Posts Tagged ‘character’

Frequent Failures of Contemporary Writers: Story and Character Editorial Opinion

Thursday, June 12th, 2014
William H. Coles

Workshop Question

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?  


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 through the channel of story and characterization , 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 rarely had frequent pleasures in reading Trevor especially, or even Munro; as you’ve pinpointed for yourself, I’m not fascinated by narrative description of past events (even imagined) 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 many 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 mainly 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.  There is an acute need 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.  Academics is failing to teach great sotrytelling and even adequate writing skills defaulting instead to “write about yourself and what you know” and encouraging “innovation” (especially in the short story).  Deep down, humans in the near and distant future will thirst for knowledge of what folks were like in our lives and, I would hope, 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, writing sonnets, telling tales effectively, it would be a shame if the art form is forgotten and lost.



Memoir Is Not Fiction Editorial Opinion

Thursday, September 20th, 2012
William H. Coles

Most contemporary literary writers write, and are educated to write, fiction as if it is a variant of writing memoir. Teachers of creative writing ask students to find what is meaningful for them, what is in their hearts? So when students write "fiction" stories–novels or shorter works–they write from their own experience; describe their own feelings; deliver their own opinions; describe their own memories for setting and scene events; and establish a voice for the work, their voice, without ever creating voices for a narrator or characters as distinct entities. Dialogue especially suffers, since everything in quotes is little changed from what the author would say and think.

But story structure is weak also. Fictional stories in memoir style seem to have little or no purpose and fail to have dramatic progression. In memoir style, almost always the author is the narrator, directly or indirectly, in first and third person, which limits the story presentation to the author's world-view, mind, and experience. And imagination (forming new ideas and concepts) to create story is limited in memoir style to the author's view of the world and descriptions of recollections.

Memoir-generated fiction is now accepted by readers as literary, mainly because of the number of authors who default to this style of writing. The style is easier to write and allows anyone, regardless of language skills, to tell a self-centered story that is increasingly being published today as literary fiction.  But is memoir-based fiction really being accepted by readers?  In today's stressed market with perceived shifting needs, literary fiction doesn't sell books to publishers' satisfaction. That may be because what is labeled as literary fiction is just sloppy memoir.

In the minds of most writers, what literary fiction is little more than a vague mist. Yet, the classics written as fiction (as it has continued to develop over the past three centuries) are rich with vibrant examples of great fiction.  Great literary fiction is character-based, that is, the strengths and weaknesses of characters drive the plot.  Great fiction is created by the author; told by the narrator in the narrator's own, distinct, world-view voice; and acted out by characters, who may in story-appropriate enhancing situations, create their own distinctive voices.  And literary stories have meaning, something happens, and someone is enlightened–character or reader, and often both be it usually in different ways.  Literary fiction is permeated with humor, usually in the form of irony, and has an understandable moral overlay, a morality that is story specific and not, for maximum effectiveness, the morality lived and pronounced by the author.  The writing in literary fiction is dramatic, interesting, engaging, and accurate with pinpoint word choice and carefully considered grammar appropriately chosen for the story.

And literary fiction is imagined, never just narrative description from authorial memories.  Not that the literary author doesn't draw on his or her experiences, and seeks stimulation from the past for engagement and function of the imagination.  For imaginative fiction, the author's world is only a nidus that stimulates imaginative use of a broader-than-author world, but the author's world is not the foundation or the embellishment of great literary stories. 

In essence and in contrast to memoir, literary stories are created by their authors, but authors create from broad views of the world fortified by experience and observation. Narrators and characters contribute to stories from their own special (author-created) worldviews.

The author's presence in the literary story is through the uniqueness of his or her creative abilities, the quality of the imagination, the skill of the writing, and by the author narrating through narrator and characters imagined for the story world; the author's worldview from their own narrow world is not present, or at least not dominant.

Literary fiction takes time, experience, hard work, vibrant imagination, and intellectual investment to produce unique, accurate, image-invoking writing and development of characters with unique characteristics that mesh synergistically with story, plot, and a recognizable reason for writing.  Great memoir is an excellently written, well-crafted presentation of an author's life events and experiences–often emotional and intellectual change–as told by the author.

Readers need literature written with fiction techniques and sophisticated narration to attain pleasure, a feeling of discovery, a new way of seeing the world, and a desire to continue to read to find the qualities of great stories and characters that only a writer of fiction, writing well and telling unique stories, can provide.

What Exactly Is a Character-Based Plot? Article About Writing Better

Saturday, November 13th, 2010
William H. Coles


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Exposing the Dark Side of Academic Fiction Workshops Editorial Opinion

Thursday, August 26th, 2010
William H. Coles

The end of a number of summer fiction workshops highlights again the influence of academic writing programs on the quality of contemporary literary fiction. Most contemporary literary writers progress through their careers, with variations, like this: college English major; attend MFA program; published work (often workshopped to the point of committee writing) promoted by MFA program; teaching position in creative writing; new work poorly received and published mainly by friends and colleagues in the literary community. This scenario produces unpalatable fiction not of the quality to have any commercial value, and usually consists of autobiographical or memoir material, usually told in the first person and strong on voice because story is lacking, and usually consists of descriptive narrative of past events with minimal dramatization. And this scenario almost never develops quality teachers capable of the complexities and challenges that writing of great fiction demands.

The result, and many will argue although the raw truth is evident, is literary fiction is boring, unpalatable, and unreadable to the majority of readers. A writer who has the intellect and the talent to produce great fiction with meaning has few resources to learn the skills of writing fiction, and studying in an MFA wastes valuable writing time. The most devastating effect of MFA programs is the result of the universal trend to tag any graduate as writer and teacher, which is often not true on either count, so these teachers are thrust on eager students as competent.

Here are recent events, all true, in workshops that work against the writing of great literary fiction. Collectively, these scenarios dominate the teaching of creative writing and erode valuable education of writers eager to write literary fiction constructed with dramatic scenes and affecting meaning and enlightenment about the human condition through story.

One teacher demanded that the action in a short story could be no longer than twenty-four hours, citing Aristotle as the source of this command. Aristotle, of course, never conceptualized a short story. And mention of famous short stories such as "A Simple Heart", by Flaubert (a lifetime) and "Lady with a Pet Dog" (months) by Chekhov were not mentioned in the pronouncement.

One teacher suggested an"'inventory" of things a character would have — empty a purse, go through a hope chest, explore a glove compartment for things to stick in the story as revelatory of character. This inventory-list activity does have value, of course, but it suggests that character development in a great story is description of things, when in truth great characters are best developed by unique and story-specific actions in scene and clear exploration of desires and emotions.

More than one teacher required a notebook. Ideas, scenes, characters, all described in detail from life. The idea was that when you were writing and you got blocked, you could go to your notebook and pull out a cute scene, an interesting character trait, or a vivid image to insert. Ridiculous. Great story writing is not a collection of unrelated ideas, no matter how cute or clever. Great literary stories come from story specific details imagined for best story effectiveness, not pulled from (although they may be stimulated by) the pantry of authors' experiences.

One teacher emphasized the importance of going a little crazy with the writing, a sort of free association in bizarre contexts and without fear of salacious or shocking effects on some readers. When asked if clarity in prose and structured story telling was important even in the crazy periods to keep the reader oriented to story, his answer was "no." "Writing stories is an art form," he said. But the great, memorable, literary stories are founded on clear prose, clear ideas, clear plot progressions, and not random, disparate ideation. To profess otherwise is to send beginning authors on a self-destructive, albeit easier, path to mediocrity.

One author/teacher shared his desire to fully incorporate the author's voice in his stories. He did not see this as memoir or autobiographical, and did not see the danger of excluding imaginative story development outside the author's experiences, nor of promoting ideas and opinions as the most reliable way to create the great literary story with meaning that readers might enjoy. His teaching of authorial catharsis as story writing also arrogantly assumed that what the author thinks and says will be important to a large number of readers. In his case, he had neither the intellect, talent, nor life-fascination of others to attract the attention of a serious reader of literary stories.

One class was the completion of many exercises during six workshop sessions. No manuscripts were reviewed. Not one exercise was designed for in-scene action, or developed for effective inclusion with what would come before and after the exercise when inserted in a story. Every exercise was based and judged on descriptive narrative and dialogue, all static approaches to the creation of fiction that is structured on a series of interrelated scenes that contain conflict, action, and resolution.

In one class students held hands with neighbors, closed eyes, and thought of words that were called out into the silence in the hope of stimulating something to write about. The goal was to get something on the page based on a random thought. It implies that writing fiction comes from the subconscious, and then is developed through description of the random idea, and other ideas that might follow. Definitely not the way to learn to write a memorable, meaningful, literary fictional story that needs structure. Literary stories are not built on description, but on the actions of characters and the change in perceptions of characters and readers as a result of these actions. The subconscious is a source, but it is the conscious where imagination develops action with meaning.

Many classes are openly advocating an author writing about him or herself. "I want to read about your story, not someone else's," one teacher said. He yearned for creative memoir, often enjoyable, but not the same as creating the great literary fictional story with dramatic scenes, meaning, and enlightenment.

A common practice occurs in every workshop. A student's writing is evaluated on word choice, rhythmic sentences and pleasing syntax, surprising and delightful prose, but rarely (if ever) is a writing segment (or story) considered for purpose. Does the writing have a purpose that develops character? Is the purpose of the writing to advance plot logically? Is the purpose of the writing to contribute to meaning, theme, and enlightenment? Is the purpose of the writing to meet your 3000-word daily quota or to structure a story with well developed characters through action? There is an alarming inability of present day teachers of creative writing to understand and teach the essence of a great story. And there is little awareness of the consolidated negative effect of workshops on the writers trying to create literature with the advantages of traditional storytelling.

One prominent teacher/editor said: "For me, there is no difference between creative nonfiction and fiction." He unintentionally revealed his dismissal of the potential of fiction as an art form to create great literary stories, and his promotion of literary fiction as a description of the author's memory and thoughts, as opposed to the creation of story through dramatic action on imagined characters. At another occasion, he admitted he preferred nonfiction, even though he made the final choices for fiction selections for a literary journal. These attitudes are discouraging to writers of literary fictional stories, and destructive to the survival of great fiction as a venue for lasting, memorable stories.

Beginning writers have few ways to evaluate the value of workshop leaders. Word of mouth is most helpful. But finding a workshop valuable to the writing process of great fiction requires multiple workshops to begin to know the true value of any one teacher's abilities. Moment for moment, the best way to improve in the writing of fiction is the meticulous study of authors who have achieved what the student wants to achieve. Students need to discover how authors created their effects on readers. This is not copying style, as so often advocated in workshops. It is, instead, learning how to tell stories effectively, with clear prose and solid control of characters' desires and emotions within the cobweb of a structured, purposeful plot. Writers must make their own discoveries through individual study on what will bring success. Overall, workshops can be valuable, but should not be a primary source of learning for the writer.

You might enjoy the post Top Ten Rules for Fiction Workshops.


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