Category Archives: Story

On Character-Driven Stories, or: It’s About the People

“Don’t tell Angelika,” a friend of ours, an engineer, said to my husband, “but I tried to read her book, and didn’t make it past the first few pages. There are way too many feelings in it!” My husband did tell me, because he knew what my reaction would be: I laughed long and hard.

But also, quite contrary to our friend’s expectations, I took his statement as a compliment. For one, he only tried to read the book because it was mine, i.e. it was an expression of friendship, which I appreciate. But the other thing is that the average engineer is not exactly my target audience. So if I managed to turn one off by dint of having too many feelings in my book, I think I may have succeeded in writing for the other kind of person: the one who wants to hear about emotions, about the inner life of characters, about their relationships to one another.

The point was brought home to me again just the other day in my writers’ group. One of the critiques I got on a piece of mine, the beginning of another novel, was, “Do you really need three different points of view to tell the story?” I was a little taken aback (not to say¬† hurt, which is, alas, the price of getting all-too-necessary critiques). But once I’d mulled it over for a while, I came to a conclusion: the answer is Yes. Yes, I do need three points of view, because what my stories are about is the characters and their interactions.

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One of the Amazon reviews of Seventh Son says: “The character relationships are subtle and involved. In fact, all of the book’s true drama comes from how people relate to each other”. Precisely. I write character-driven stories.

And the reason I write character-driven stories is because that’s what I like to read. Now, I’m fully aware that I’m in somewhat of a minority with that preference. What’s popular, what sells best, are plot-driven stories, stories where things happen, where there is action and external drama. Battles! Kidnappings! Sword-fights! Car chases! Explosions! Murders! Wicked witches poisoning girls with apples and being chased by workaholic dwarves with pickaxes!

Personally, I find action scenes boring. Crash, bang, boom, bash – just tell me who wins already, and get on with the real story, about the people. (Plus, I don’t like the tension and extra adrenaline; I’ve got too much of it coursing through my system already – a side effect of being an HSP; but that’s a post for another day.)

To me, what is interesting in a story is not so much what happens, but what the people make of it, how it affects them. I want to get into their heads. It’s the character of the, well, characters that matters to me, that creates stories. Of course you always need a plot – a beginning, a middle, an end – but to me that plot can be as simple as “girl meets boy, girl has trouble getting together with boy, girl gets boy”.

In fact, the latter is the plot of all six Austen novels; the only thing that changes is the characters. And Austen is still in print after 200 years. It’s also the plot of every romance novel, which are, in fact, as a group the biggest sellers on the fiction market. Character-driven stories roll across the screen in every TV serial like Downton Abbey or Coronation Street which follows a group of people through the years, watching them live their lives and interact with one another; and they shocked movie critics when My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel became sleeper hits.

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Come to think of it, given the popularity of the aforementioned tales, maybe I’m not in such a minority with my preference for character-driven stories, after all. There are a lot of us who prefer people stories, which can be easy to forget when you hear writing gurus go on about “what sells” or castigate the fledgling writer for “not writing tightly enough” or – gasp! – using adverbs, those touchy-feely markers of emotion.

There are a lot of us – but even if there weren’t, I’d still stick with my preference. I like Austen, and L. M. Montgomery, and Georgette Heyer, and even Miss Read. No swords, no car chases, no bad guys and nary a dead body. Just wonderful, fascinating stories about people.

Okay, I’ll grant you that writers of these stories don’t often populate the weekly bestseller lists. But I have a hunch that they are disproportionately represented on the long-sellers list. Which is all to the good, because it means their books are going to be around for a long time for the likes of me to enjoy.

Life, the Universe, and Character-Driven Stories. It’s all about the people.

 

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Filed under books, Seventh Son, Story, writing

On Princesses and the Unreality of Realism

For this year’s New Year’s Eve movie marathon, we watched Star Wars, the original three movies (on VHS, no less. Yup, we still have a VCR). I’m not a huge Star Wars aficionado, so I haven’t got these films memorised, verbally or visually; when I watch them, they’re always quite new-ish to me. And what struck me this time through is how utterly pristine Princess Leia’s appearance is.

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I mean, the first time Luke Skywalker sees this woman, she’s just been through torture (so we’re told – not shown, thankfully), and now she’s imprisoned in a bare cell without even sheets on the bed – no place to hide a comb, let alone a shower or laundry facilities. Yet here she is, with not a hair in her elaborate coiffure out of place, wearing a spotless, unwrinkled white gown.

I used to have long hair when I was a kid, and I can tell you that with fairly straight hair like Carrie Fisher’s was then, pinned-up styles do not stay tidy long. They slip out of their hairpins very quickly, get straggly and messy (which is why I gave up fairly early on trying to put up my hair – I just can’t be bothered). Yet Princess Leia never, ever has even a single strand hanging loose – not even after she goes tobogganing down the garbage chute. And her gown – good grief, wearing white? With all she goes through, by rights she should look like she’s wearing Dobby the House Elf’s ragged kitchen towel.

But she doesn’t. She never looks like anything but – a princess.

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Leia is a wonderful character. Carrie Fisher’s passing has brought out in countless tributes what a great inspiration and role model Princess Leia was and still is for now several generations of viewers – a woman of strength, of determination, of agency; a larger-than-life hero.

And part of that larger-than-life effect comes from having a hairdo that never sheds a single bobby pin.

Disney’s cartoon princesses don’t have anything on Leia. You see, in cartoons we know not to expect realism – we know it’s just a drawing, “just” a story. But in a live action film, we think that what we’re seeing is real. So when we see Cinderella’s flowing golden locks and the gown that just appears on her body with a wave of the fairy godmother’s wand, that’s one thing – but we never think that Leia’s glossy dark snail shells and her snowy robe come under the same heading, because, obviously, they’re real. We can see them with our own two eyes, can’t we? What we’re not seeing is the army at Leia’s (or rather Carrie’s) command, an army not of rebel soldiers, but of hairdressers, make-up artists and wardrobe staff, as befits a princess. (“Ah, Recruit Skywalker – you’re in wardrobe today. The princess spilt oatmeal on her dress this morning; go do your duty to the cause.” “What?!? What about flying a fighter plane?” “Never mind that, anyone can handle that. Go make your mark where it counts!”)

We need that army to make us believe in Leia the Princess. We need her to have the superpower of never-a-hair-out-of-place and never-a-spot-on-her-dress because she is a princess. And princesses are mythical creatures on the order of dragons, unicorns and superheroes. In cartoons, that’s easy to handle, but in “realistic” fiction, it takes a bit more doing. Yet when it’s done well, as it is in Star Wars, the impact is tremendous. Because we believe with all our hearts, informed by our disbelief-suspended senses, that what we are seeing is real, that it actually happened, we also believe in the power of The Princess to do what she has set out to do, which is to save the world.

And in that, there is hope.

Life, the Universe, and the Power of the Unreality of Realism. And here we thought she just had funny hair.

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Filed under fairy tales, Story