11 August, 2012

Readers and Characters

"The reader follows the character, not the story," said Scott Bradfield.

This was scrawled in red ink at the top of my title page.  I had a billion questions and I was nervous of bombarding the man as he probably had a novel to write.  The problem was, the statement doesn't make any sense until you already understand it--the key problem with all good writing advice.

Fortunately, elaboration on such statements is what this blog is all about.

Let's break the statement down into its component elements.  We all know what "the reader" is, so let's move onto "follows"--a question of what the reader does.  We take an idea and we offer it, and this moves forward to a conclusion, right?  Talk about deceptively simple!  But keep it in mind as you learn, too.  It's something we'll return to further down the road.  You'll notice that stories swiftly inform the reader of the premise and carry that forwards.

But for our purposes here, let's stick to our premise.  Originally I'd thought Scott was just telling me that the "character" is what the reader thought he (for the purpose of brevity, I'll just say "he" instead of "s/he" and so forth--hope I don't offend anyone) was following in the grand illusion of a story.  Looking back, I can already see the basic principle that held me from the truth:  a story is not an illusion.  Quite the opposite, a story attempts to paint truth from simplicity.

The reader is moved by character, not idea, is what Scott was saying.  The reader is trying to follow a thread of emotion, a connection with the story's events, and that connection is far beyond the story's plot, character, setting or anything else.  (Three weeks from now I'll post one called "Follow the What!?" which will be of help on this point.)  "Don't break things into component parts," Scott could have just as easily said.  "Stop thinking in terms of trying to force something down the reader's neck and just let the reader experience."

Scott wasn't even saying that the reader follows human beings.  A good story can even lack human beings altogether, but since the reader is a human being, emotion and effect will always be derived from the reader's human connection to all of your story's elements.  This means that, in effect, Scott was telling me that everything in a story is a character--everything from the setting to the actual characters, and thus everything should exist in relation to each other, because it is those relationships that the reader follows.  They won't care what happens in your story until they have some reason to connect with it, and generating that connection is what you should focus on in producing your work. 

The point?  Art is human.  Everyone from Dan Brown to Van Gogh understands/understood this.  Next time you read a story, try to see how everything relates to the reader.  This sounds self evident, but it's really quite a helpful exercise and within it lies mastery of the craft.  I'm not a master yet, but that's only because my story elements don't relate to the reader as strongly as the great masters managed.

(See "Follow the What!?" in three weeks to understand what is meant by "story elements".)

No comments: