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Thoughts on Fiction and Story: Response to a Workshop Question Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

Question submitted to workshop.

In a short story, is it NECESSARY to have the character on a mission trying to accomplish something? William Trevor and Alice Munro have so often been cited as masters of the short story form, and often I can't figure out what their characters are "up to." What are they trying "to do." It just feels like they show characters living their lives. Let me know what you think? (Submission anonymous)

Answer

I admit I come with a very narrow aesthetic sense at this. It’s story that makes me warm and fuzzy, stories where something happens and the characters are unique and fighting with often inadequate skills against insurmountable odds. The contemporary short story seems to have settled into character sketch with narrative description, or heavy dependence on event description based on a “real” “made-up” person or remembered happening supported by lyrical prose usually without action, seemingly without purpose, and very inconsistent on effective imagery.

For me, fiction is communication between two human beings, author and reader, and I believe successful connection is best achieved with the ability to please the reader with fiction techniques and purposeful thinking. The fictional story is created with a purpose—to engage, entertain, and enlighten. Characters need to have desires that fuel motives for action when the character is presented with a conflict and characters need to have the will to try to solve a problem and make change in some way. Do contemporary fiction writers create stories? It’s rare. They simply tell stories part-real or imagined. I’ve never had pleasure in reading Trevor or Munro; as you’ve pinpointed for yourself, I’m not fascinated by narrative description of past events and told emotions of characters as if a reader is forced to watch reality TV. But I feel it’s heretical to say so, and hasten to say my views are in a minority and probably archaic for modern reader and author temperaments.

I don’t believe fiction is a good medium for missions that imply “I’m going to tell you how to do something or believe in something,” and are usually authorial in source. I like characters, with the reader by their sides, solving problems so both reader and characters learn something, even if subliminal, about what it means to be human. They learn mainly by doing, feeling, discovering–in the story present mainly—and primarily in scene, not by an author telling of past events and lives described from the author’s present life and worldview.

It’s damn near impossible to write stories like Babel, de Maupassant, Flaubert, Conrad, O’Connor, or Chekhov. It’s not that they just lived in the past. They were able to create stories that built character and conveyed something interesting through action that a reader had not thought about before, or at least enjoyed exploring again.

I believe that every author ought to strive for exactly that past level of quality stories—for the sake of our generations’ stories surviving in the collective human consciousness. And I have a mission: to bring back great fiction techniques in contemporary stories that are created by authors whose talent thrives on knowledge of the human soul expressed through character-based dramatic plots. Deep down, humans in the near and distant future will thirst for knowledge of what folks were like in our lives and find out in the ways only creation through fiction can achieve. The fictional story is an art form, this creation through fiction to describe human soul in our time, and like singing opera or writing sonnets, it would be a shame if the art form is lost.

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