Fire and Passion

You come across a book by two authors you’ve never read before. You read the first one, and it’s like finding treasure. The characters spring to life on every page. The action is exciting. The suspense is hair-raising. You can’t bear the anticipation of reaching the story climax and yet you can’t stop turning pages. And when you reach the ending, you’re both exhilarated and sad that it’s over. You click online to see if this book is part of a series because you want more.

Then you read the second book you purchased. Your reaction is meh. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either. You find yourself trying to like the characters, but they’re merely okay. You can’t love them. You’re struggling to care about whether they’ll succeed. The story moves competently through its paces, and when you finish you’re mostly relieved that it’s over. Definitely you won’t seek any more of this author’s work.

Besides allowing for a reader’s personal taste, what’s the difference? Two authors with equal numbers of publications. Two authors with equal amounts of professional experience. Why is one writing copy that’s alive and one writing copy that’s flat?

Are their ideas that unequal?

Probably not. Very likely the difference lies not in the story premise but in their approach to their material. Writer One put her heart into her book. She wrote it because she had a passion for the story and her characters. She lived and breathed the emotions. Writer Two wrote because she had a contractual deadline to meet. She outlined a story in a competent way. She designed characters because they either fit a publisher’s guidelines or because she’s found certain characteristics sell better than others. She put her her characters into challenging situations, and then chose appropriate words to convey their emotional reactions.

One writer wrote with her heart. The other writer wrote with her mind.

Now in certain genres, such as hard science fiction or puzzle mysteries, the mind is what’s most needed. These books are focused on the story problem to be solved. They are not relying on intense character internalization and growth.

But for most genres, the heart is vital. Emotion in characters brings them alive. The writer must care about the character and the issue first. If the writer cares, then the character involved will care. If the character cares, then the reader will care. Investing emotion into a situation means stronger motivation, stronger attempts, stronger conflict, stronger confrontations, stronger reactions, and stronger determination to prevail from the story people.

Sure, writers have to think about their plots and work through the development of outlines, but once that foundation is laid, writers must then write the story from inside the protagonist’s viewpoint. That is what’s made to appear to drive the story forward.

But if a writer attempts to write fiction from the outside, the character will always seem flat and the authorial hand will sometimes be too evident in moving a puppet character here and there.



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2 responses to “Fire and Passion

  1. It’s been more than 63 years now since I left Foster’s office in Kaufman Hall for the last time. For three years I had been struggling, without success, to bring any character to life. I still hear Foster’s gruff voice telling me, “Show, don’t tell.” Meanwhile I had been selling non-fiction regularly, using Prof. Campbell’s four-word formula to construct articles that editors found worth buying.

    After graduation and mandatory military service, I continued trying to create characters for a few years, even receiving a personal rejection letter from John W. Campbell at Astounding — which I angrily wadded up and tossed into the trash. My non-fiction continued to sell. Finally I abandoned my efforts at fiction, and spent my working life doing what I could sell.

    Some twenty books later, few of which anyone remembers today, I sat last year with a melody — Taps — that wouldn’t let me go running through my head, uncontrollable tears flowing down my cheeks, and set my keyboard clicking to tell the story of an aging veteran’s acceptance into the long dark line of those for whom Taps has sounded the final call. When it was finished, I sent it to a few friends, who suggested several places I might submit it. They thought it was that good.

    The editors didn’t, but I was fired up once again. My third effort DID sell and will be in an anthology of fantasy to appear come March 16, the day before my 85th birthday. I now know why I can sell stories today, after failing for so many years.

    Thank you, Ms. Chester, for putting the secret into words so wonderfully. Please continue to impress on your students that they must learn to live, before they can breathe life into their creations! Now I’m going back to see what will happen next to my babies in their fantasy world….

    • Mr. Kyle,
      Congratulations on your fiction sale! What a wonderful birthday present for you this March when your story will appear in that fantasy anthology. You know, I tell my students semester after semester to persist and they roll their eyes at me, but you are proof of what determination, writing craft, and emotion can do.

      I hope you are proud of your accomplishments in the nonfiction arena as well. You have a body of work to be proud of.

      Keep pouring your heart into your characters, and enjoy the ride.

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