Monday, July 5, 2010

The Three Important Things

What does it take to have a good novel? As much as we would like to know the answer to that, it isn’t always an easy thing to answer. There’s lot of subjectivity. A lot of people talk about the rules of writing, but there’s always an exception that people point to and wonder why that particular author was able to get by with it. So what I would like to address today are three things that must be handled well in every story, without exception, in order for the story to be good. These three aren’t checkbox items that you have or you don’t but rather things that as you handle them better your story improves. The best stories handle them very well and the worst stories handle them poorly.

A Likeable Protagonist

We’ve all run into stories with a protagonist we had trouble connecting with. Maybe we didn’t out and out dislike the guy, but we didn’t care what happened to him. It’s like the story of the woman who had fifteen kids. One of them fell in a tar pit and the children came running to tell her. “Leave him there,” she said. “It’s easier to have another one than to clean him up.” We find these protagonists and something bad is about to happen to them, but we don’t care or we hope it does. I usually don’t make it to the end of these stories.

By likeable, we don’t mean that the protagonist is the kind of guy you want your daughter to marry. Maybe he is, but he could just as easily be a criminal of some sort. We might not want to spend time with him in the real world or run into him in a dark alley, but we like him as a character and we feel a connection to him. There’s something about him that makes us believe he is like us.

The key to creating a likable character is to have him do something good when we introduce him. Take an ice cream vender, for example. This vender is approached by a kid with no money, but the vender gives the kid an ice cream cone anyway. Later, when the ice cream vender gets into a fight with his wife, we find it much easier to side with the vendor because we know that there is a redeeming quality within him. Had we just shown the fight we would have thought badly of him. We might not like the wife either and the book would be ruined for us.

Something at Stake

Let’s say our protagonist is taking on city hall because they’ve passed an ordinance that keeps him from planting flowers next to the street. Most likely, that would create a very boring story. But what if our ice cream vendor takes on city hall because they’ve passed an ordinance that prohibits street vendors. Now we’ve raised the stakes by targeting his livelihood. It’s essentially the same story, but it got more interesting. We could push the stakes even higher by having city hall pass an ordinance that will only allow him to sell ice cream in a gang infested neighborhood. Now, not only is his job on the line, but his life may be as well.

That may be stretching our ice cream vendor story a bit far, but the point is that the higher we raise the stakes the better the story becomes. Our protagonist needs to be at risk of losing something that is very important to him. That thing should be something that we easily understand why he is afraid of losing it. The importance of the thing at stake and the immediacy of the risk determine how realistic it is that the character will take significant action. The city not allowing flowers next to the street warrants a letter to a city councilman or a visit to the city council meeting, but a loss of a job might convince a man to take more drastic action.

Conflicting Goals and Motives

Imagine this story: something bad happens. Our protagonist says, “This is what we should do.” Our antagonist says, “I agree.” That’s about as boring as you can get. But let’s suppose we have a villain who is going to blow the dam. Hero A says, “Let’s call the cops, so they can stop him.” Hero B says, “Let’s stop him ourselves.” We have three different people who want to do three different things and they each have a reason. The villain is angry at the town. Hero A wants him stopped, but Hero A is fearful. Hero B also wants him stopped but Hero B wants to get the credit for stopping him. Because of this, the two heroes could appear to be antagonists to each other. Hero A will put Hero B’s goal at risk. Hero B might try to stop Hero A before he goes after the villain.

Putting the characters at odds with each other in this way introduces possible situations with unexpected results. Even the good guys can’t agree and no more than one can be right.

If these things are handled well in the story, the story will be good. If even one of them is missing or handled poorly, the story will be poor.