16 September, 2013

"Character," Christopher Priest said to me

I had the honour of meeting Christopher Priest. He gave a talk/reading at my old university and Ruth (my fiance, whom I met on the MA) and I were invited to attend. In the Q and A session, I selfishly pestered him with far more questions than anyone else. Yes, call me a douche bag, but I was the douche bag who got the most out of the Q and A session, so there you go.

I told him I'd gotten stuck in my book. I'd pulled the trigger before I'd aimed the gun, and I was writing my way out of a black hole (all of this I've mentioned in the blog many times). I asked what a professional, Chris Nolan and Stephen Spielberg (who's expressed interest in The Separation) attracting author would do and/or focus on to get out of the mess.

"Character," he said to me, nodding and looking right into my eyes. Amazingly, that one word made perfect sense, and changed my perspective.

The book isn't about stuff happening. I was struggling so hard to make it all feel unified, I hadn't let myself sit back and take stock. Who is my character really? What does he want/need/feel? I had to know all this on the deepest level, because it's character that makes great fiction. Every scene should be about (not just infused with, but actually 100% about) my main character's emotional needs. The plot is a question of those needs. Otherwise there's no story.

Christopher Priest's one word lesson helped more with my book than anything I've come across.

I was reminded very strongly of something Scott Bradfield and Paul McAuley each said to me on separate occasions:  "The reader follows the character, not the story." It seems great craftsman are in agreement on that score.


Misha Gericke said...

So true. Plot and character should go together. One without the other only results in a mediocre reading experience.

Joseph E. Lerner said...

Christopher Priest's advice belies the notion that "genre" and "literary fiction" are different in that the former emphasizes plot and the latter character.

Nicola Smith said...

Characters we care about are what keep us reading, and watching. We don't even have to like them a lot, but we do need to identify with them.