiction, in which action takes precedent over everything else. This isn’t to say that character-driven fiction lacks a plot, but that, more often than not, the plot revolves around the characters as opposed to vice versa. In character-driven fiction, change or arc of the story is more likely internal (a character comes of age or experiences some kind of revelation), whereas in plot-driven fiction, change tends to be external (a character saves the world or finds a lost treasure). Though these qualities are by no means mutually exclusive, narratives on the whole tend to lean in one direction or the other.

Another important distinction to make when considering character-driven fiction is that between a story and an idea for a story. When people find out that you’re a writer, there’s a good chance that they’ll tell you all about the “great idea” that they had for a story before going into excruciating detail as to why the idea is so great. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for me to get “pitches” along the lines of: “What if all the toothpaste in the world turned out to be part of a massive alien intelligence? We all use toothpaste, right? It’s everywhere! And if it started taking over our brains, who would be left to save us? Homeless people! Because homeless people can’t afford toothpaste!”

What people with such “great” ideas don’t always take into account is that an idea isn’t a story — and that moving from an idea to a story has less to do with forcing the idea into a plot (e.g., a lone homeless person figures out that toothpaste represents the front line of an alien invasion and tries to convince the world that the end is nigh) than in figuring out the details. In character-driven fiction, moreover, these details have less to do with the external obstacles the character encounters than about who the character is. That is, the story can’t rely on trite literary devices like deus ex machina to move the plot along. The character can’t simply serve as a pawn in the larger game of the narrative. Rather, the character needs to go out and actually do something and, in so doing, come alive for the reader. To borrow a sentiment from The Catcher in the Rye, your characters should seem so real that a reader might reasonably imagine writing letters to them upon finishing your story.

Of course, this is a lot easier said than done.

The Hostage Paradigm

It’s tempting to look at the situation as something akin to a hostage crisis. Popular lore has it that the first thing you need to do if you’re ever taken hostage is to humanize yourself in the eyes of your captors [1]. Make sure they know your name, for example. Tell them about your children, your wife, or your dog. Show them photographs. Talk about your hobbies. In other words, make sure your captors don’t simply think of you as collateral damage. Instead, let them know that you’re a living, breathing person with hopes and dreams and family that loves you (or at least tolerates your odd little quirks). The logic, of course, is that it’s harder for terrorists to kill people they’ve grown attached to. By way of extension, inundating an editor with details about a character’s life might, in theory, increase a story’s chances of avoiding the rejection pile.

The key word, however, is “might.”

One book that does a good job of using what we might consider the hostage paradigm is Standing Still by Kelly Simmons. In it, the narrator offers up every detail at her disposal to conjure a sense of herself and her family for the reader to imagine. In fact, one of the major devices Simmons uses throughout the novel is a collection of photos; in every-other chapter, the narrator describes a scene in a photograph and uses that scene to elaborate on her life story. But the reason the hostage paradigm works so well in Standing Still is that the narrator is actually a hostage, so it makes sense for her to offer up as much information as she can in order to convince her captor that he shouldn’t do anything so drastic as to kill her. What’s more, even as Simmons appears to be throwing in everything but the kitchen sink with respect to her narrator’s life story, what eventually emerges is the fairly focused idea that the narrator is as much a hostage in her day-to-day existence as she is when she’s literally taken hostage.

The problem with the hostage paradigm, then, is twofold. First, it works best in stories about hostages, and most writers would probably prefer not to toil exclusively in the hostage field. Second, as Standing Still demonstrates, it’s not enough to simply inundate your reader with a random assortment of facts about your characters. Although this observation may seem like a matter of common sense, I’ve read a good number of Philadelphia Stories submissions in which the authors, working under the impression that more details can only lead to a better story, provided so much information about the contents of a character’s pockets (the worn edges of the quarters, the dampness of the lint, the fuzzy texture of a movie ticket from 1976) that the story suffered. Or, more likely, that the story never materialized. While such pieces may provide interesting character studies, they’re not, strictly speaking, stories.

Moving Beyond the Hostage Paradigm

Beginning with a lot of details is not a bad idea by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, a good number of writers generate detailed character sketches before they begin to draft their narratives. When he was writing The Loss of Leon Meade, for example, novelist Josh Emmons sketched out dozens of potential characters before plugging some of them into a larger narrative. The challenge, of course, was figuring out which characters to include in the novel. For Emmons, the choice was dictated largely by the degree to which various characters were related to each other, but at the end of the day, many of the characters he’d created during what we might call the pre-writing phase of his novel didn’t make the cut. Similarly, many of the details you might imagine for each of your characters during the prewriting phase of your own writing process might also end up on the cutting room floor. The question, then, is how to decide which details to reveal and which to leave out.

One way to look at this issue is to reconsider the “show, don’t tell” dictum. Most writers learn some version of this rule fairly early in their writing careers: a writer should favor concrete nouns and action verbs over abstract concepts and the verb to be. The idea, of course, is to paint a picture in the reader’s mind using words. For example, He pounded the table with his fist paints a more vivid picture than He was angry. Things get a little complicated, however, when writers start showing too much. For example, He pounded the table with his fist conveys an image, but not as vivid an image as He pounded the table, and the silverware jumped. The second image is more detailed and therefore, one might argue, “better”[2]. Following that logic, some writers give into the temptation to go hog-wild with the details and write sentences like, He pounded the table with the side of his fist, and the tarnished silverware jumped an eighth of an inch off the table only to return in a cacophonous, jangly crash that caused his mother to look up from the multi-colored scarf she was knitting to go along with the cap she had finished knitting the night before… And so on.

While this may be a slight exaggeration, the editors at Philadelphia Stories frequently receive manuscripts whose authors took the “show don’t tell” dictum to heart and showed us everything including the kitchen sink at the expense of the story. Needless to say, this kitchen sink strategy is very much like the hostage paradigm, and applying a single rule of thumb can help to address both issues: Any detail you provide should either move the story forward or reveal something important about the character. For example, if you write a sentence that reads, Frank looked down at his plate and counted seventeen French fries, those French fries (and the fact that there are seventeen of them) better factor into the story in some significant way (e.g., he needs to eat them slowly because he knows that once the meal is over, so is the conversation he’s having with his estranged daughter) or reveal something about Frank (e.g., he’s obsessive compulsive and counts everything. If, on the other hand, the fact that there are seventeen French fries on Frank’s plate is just there to add “texture” to the story, then you should probably cut it. Remember, the last thing you want any reader to think at any point in your story is, “Who cares?”

Motivation

In some ways, the “who cares” question returns us to our original premise: as a writer you job is to make the reader fall in love with your story. That is, you need to make the reader care about what happens next. One way to do this is to make sure that your protagonist cares about what happens next—and the way to make this happen is to make your protagonist want something. In other words, the first thing your protagonist (or any other character, for that matter) needs is motivation, which is essential to narrative insofar as every protagonist needs a goal (and, in turn, every antagonist needs a reason to stop the protagonist from reaching that goal). Additionally, motivation gives the writer a spine, for lack of a better word, on which to hang all of the complications that stand between the character and reaching the goal as well as all of a character’s other attributes.

At its most basic level, the relationship between motivation and plot in character-driven fiction is fairly straightforward. If your protagonist wants something, the arc of the story will follow his or her efforts at getting that thing. To keep things interesting, however, the character will need to overcome obstacles to get at that thing. Frequently, one major obstacle and a series of smaller obstacles stand between the protagonist and the goal. These obstacles, moreover can take many forms: an antagonist or enemy, a natural phenomenon, a weakness within the protagonist, or any combination of these things can stand between the protagonist and the goal. Regardless of what form the obstacles take, what matters in character-driven fiction isn’t so much whether or not the protagonist overcomes them, or even how the protagonist overcomes them, but how overcoming each obstacle changes the protagonist in some way. Think of your story as a kind of machine. The protagonist goes in as one thing and comes out as something else. With any luck, the same thing will happen to your reader.

(Beyond this point be dragons…)


[1] I think I got this idea from The Silence of the Lambs, but I could be mistaken.

[2] Needless to say, such judgments are always subjective.

3 thoughts on “Philadelphia Writers’ Conference Address (a fragment)

  1. There’s a notion that “good” stories are driven by the characters. They happen because the main people create the situation and make it interesting. In effect, story springs from character.

    For some reason “They Live” is stuck in my head -maybe because of the toothpaste scenario. Even there, the story happens because Rowdy Roddy Piper MAKES it happen. It’s not about the alien takeover, it’s about Roddy’s rebellion.

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