Writers – set the controls for the middle of the Sun

There’s no getting around it. No matter how good a plot you come up with for your story or novel, it’ll be dull, dull dull if you don’t wrap it around a character arc. Characters make the story. Without that tension – the character having to learn something.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.
A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

Want to know what I mean? Check this out:

The cabin alarm blared. Another failure. Captain Fantastic wrestled with the control column. Already the rocket-liner was plunging uncontrollably towards the Sun, its motors dead, but he had to pull clear – had to – because…

  1. Well, he just had to. You know, he was going to die. Uh…boring. What’s at stake, besides this character who we know nothing about? Who cares?
  2. He had 1000 passengers on board and had to save them, no matter what. OK, better. But still, well, a bit of a yawn-fest.
  3. He had to redeem himself after his terrible failure 10 years earlier in similar circumstance. Much better (OK, this one is a cliché, but it really shows up what I‘m getting at).
  4. As (3), but he also has to save the 1000 passengers, some of whom we’ve already learned about as people and therefore worry about. This is best (and it’s pretty much exactly the story of every disaster movie ever made, especially Airport 75, or The Posiedon Adventure.)

Tension comes from the intersection between character and plot. Do we really care if Captain Fantastic lives or dies, if we know nothing about him. And even then – it’s not a question of having character background, there has to be a dynamic interaction between character arc and plot. We care more if we know he’s going to redeem himself. It works even better if he has to learn something – if he has a revelation that allows him to redeem himself.

Put a story together without that element, and all you’ll get is melodrama. Trust me.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


4 thoughts on “Writers – set the controls for the middle of the Sun

  1. Brilliant as always, Matthew! That the reader must care about the character seems so obvious yet so many writers assume that a reader will care because he or she is reading. It is almost as if reading means one will care. I may too far down in the weeds with this one but I have wondered about it, especially in genre fiction. Literary fiction requires the same caring but its scope is more internal and local, I think. Much to think about here. Thanks, Matthew!

    1. Thank you! I agree about the ‘locality’ of literary fiction. Just to extend the genre thought, I have sometimes wondered whether specific genres such as sf can get away with thinner characters because at least a part of the genre appeal is the ‘gee whizz’ aspect of the genre. But I am far from convinced – character and character arc are fundamental. (Incidentally, I am in process of putting my money where my mouth is, as it were, in fiction writing. More on that soon!) Good to hear fron you, as always – I hope all is well your way, as your journey unfolds.

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