I wrote this just over a year ago, when many of us were still underestimating the impact of the pandemic upon our worlds. “Oh, my sweet summer child,” to borrow George R. R. Martin’s commentary on naiveite. I found the post waiting in my drafts folder, one of a number of writing projects that got shelved due to other priorities. I share it now because it touches on an important matter for writers. Please don’t mind the dust.
A friend (Trusted Reader #12), sent me this message:
So, I have a “what’s important about writing question” for you when you have a moment.
YES! There are two surefire ways to get my attention: 1) talk about Star Wars (my wife does this) and 2) ask a question about writing.
As you can imagine, I dropped what I was doing and emphatically replied. My brain raced. Was this philosophical? Perhaps this was related to me having a writing degree in the business world. Oooh, could it pertain to the importance of reading?
What’s more important, story or character?
It’s a great question, and I’m glad he asked. I had an answer, of course, but part of me wondered if I was walking into something.
Here’s a little back story: About six weeks before, he’d texted that he still wanted to buy a copy of my book so I could autograph it. It’s a recurring laugh we share, and I’m sure many hopeful writers hear the same. It’s a wonderful thing that I always appreciate – even when I’m searching for an agent and the publishing thing is a ways off. I responded, in that passive way writers do, something about having a few printed manuscripts on hand. Long story short, I had an inscribed copy delivered.
When I read his question about story vs. character, I expected that he felt my book focused too much on one, and this was his clever way of reminding me of the importance of both. You see, writers like me are always anticipating criticism. It’s another defense mechanism of introverts, I suppose. (Psst: we also secretly crave criticism because it can be helpful!)
You’ve probably guessed that this wasn’t what he was thinking. And because this wasn’t my first day as an introverted, insecure gumble-goo, I casually answered the story vs. character question with: “Yes LOL”.
I mean, I think everyone wants to read a book with compelling characters AND a good story. However, to me, there’s a clear winner. I quickly added, “Character dev, which is a story itself.”
Turns out he was asking about feedback his son had gotten in his first creative writing class in college. He’d been told he focused too much on story and not enough on character and language.
Oh yeah, I hear ya, man. Believe me! I told him that was common and that we all struggle with it.
I suggested looking at it like this: Focusing solely on the story is more like recounting a history (a fair amount of my brain is wired that way, which explains how I earned a second major in history). Like many writers, it’s a matter of “tell vs. show”.
Compare this fact-based approach to drawing people in a world, which character and language do. It’s one thing to say your character is reckless. It’s better to show them acting recklessly. Perhaps ideally, show why they act that way.
i.e. character development
His son was also experiencing a common struggle: forgetting that not all the stuff in your head makes it to the page. You know, things like setting and backstory, which can be so vivid in a writer’s brain, we forget that others cannot yet see them. Apparently, our audience is not made up of mind readers.
Not everything in our heads should make the page. The reader doesn’t need to know the minutiae. But the pertinent stuff needs to be there. If your protagonist makes a specific choice, the why might need to be understood.
The final thing we discussed was the instructor’s criticism. Whenever feedback comes up – whether giving or asking – I remind people that it’s not personal. Because creative writing is a deeply personal thing, however, it’s tough to see the feedback as anything else. I mean, we tend not to share unless it’s perfect. I’ve talked about that here and here.
But it never is. Understanding this is a tremendous part of your growth as a writer.
And that was my closing point. I probably could have continued the conversation for an hour (“conversation” in that, there were two people, though I would have done all the talking), but we’d covered the topic sufficiently.
I’m sure that most writers have a point of view on character vs. story, and many wouldn’t agree with me. That’s fine. Writing is as subjective to the creator as the person who experiences it. I think it’s more important to have an opinion, and then sticking to that decision with the content you’re creating.
Good luck with your writing!
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© Michael Wallevand, June 2021