There’s really not much news to report right now about the MW How-To book or the anthology, and since I don’t know how much interest there is in the behind the scenes workings of a business magazine (which is where I spent most of my time this week), I’m going to talk instead about something I’ve thought about quite a lot recently (as both a regular reader and as a fiction editor). It is this: if I find your story to be wanting, it is often because I find your main character wants for nothing.
Let me elaborate.
It may sound odd, but I’ve learned a lot from my IGMS slush pile. Having the advantage of reading a lot of awful, bad, mediocre, and not-quite-right stories on a regular basis is always educational because there is so much to be learned from fiction that’s less than stellar. It’s the number one reason why I always tell people that if they get a chance to read slush for any magazine, volunteer without hesitation. The education will be well worth the time.
Now, the really bad stuff is as obvious as the really good stuff, and doesn’t require much thought. It’s the stuff in between – especially at the upper-end of the not-quite-right spectrum – that I study and learn from. It was close, but not quite right. Why? It was interesting and well-written, but not compelling. Again: why? The reasons for near-misses can often be hard to nail down, but when you do, it’s like finding a small treasure.
One of the things that has become more and more clear to me lately is the power of Vonnegut’s third rule of writing (you can Google “Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing” if you want to see his complete list, which I highly recommend). You may have heard of this third rule before, but if you haven’t it reads thus: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” It almost sounds silly, but then, that was always one of Vonnegut’s special skills; making important things sound silly (and vice versa).
The only thing I’ll disagree with Vonnegut about is that I think this should be Rule #1, not 3. Wanting something is the most powerful thing an author can give to a character, and serves so many purposes. And it’s usually most effective when it is something simple. It’s very hard to relate to someone who wants to save the world; how many of us have ever been in, or ever expect to be in, that situation? But two people who are in love and want to be together? You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t been in that position at some point.
That makes not just the situation relatable, but renders the characters relatable, too. When the main character wants something, we usually immediately start wondering how they’re going to get it and rooting for them to succeed. Often the rooting is unconscious, but it happens just the same. Which means you’ve hooked your reader into siding with your character. It takes more than that to get readers to like the character, but frankly I consider hooking readers to be more important.
Two characters who want something – to be together, for instance — is a simple premise, but one that is behind some of the most beloved stories of all time. Take, for instance, one of my own favorite movies (and a great book, too): The Princess Bride. What is that story about? At it’s core, it’s about nothing more than a man and a woman who fall in love and want to be together. Everything else is details about how they accomplish their goal. Kidnapping, torture, revenge; giants and screaming eels and Rodents of Unusual Size; the albino, his cart, and the holocaust cloak: they’re all rich, fun details, but they’re still just details. The story is about two people who want to be together.
Having your characters want something is, for a number of reasons, also an effective tool for constructing a story. First, it makes it easy to identify your antagonists. Antagonists don’t have to be mean, horrible people. In fact, mean, horrible people are boring. But a nice, well-intentioned character who wants the exact opposite of what your main character wants? Now you’ve got a believable antagonist you can work with, who can do some real damage without being reduced to a cliché.
Second, knowing what your main character wants is useful because it makes it clear what the ending has to be. Not ‘ought’ to be, or ‘might’ be; what it has to be. Make the character’s wants or needs as difficult to attain as you like (the more difficult, the better), and the number and severity of the obstacles will go a long way toward determining the length of your story, but once the character gets what they want, the story is over. Period. There might be an epilogue of sorts to tie up a few loose ends, but your story is over.
Third, knowing where your story ends is one of the most valuable things a writer can have because it gives you a target to aim at. The difference between knowing your ending and not knowing your ending is the difference between getting in your car and driving from New York to California, vs. simply getting in your car and driving. You might visit some interesting places if you simply drive around, but how do you know when you’ve arrived if there’s no destination?
Finally, knowing what your character wants (and focusing on it) goes a long way to keeping your story character-driven instead of event driven. I like stories where things happen – in fact, I vastly prefer action over characters who sit around contemplating the meaning of the universe – but fiction that resonates with readers is about people first. Action is the best way to reveal character, but if the cool ‘stuff’ that happens in your story is the main focus, you are not going to connect with nearly as many readers as you will if the people are the heart of your work.
Part of the reason I’m bringing this up now is that I’ve read a slew of stories lately (everything from novels to short stories) where the author starts with a bit of a mystery or a bit of action (or even a lot of action), but the minute the action or the mystery eases up, my interest in the story dwindles, frequently to next-to-nothing. Even when the writing is professional-level, the voice resonates, the setting is interesting, and the characters rich and alive, when it hits me that there’s nothing that the main character really wants, I lose interest. The character has no goal, no objective, no unmet need. They simply got swept up in events around them; nothing more.
Even if the situation that the writer puts the character in remains hazardous, I can only stay interested in a leaf that’s blowing in the wind but for so long. That leaf might be blowing inside a hurricane or a tornado, but it’s still an inert object. And inert is just another word for lifeless.
There’s a saying: “Where there is life, there is hope,” and that saying applies to this situation in so many ways. The bottom line, however, is this: If you want editors to buy your stories, make sure there is life. Make sure your characters – protagonists and antagonists alike – wants something.
Even if it’s just a glass of water.
*I’ll be on the road for part of Saturday, but I’ll be back late afternoon and will reply to any and all comments as soon as I’m home.*