The Characters Who Don't Do Anything

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2018-02-21 22:00:00 No comments

I had two different writing professors in college. One was far more direct and practical -- do this, don't do that. The other was more freeform and gentle -- what happens if we do this? (The latter was the one who introduced me to Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers.) I think -- although I'm not totally positive about this, so forgive me if I've attributed this to the wrong person -- it was the first of the two who offered us the following piece of advice: Don't write stories about "people waiting for their lives to begin." And if you see similar wording on the jacket copy of a book, run.

At first this advice grated on my twenty-year-old self. Why not write about someone like that? Isn't there some merit in exploring the lives of those in spiritual limbo? To my mind, the whole point of writing was to pick whatever subject piqued your interest and do justice to it as only you could. But the reason the prof offered up only made more sense as time went on:

A person waiting for something is a tough storytelling nut to crack -- a lot of effort for very little payoff. It's orders of magnitude harder to extract fiction-worthy insight from an inert object. Just because Samuel Beckett did it doesn't mean you can be his heir. If you want to be his heir, start with stories that are more like what people expect as a story, and then work progressively away from that. That is, if you find you still want to go that way by the time you've achieved mastery of the basics.

To this I want to add a few things of my own:

  1. This kind of material seems to appeal mainly to other writers, and not most other readers. Writing for other writers, whether or not self-consciously, is a trap. It leads you to the kind of second-guessing and insularity about one's material and expressions of same that make obscurantism into its own virtue. It results in the kind of show-offy, self-consciously "literary" writing that has made much of modern "serious" fiction uninteresting at best and unreadable at worst.
  2. It is tempting to believe that just because you find something interesting that other people don't, you are therefore in a position of aesthetic superiority vis-a-vis that thing. Sometimes you're just being a trivialist, albeit maybe a trivialist of great ability. Don't settle for only that.

There aren't very many books that successfully explore a character who is static. I mentioned Beckett; he's sui generis, so trying to use him as a model for anything is a bad idea. Pick someone who has somewhere to go and follow them wherever they may lead.

If you find yourself fascinated with people who have nowhere to go, don't just content yourself with the aesthetics of it. Maybe the reason they have nowhere to go is because they're in a world that doesn't let them go anywhere. That's a worthy subject for a story. But someone who is willfully in limbo may be a poor choice unless you can bring something truly extraordinary to that table.

Tags: characters writers writing