I Spent Years Confused by This Problem

Intro to the series

What is "character-first" writing? A mini-series

Part One: An Invisible Problem All Writers Face

Part Two: Why Structure Didn't Help

Part Three: The Power of the Two Plots

Part Four: The Power of a Victorian Narrator

This post is the first in a series: I'm explaining how I teach the craft of fiction. 

In other words, this is your introduction (or re-introduction) to "character-first writing."

Character-first writing is a philosophy that underlies all my writing courses. It's such a rich and versatile way of solving the thorny problem of "how do I write a novel??" that, when I coach writers one-on-one, I can usually offer them transformative advice within the first hour of our conversation. I just need to listen to that writer describe their story and, once I've mentally applied the character-first framework to what they've told me, I quickly know how to help.

However, it took me a while to get here. Several years ago, I studied fiction writing at the Masters and then the PhD level, which meant participating in a lot of creative writing workshops. In these workshops, my fellow students would share a short story or a chapter of a novel, and a week later, the rest of us would offer our feedback while that writer sat in silence, taking notes.

Over time, I started to notice a common thread. Many of the stories I read during those years were excellent -- moving, funny, tragic, expertly constructed. On the other end, a few were just too rough to workshop, needing more time and revision before they could be usefully critiqued. But the majority of submissions were somewhere in the middle. In these stories which didn't quite set the room on fire (in neither a good or bad way), I felt like there was a recurring pattern, a particular craft error that kept coming up. The writing itself was decent; we were clearly reading a story; there were no grammatical errors or experimental strangeness that made it hard to follow.

Rather, we just weren't wowed by the story because we, as readers, couldn't quite figure out what was going on. Yes, we could read the sentences and scan the dialogue. Yes, we could recognise the familiar moves of a plot moving forwards. But we seemed to be lacking a vividness, an emotional experience, a quickness that as readers we had been expecting to find. It felt a little like we had joined a conversation halfway through. 

The writer was not trying to be obscure or confusing. She wanted us to feel everything in the story, and was bewildered why we could not. But again and again, we would all reach a big plot moment, or read a stretch of seemingly important dialogue, and we would either feel nothing at all, or a vague kind of second-hand emotion, a sense that arrived a while later, after we pieced together what the writer was trying to say.

For a while, I assumed that this problem was a product of the graduate school environment. We were trying to be fancy artistes! We wanted to be literary! I developed complex theories about the history of the creative writing field and practical frameworks for improving the structure of a workshop.

But as time went on, this viewpoint grew less convincing. After all, there were plenty of literary novels that gripped the reader's attention from page one, full of lively dialogue and thrilling flights of narration. And when I took part in local writing circles and observed critique groups on Reddit, I noticed that those writers often suffered from the same problem. Their stories, too, seemed designed to be read "second-hand," as if you were overhearing someone talk about those pages --rather than inhabiting the fictional world of the writer's mind.

I desperately wanted to help. But I didn't know how.

I remember one community workshop, held in a cafe in Philadelphia, in which a writer had included a scene where the main character killed a penguin.* No one in the group could understand why the penguin was in the story nor what emotion we were supposed to experience at its death.

We attempted, politely, to convey our concerns, but the writer did not grasp, nor appreciate, our incomprehension. "He never meant to kill the penguin," he kept explaining. "It was an accident." When we asked why this moment was included in the story, he stared at us as though we were novices in the craft of fiction: "It represents his sense of inadequacy about being a father." His tone suggested that we should be embarrassed for not grasping this obvious fact.

Clearly, something was amiss. Something was not quite coming together in all these stories. Something was preventing the story in the writer's head from becoming words on a page that could connect with readers. But for a long time, I had no idea at all what the problem really was... nor how to offer a helpful solution.

Have you had a similar experience in workshops / writing groups? Does this situation seem familiar to you?

(*it wasn't actually a penguin -- I changed a few details for the sake of this email.)