Fighting for the Reason


I have been spending a great deal of time lately discussing the nature of writing with my partner ever since he gave me this critique for my latest short story: get to know your character first; your protagonist needs to be in motion before I ever intercept them in the first sentence.

Since dropping this bomb on me, we have discussed the value of super-objectives and of giving characters 400 horse power engines even if they only ever reach 75 in the actual story itself.

Throughout all of this, I have come to realize that writing a novel is a lot like creating a character for a television show — although my audience won’t know the full character the way I, the author, do until the very end of the series, they need to understand where the character’s already been within the very first episode, they need to sense within the character a potential for rich, future seasons, a staying-power, if you will.

And this is where the truly useful element of the critique becomes clear: it isn’t that I need to know every action the character is going to take or that I need to map every action in direct accordance with a narrow road of “drive,” but that without this inner-drive, my characters will never be Larger than Life.

After all, we don’t write short stories or even full novels about the average, everyday of an average, everyday individual — we focus them on the most important and life-altering days of those individuals whose lives and days so captivate us that we seek to share them with everyone around us.

According to Writer’s Relief (one of my favorite online writing resources), all good short stories must come with larger than life characters stuffed into impossibly tight packages where the stakes are high and the settings are vivid — as if you could feel the character’s drive and charisma oozing out of the sidewalks and from the cracked siding on the houses.
Above all, make time to get to know these reasons within your characters — without these engrained reasons or drives, there is no purpose to your characters, there is no force propelling them forward, no teeth in their bite, and no conviction in their roaring.

Perhaps this is obvious to most people and perhaps it is cliché in many ways, but there was something about comparing it to the actor and the audience, about their need to know or at least to sense the largess of the character, that helped flip on that light switch in my mind.

What are your light switch moments? Have there ever been in writerly clichés that suddenly struck you in a way that surprised or helped or hindered?

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