When I was little my mother used to say despairingly that I “always had my head in a book”. Looking back, there’s worse things I could have got into. However, the habit remains.
I try to impose discipline on myself by not reading fiction until the evening. This discipline works unless I’ve had a hard day, unless the rain is so bad it almost seems like evening, or unless I have a new book by a favorite author.
What is it about fiction that compels us to read it and write it? Part of it is the lure of visiting a different world. It can be historical, geographical, futuristic or total fantasy, but it lifts us out of our everyday life.
If we write, we can create that world. How wild is that? But more than the geographic or social world we can create the people within it.
When I think about half a dozen of my favorite writers, they all write mystery novels – that’s my genre. Three of them have a setting in away back history, three are contemporary with a strong sense of place – Alaska, Texas and up-state New York. They are all set in a milieu that is strange to me – that’s part of the attraction.
But more important, they all have strong characters – characters who demand attention. I care about them – sometimes I think they are more real to me than many of my acquaintances. They have an inner life as well as an outer life.
As I read I feel that they are responding to events in the only way they could. I’m not distracted, thinking ‘Well, that was stupid’.
I think that, as writers, we should spend time trying to understand how the writer has made these, our favorite characters, so powerful within our imagination.
To me, one of the secrets is they way the character’s inner life drives their outer life; the way inner life and outer life are integrated. Do they have a belief system that carries them through event after event to the end of the story?
It’s fine that they have the purpose of saving the universe, but why do they want to? What drives them that doesn’t drive everyone else?
To me saving the universe is a bit of a cop out. Too easy. A whole lot of action and not much advance in understanding. It’s all the outer life; the inner life has been sacrificed.
Not everyone will agree with this, and that’s fine – literature is what our mind and imagination make of it. But we need to understand what makes a book or a story great FOR US.
Then, when we go to write a story or a novel we can follow the example others have set. We will have had the ‘Aha’ moment that tells us how we want our own characters to be, how they will drive the plot. We’re not copying, we’ve just moved to a deeper understanding.
We’ve taken one more step in understanding what makes a great story.