Posts Tagged ‘Chuck Wendig’

Earlier this week, Chuck Wendig posted a piece on his blog – I Smell Your Rookie Moves, New Writers – which, as the title suggests, is a takedown of particular errors he feels newbie authors make. It’s been doing the rounds on my tumblr, Facebook and Twitter feeds, because quite a lot of people I follow seem to share his sentiments; but as often as I’ve agreed with Wendig’s rants in this past, this isn’t one of those times. In fact, my abiding reaction to the early sections in particular has been one of teeth-grinding fury.

Before we get started, let me make two things clear up front: firstly, that I have an inherent dislike of writing advice that lays down specific mandates regardless of where it comes from; and secondly, that I have enormous respect for Wendig himself as a writer. His prose is punchy, sharp and bruisingly beautiful, quite like getting mugged by a street poet, and I have zero qualms about his ability to offer good advice otherwise. This isn’t me quibbling with Wendig’s technique, nor am I taking issue with the fact that he, specifically, is the one who’s spoken – it’s just that, on this occasion, he’s said a few things I think are fucking stupid, and I’d rather like to address them.

So.

Straight up, there’s a need to compare what Wendig says in his very first paragraph to what he says in the fourth (bolding mine):

I am occasionally in a place where I read work by new writers. Sometimes this is at cons or conferences. Sometimes it’s in the sample of work that’s free online or a fragment from a self-published work…

What I’m trying to say is, your rookie efforts are not automatically worth putting out into the world, especially if those efforts cost readers money to access them. The mere existence of a story is not justification for its publication. Don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts. Get it right before you ask money to reward you for getting it wrong.

Oh my fucking GOD, I will flip a table. Where do I even begin with this bullshit? If someone is publishing their work free online, THEY AREN’T ASKING FOR CASH – and what’s more, no one is fucking asking you to read it. There are myriad online communities that exist precisely so that new writers can ‘publish’ their work and share it with each other, up to and including specific fandom and fanwriter sites, and I reject utterly the implication that there’s no point to those venues or those communities – that such new stories aren’t “worth putting out into the world” – just because they’re not up to Wendig’s standards. I’d take less issue with the sentiment of an established writer selflessly offering help to rookies if that’s what Wendig was actually doing; instead, his piece reads like a successful author castigating first-timers for daring to aspire to his level before he thinks they’re ready.

Listen: I am all for writers improving themselves, and in the event that I fork over money for a book, I am all in favour of that book not sucking! But look at the wording, here: “don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts” – don’t MAKE them, as though the author is standing behind the consumer with a loaded gun, forcing them to buy their latest Kindle release. The entire point of the goddamn marketplace is that consumers take risks on products and then share their opinions about what they bought, thereby potentially attracting or deterring others from purchasing likewise. Wanting to engage in this process in good faith is not a fucking crime, okay? This whole section reads like a form of literary class policing: know your place, and know that it isn’t good enough. 

I also think it’s telling – and grossly hypocritical, given that Wendig himself started as a self-published writer – that he explicitly mentions writers who self-publish, who are unpublished or who write for free, but not rookie authors published via traditional means. (The only nod to traditional publishing is when he talks about “tested authors,” though even then, he could just as easily mean writers who’ve released multiple stories in other formats.) Because, let me tell you: I have read my share of traditionally published works that were fucking shit, and I guarantee I paid more for each of them than I ever have for any self-published release. Never mind that “inferior efforts” is a monumental and incredibly subjective value judgement in the first place: what traditionally published authors have that their unpaid or self-supporting brethren don’t – or not usually, at any rate – is the help of professional editors. Which doesn’t mean that their first drafts are somehow magically lacking the same mistakes Wendig is so angry about here; just that they’ve got an extra pair of eyes to catch them on the first pass. Does Wendig recommend his non-traditional rookies use editors or beta readers, which is an unequivocally useful piece of advice? No, he does not – which means, in essence, that he’s holding such writers to a higher standard than their traditionally published counterparts: be so good the first time that you don’t need an editor.

And look. Okay. Wendig never mentions fanwriters by name, but speaking as someone who’s pretty heavily invested in fan culture at this point, applied in that context, his advice here is the exact fucking OPPOSITE of useful. I mean, I have my own issues with the idea in some fanwriting circles that unsolicited criticism of any kind, even concrit, is verboten, because at the end of the day, if you’re putting something online where people not your friends can read it, you’ve got to be prepared for some degree of feedback. The internet is not your perfect, criticism-free bubble, and there’s no rule saying you get to enjoy the advantages of having an audience minus that audience having its own opinions just because you’d rather not deal with them. But when people share their writing for pleasure ahead of profit – when the content you’re reading is produced for free – that rightly changes the nature of how any feedback should be offered, assuming you care about not being an asshole. A person writing for free is not necessarily interested in improvement, or in anything other than having fun as part of an online community – in which case, telling them to stop posting until they suck less is rather like running up to a bunch of kids playing ball at the park and yelling that they need to run more drills before they do that shit in public, otherwise they’re never going to get scouted. I know it’s hard for published writers to remember this, but some people do write for pleasure alone, and the internet makes that easier than ever.

More to the point, though: writing shouldn’t begin as a woodshed exercise for every single person who wants to try it for money, and part of what makes new authors better – especially if they’re the type of rookie who can’t afford an editor and has no access to reliable betas – is getting feedback on their work. I mean, let’s be real: Wendig is acting like charging money for crap books is a crime, instead of just part of the literary-commercial ecosystem. Crap books – and we won’t always agree on what they are, because it’s a judgement call – are always going to be published, and some people are always going to regret buying them, but that doesn’t mean they should never have been written or published in the first place.

Except 50 Shades of Gray, maybe. That is some abusive, rape-apologist bullshit right there.

But I digress.    

Here’s my point: so long as you continue to write, your writing style will change. Maybe you’ll get better, maybe you’ll get worse, and maybe you’ll just get different – write for long enough, and you’ll probably do all three. But if you really want to succeed as a writer, hesitating to publish through fear of your own inadequacies is going to get you vastly fewer places than publishing in confidence, but learning to accept criticism. That being so, I’m not angry that Wendig wants new writers to improve; that’s fair enough. I’m angry because a statement like “don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts” isn’t going stop an uncritical egotist who already thinks they’re the next John Green, but it’s sure as hell going to stop the kind of self-doubting beginner whose problem isn’t accepting criticism, but finding the necessary confidence to parse it intelligently.

Which brings me to the topic of Wendig’s actual advice, and the reason I’m always sceptical whenever I see anyone lay down hard rules about what to do, or not do, in the course of writing: it’s because, 90% of the time, that sort of advice doesn’t account for differences in individual style any more than it accounts for differences in individual taste, and therefore has the effect of teaching someone, not how to write well, where well is a universal, but how to write like the person giving the advice.

It is compelling, I know, to figure out every single thing that is happening all the time always in your story. Characters smile and laugh. Okay. They fidget. Fine. They drink a cup of tea with their pinky out. Sure, why not? But if you’re writing out every hiccup, burp, fart, wince, flinch, sip, and gobble, you got problems. A character turns on a lamp? Super, you don’t need to describe how they turn it on. I don’t need to see John Q. Dicknoggin unzipping his fly before he pisses, and frankly, I may not need to see that he pisses unless it’s telling us something about his character.     

On the surface, this is a reasonable thing to say. The problem is that it’s only contextually reasonable, in that some people will be helped by taking this advice, and others hindered. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, for instance -widely regarded as a genre classic – could never have been written if Peake wrote to Wendig’s specifications, and regardless of whether his work is your cup of tea, you can’t deny that many people are extremely fond of it, even though – or especially because, depending on your perspective – it contains passages like this:

The speed of the door as it swung on its hinges was extraordinary, but what was just as dramatic was the silence – a silence so complete that Bellgrove, with his head turned towards his staff and his hand still groping in the air for the bell-pull, could not grasp the reason for the peculiar behaviour of his colleagues. When a man is about to make a speech, however modest, he is glad to have the attention of his audience. To see on every face that stared in his direction an expression of intense interest, but an interest that obviously had nothing to do with him, was more than disturbing. What had happened to them? Why were all those eyes so out of focus – or if they were in focus why should they skim his own as though there were something absorbing about the woodwork of the high green door behind him? And why was Throd standing on tiptoe in order to look through him?

Bellgrove was about to turn – not because he thought there could be anything to see but because he was experiencing that sensation that causes men to turn their heads on deserted roads in order to make sure they are alone. But before he could turn of his own free will he received two sharp yet deferential knuckle-taps on his left shoulder-blade – and leaping about as though at the touch of a ghost he found himself face to face with the tall Christmas-cracker of a butler.

Intense, tight, detailed description of settings, people and actions is a valid stylistic choice. That doesn’t mean it can’t be executed badly – just that doing so is not synonymous with executing it at all.

Enter Wendig’s second objection:

We tell stories because they are interesting. We offer narrative because narrative is a bone-breaker: it snaps the femur of the status quo. It is in fact the sharp, gunshot-loud fracture-break of the expected story is what perks our attention. Guy goes to work, works, comes home, has dinner, goes to bed? Not interesting. Guy goes to work, has the same troubles with his boss, endures the standard problems of the day (“where are my goddamn staples?”), goes home, eats an unsatisfying dinner, goes to bed and sleeps restlessly until the next day of the same thing? Still not interesting. Guy goes to work and gets fired? Okay, maybe, depending on if he does something unexpected with it. Guy goes to work and gets fired out of a cannon into a warehouse full of ninjas? I’M LISTENING.

Well, of course you are, Chuck: you write SFF, and are therefore highly likely to prefer ninjas to the minutiae of daily office life. But this doesn’t change the fact that there’s an entire literary tradition based around slice-of-life realism: stories where the big emotional tension really does hinge on the fact that someone was fired after struggling with their boss, and what this means for their family. Hell, you basically just described the first third of American Beauty. What you’re really railing at here is the idea that domesticity is fundamentally uninteresting – which, don’t even get me started on the gendered implications of that logic when applied in wider contexts, aka The Reason Why So Many Goddamn Fantasy Stories Focus On Big Dudes With Swords Because What Women Do In The Castle Is Girly And Unimportant – in conjunction with a dislike of stories that privilege a character’s emotions and internality above external conflict. Which is to say: this paragraph tells us a great deal about what Chuck Wendig looks for in a novel, but conflates this preference with what good novels look like, period.

Description is the same way. You don’t need to tell me what everything looks like because I already know –

Not if I’m describing something that’s purely fictional, you don’t. Which is to say: the fact that I don’t need to tell you what everything looks like doesn’t mean I shouldn’t tell you what anything looks like.

– and most things aren’t that interesting. Leaves on a tree are leaves on a tree. For the impact of story, how many points each leaf has or how they move in the wind is not compelling.

AUGH. Look: I get that this is meant to be a random example illustrating why we shouldn’t include information that’s totally irrelevant to the plot, but it’s a really shitty example, because even ignoring the fact that sometimes, it’s just nice to set the scene, I can think of a dozen reasons off the top of my head why detailing leaves specifically might be relevant. A ranger describes a particular plant which, in addition to its historical significance, can be used as life-saving medicine. The king’s poisoner tends their herb garden, teaching their protĂ©gĂ© the various uses of each. A paleobotanist suddenly encounters plants she thought extinct, and promptly goes into raptures. But Foz! I hear you cry, Aren’t you being unfairly specific? When would that ever happen, really?

Reader, I just described to you actual canonically important scenes from The Lord of the Rings, Robin Hobb’s Assassin series and Jurassic Park. The devil is in the motherfucking details, dudes. Sometimes you can do without them, but sometimes you really can’t.

Trim, tighten, slice, dice. Pare it all down. Render. Render!…

Whatever it is you’re writing, it’s too long. Cut it by a third or more. Do it now. I don’t care if you think you should do it, just do it. Try it. You can go back to it if you don’t like it. Consider it an intellectual challenge — can you utterly obliterate 33% of your story? Can you do it mercilessly and yet still tell the story you want to tell? I bet you jolly well fucking can.

Merciful fucking Christ, if I never see another piece of writing advice that involves the phrase “pare it all down” it’ll be too soon. I mean, look: I love a stylistically wham, bam, thank-you ma’am novel as much as the next person, but sometimes I want to indulge myself. Really settle in with the slow-burn detail, rolling around in lush descriptions of bright new worlds. Sometimes you want a bit of junk in the literary trunk, you know? Every single novel does not have to whip its metaphorical dick out on the first page and then spend the next thirty chapters furiously jacking itself to climax like a pornstar trying to hit his mark for a neatly-timed cumshot. Your novel won’t implicitly suck if you slow down and take your time teasing the reader.

Plus and also? I know we have a cultural stereotype that says rookie writers consistently produce pages and pages of unnecessary drivel, but a lot of newbies underwrite, too – in which case, telling them to pare back an already barren story isn’t going to help. There’s a reason why so many early creative writing exercises teach students how to describe, how to build: you need to get to the point of creating excess before you can learn how to cut it back, such that assuming the presence of excess as a default is a bad way to go.

The story begins on page one.

Repeat: the story begins on page one.

It doesn’t begin on page ten. It doesn’t start in chapter five.

It starts on page one.

Get to the point. Get to the story. Intro characters and their problem and the stakes to those problems as immediately as you are able. You think you’re doing some clever shit by denying this? You think you need to invest us in your luscious prose and the rich loamy soil of the worldbuilding and the deep nature of these characters — ha ha ha, no. We’re here for a reason. We’re here for a story. If by the end of the first page there isn’t the sign of a story starting up? Then we’re pulling the ripcord and ejecting. We’ll parachute out of your airless atmosphere and land on the ground where things are actually happening.

This is one way to tell a story, certainly. But it’s not the only way, and it’s not always a good one. I have had my absolute fill of – to pick a single example – first-person YA fantasy novels that start with the character in the middle of a battle for precisely this reason, but which never slow down sufficiently to explain why the fight unfolded that way in the first place, because the author never bothered to figure it out. Listen: I’m aware that there’s a debate about the utility of prologues in SFF, and some people hate them for exactly the reasons Wendig has outlined above. The story should start when it starts; if you can’t communicate that earlier information in the first chapter, then it doesn’t deserve a prologue. And in some cases, that’s correct.

But prologues also constitute an important stylistic break. In a story that’s otherwise written entirely in the first person, for instance, having a prologue in the third, containing information the viewpoint character couldn’t possibly know, but which is materially relevant to interpreting their actions, can be an extremely clever move. Think about every film you’ve ever seen that starts in one place before the opening credits roll, then cuts to the protagonist once they’ve finished. That, right there? That’s setting the scene, and even though it’s not always obvious how that first scene relates to the subsequent ones, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t ever have been there in the first place.

Despite his presumptuous use of the royal ‘we’, Chuck Wendig is not speaking for everyone when he says that readers aren’t interested in stories that take longer than a fucking page to establish worldbuilding or character. Good novels can be slow. Not to bring up Tolkien again, because I get hives when people hold him up as the be-all, end-all of the genre, but Christ: do you even remember how The Fellowship of the Ring starts? It’s with a prologue entitled Concerning Hobbits that goes on for pages before Frodo Baggins is ever even mentioned by name, and that doesn’t stop people loving it. Writing books is not a goddamn race, is my point, and I’m sick and tired of seeing brevity held up as an unequivocal literary virtue when it’s just as liable to produce dross as gold when used inexpertly.

Dialogue, for instance, is one of those things that has rules. And for some reason, it’s one of the most common things I see get utterly fucked.

On this point, I agree with Wendig. But then, he’s not discussing style here so much as the basic rules of grammar – and even then, if you’re doing it intelligently, with purpose, as opposed to because you’re unaware of the conventions, even these can be fluid. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet eschews all quotation marks, and it’s a gorgeous novel: yes, it’s an exception to the norm, but I mention it because Wendig’s decision to situate adherence to actual grammatical/formatting rules as identical to meeting his personal narrative preferences makes me bristle. Generally speaking, electing to fuck with the standard protocols is not something you’d do with a first novel, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t ever been done successfully. Returning to an earlier point, it’s the kind of problem that, for a traditionally published author, would (one hopes) be caught in editing – so if you’re not too sharp on the basic conventions and you care about getting them right, you can either look them up, ask a knowledgeable friend to beta your work, or hire an editor. This is line-edit drama, not a problem with poorly-executed style, and there’s a goddamn difference, please and thank you.

You need to let your characters talk.

Dialogue is grease that slicks the wheels of your story.

And eventually it gets tiresome. You love the characters and you think they should be allowed to go on and on all day long because you think they’re just aces. They’re not. Shut them up. Keep the dialogue trim and vital. Concise and powerful. Let them have their say in the way they need to say it — in the way that best exemplifies who those characters are and what they want — and then close their mouths. Move onto the next thing. Let’s hear from someone else or something else.

Generally speaking, I agree with this, too. Unless your character is giving a speech, monologuing to a captive audience or engaging in a soliloquy, they’re probably not going to speak uninterrupted for any length of time. The conversation will go back and forth, and eventually, it’s going to end, and you don’t always need to show every single exchange in order to get the point across. I will, however, take issue with the idea that dialogue must always be “trim and vital, concise and powerful” – because many people aren’t. Naturalistic dialogue can be a powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal, letting you establish voice, dialect, setting and any manner of other things. That doesn’t mean letting the characters talk about anything under the sun with no reference to plotting; it means that not every single exchange has to be geared towards the narrative end-game in order to make a positive contribution to the story.

Each character needs to be a shining beam — each distinct from the next. Bright and demonstrative of its own color. Not archetypes, not stereotypes, but complex and easily distinguished people. And I want a reason to care about them.

This, I agree with: absolutely, 1000%.

Right out of the gate, I want this. I need to know what they want, why they want it, and what they’re willing to do to get it. I need, in very short terms, their quest. Whether desired or a burden, I gotta know why they’re here on the page in front of me. That’s not true only of the protagonist, but of all the characters.

Who are they?

If you can’t tell me quickly, they become noise instead of operating as signal.

Aaaand we’re back to disagreeing again. Because, look, Chuck – I don’t know what your fucking deal with speed is, here, but I’m going to say it again: storytelling isn’t a race. There are times when I want to know quickly what a character’s motivation is, and times where I can stand to wait a little. Sometimes, the best characters slowly emerge from the background, insinuating themselves into the story in ways you didn’t expect at the outset. A great recent example of this was Csevet in Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. A courier who initially brings the protagonist, Maia, the news of his ascension to the throne, Csevet seems at first to be a background character, someone who’ll disappear once he’s fulfilled his immediate purpose. This isn’t because Addison fails to make him a distinct individual, but is rather a consequence of the story being told with a tight focus on Maia’s perspective: Csevet’s needs aren’t as important in the first chapters as Maia’s are, and as Csevet initially appears to deliver a specific piece of news, we’re not expecting Maia to keep him around. But he does, and so the character expands, steadily revealing more and more of himself as the narrative progresses.

You don’t need to give a physical description of every single character the second they first appear in the story, because that information might not be immediately relevant. A character can move in the background as a seeming bit player before ever coming to the fore, and even once you can see them, their motives won’t always be transparent. I don’t just mean this in the facetiously obvious sense, that some characters have hidden agendas: I mean that if you’ve got six characters in a scene, the fact that the primary focus is on two of them doesn’t mean the other four won’t come into their own later. This is even more important to remember if you’re writing in first person, where describing a character or making an observation is synonymous with the character doing those things – and while the author might want to give certain details, the character might not even pick up on them for another three chapters.

What I’m saying is this: Wendig is completely correct in saying that your characters, even the minor ones, should be real, distinct individuals. But that doesn’t mean you have to give their quest away up front, or make it immediately obvious that a seemingly minor character is going to come into greater prominence later. I dislike working from the assumption that your audience is impatient, easily bored and allergic to surprises – especially as I’m not that sort of reader myself.

It’s very hard to manage a lot of characters.

I do it in some books and the way that I do it is by introducing them piecemeal — not in one big dump like I’m emptying a bag of apples onto the counter (where they promptly all roll away from me), but one or two at a time.

Which is kind of what I’m getting at, but from the opposite perspective: it’s okay to empty your bag of apples, provided you subsequently gather them all back up again. Otherwise, you’re permanently restricting yourself to writing early scenes where only one or two characters are present, which… personally? I find that boring; or at least, I wouldn’t want it as a staple. I like stories that challenge me by throwing me in the deep end, asking that I figure out a bunch of characters and navigate their relationships on the fly by way of teaching me the setting. Elizabeth Bear does this wonderfully, as do Kate Elliott and Alaya Dawn Johnson, which is a big part of why I love their books. Particularly in SFF, the social roles the characters inhabit can tell you as much about them – and the world – as their personalities and motives, and the fact that there might be a tension between how a character behaves in an official capacity and who they are otherwise can lead to some extremely satisfying characterisation. Thus: you might first show me the faceless Executioner in Chapter 1, letting them appear as a background authority in Chapter 2, so that when I finally learn their name and their hatred of the Emperor they purport to serve in Chapter 3, I feel the contradiction far more strongly than if you’d simply said as much to begin with.

…if each character sounds like a replicant of the next, you’ve got a problem. It’s not just about vocal patterns. It’s about what they’re saying in addition to how they’re saying it. It’s about their ideas and vision and desires. Look at it this way: it’s not just your prose that makes you your author. It’s not just your style. It’s whatyou write. It’s the themes you express. Characters operate the same way. They have different viewpoints and needs. They have their own ways of expressing those viewpoints and needs, too. Get on that. Otherwise, they’re all just clones with different names and faces. 

Exactly.

Stop doing stunt moves. You can do that later. Right now, assume that you have a single goal: clarity. Clarity is key. It is king. If I do not know what is going on, then I’m out… Do yourself a favor and aim to just tell the story. Get out of the way. Be clear. Be forthright. Be confident and assertive and show us what’s happening without compromise and without burying it under a lot of mud.

You don’t get points for being deliberately ambiguous.

On the surface, this is good advice: it’s just that, given the emphasis on speed in the rest of this piece, I’m inclined to think that Wendig thinks of clarity as a synonym for simplicity, as per the injunction against “trick moves”. Which, yes: if you’re a very new writer, you need to make sure you’re being understood before you can play with expression. But natively, not everyone is going to have the same style or be interested in writing the same sort of book. It’s not a “trick move” to want to have a big cast, or to tell a slow-burn story, or to be interested in description. In fact, I’d argue that writing in a sparse, clean style takes just as much skill as writing more lavishly: there’s an art to economy, and I’ve never liked the idea that it’s somehow a better, easier choice for beginners just because it uses fewer words. Ask any artist: understanding negative space and its impact on the picture takes skill and practice, just like drawing does.

I guess what I’m saying is this: Chuck Wendig has written a piece that’s enormously helpful if you want to learn to write like Chuck Wendig and/or have a natural inclination towards his style, but which is vastly less helpful if you want to learn to write like anyone else; like you, for instance. There’s some good advice there, to be sure, but the parts that aren’t – which conflate his personal preferences with universal truths; which tell new writers they’re not good enough to be worth the cost of admission, no matter how cheap – those parts can fuck right off. Not everybody needs to write books the exact same way, just as everyone doesn’t need to read and love the exact same things, and I’m sick of writing advice that’s really just one person’s taste masquerading as objective truth.

Advertisements

Recently, several writers I respect have been blogging about backstory, exposition and simplicity. The first of those posts, by Patrick O’Duffy, got me thinking about what backstory really means. Heading into a novel, it’s quite usual for me to have dedicated reams of wordage to figuring out who my characters are, what they’re like, what major events (if any) have defined them, how they relate to everyone else in the story, and where they might end up. Depending on the narrative, anything from all to none of this information might prove to be plot-critical; even so, there’s a decent chance that a reasonable portion of it will get used. Once upon a time, I’d have been happy calling that backstory, but having read O’Duffy’s piece, the term no longer feels applicable. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t seem to apply in quite the same way. As a word, backstory is suggestive of information that has already been superseded by the coming narrative –  the sort of character-blurb you might write into an obliging box on a D&D character sheet in the sure and certain knowledge that anything you say, no matter how personally relevant, will have no bearing whatsoever on the coming adventure. At least, that’s my memory of high school level RPGing, anyway; whatever personality I gave my character would be as detached from the main narrative as if I’d bothered to try and impose a fictitious history on my avatar in Neverwinter Nights. In such gaming scenarios, the importance of backstory is reduced to a fairly binary set of good/evil questions designed to shape your personal morality, such as: will my character kick this puppy? Should I steal the gold from the old lady, or give her more to buy medicine? Will I help the druids defend the trees, or shall I fight their preachy asses? (Note: I am probably the only person in the entire world who helps the druids at that point. Some NPCs just ask to be eaten by bears.)

But writing a novel, it seems to me, is a markedly different endeavour. If the story is analogous to the gaming campaign, then the characters – and their histories – have ceased to be detached from the main quest arc: there are no more NPCs, because every character is a potential party member. RPG campaigns constrain the narrative in that certain characters exist only to help the protagonists forward. The helpful tavern wench cannot suddenly join the quest, no matter how resourceful, brave and clever her backstory might prove her to be. But then, why would you give an NPC backstory beyond what’s necessary to explain the aid they give the protagonist? The answer highlights a significant, crucial difference between pantsers and plotters, viz: for pantsers, the wench can always join the party. Backstory grows organically, so that any random secondary character might suddenly leap into the limelight and refuse to leave without being granted six soliloquies and a curtain call. For plotters, however, such things are fixed from the outset: the relevant leads have already been chosen, and the wench is not among them. Which might go a long way towards explaining why some plotter-writers are leery of backstory – any details they include must, of necessity, be plot-relevant; and if it’s plot-relevant, then it’s not backstory, which instead becomes a label for all the information that had no place in the main narrative. In this context, therefore, suggesting that writers should keep backstory out of their writing doesn’t mean their characters shouldn’t have history; only that said history should be relevant.

But for some of us, to paraphrase Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is no such animal as irrelevant history. Pantser or plotter, if you’re in it for the characters, then the nitty-gritty of their lives – past or present, regardless of the degree of plot-importance – will always be meaningful. Which is where we come to Chuck Wendig’s post on exposition, because this is not, contrary to how it might appear, an excuse to dump any old crap about the protagonist into the story and call it plot-critical. Exposition is a question of structure, not content: if you’re going to flesh out your characters, then it shouldn’t be at the expense of readability. Relevant to the plot and relevant to the character aren’t mutually exclusive conditionals – in fact, they ought to overlap. But if we were to render the story as a Venn diagram, it shouldn’t be mandatory for the two circles to appear as one: there’s plenty of room for play. As Aliette de Bodard’s piece on simplicity points out, economical stories aren’t necessarily better than expansive ones; in fact, there’s a lot to be said for sprawl.

A slight aside, at this point: the other day, I was mulling over the sameness of mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically: why is the stereotypical Five Man Band so ubiquitous, and why do so many movies keep failing the Bechdel Test? Trying to tease out the cause of the problem – using, as my case study, the appalling Captain America – it suddenly struck me that backstory might be the missing element, with narrative oversimplification a major contributing factor. Consider the following premise: that Hollywood films will usually focus on the exploits of a single protagonist, with any secondary characters set to orbit the lead like satellites. Because of the time constraints inherent to cinema as a medium, this creates a strong impetus to make every interaction count, and if the story is meant to focus on the protagonist, then the natural default, script-wise, is to ensure that the vast majority of conversations are held either with or about the lead. If, as is so often the case, the protagonist is male, this sets the film up for near-guaranteed failure of the Bechdel test, for the simple reason that the secondary characters – regardless of gender – aren’t allowed to have superfluous conversations. This also means that the secondary characters don’t matter in and of themselves. It’s the difference between writing about a hero and his gang, and writing an ensemble cast: the two stories might have the same number of characters in identical roles, but the distinction is one of emphasis. A Five Man Band is there to support a single leader, whose personal struggles dominate the narrative – but in an ensemble, everyone matters equally.

Hollywood is not good at ensembles.

This is particularly evident when existing stories are adapted to the big screen. It’s generally assumed that any adaptation must, of necessity, pare back the secondary character development in order to allow a sharper focus on the Main Plot. Though done in the name of time-sensitivity, what this actually means is that, far too often, all the nuance which attracted people to the story in the first place – the worldbuilding, the detail and the cast as a whole – gets butchered in translation. Audiences react badly to such treatment because they can see what’s missing: there are holes where better characterisation (among other things) should be. But here’s the kicker – this is just as true of original feature films. All scripts go through multiple drafts, and if you assume that relevant information isn’t being lost in those cuts, I’d invite you to think again. Right now, the Hollywood default is to pick a protagonist, deny them backstory, throw them into an adventure with a bunch of NPC Pokemon sans the evolutionary moonstone, and hope that events are strong enough to carry them forwards. This is what happens when we demand utility from every conversation while simultaneously acting under time constraints and  focusing exclusively on immediate, rather than past, events; and it is not my favourite thing.

Which is why, to return to the earlier point, worldbuilding and backstory are two of the qualities I look for most in a narrative. Stories without sprawl, while nonetheless capable of being utterly awesome, tend to feel like closed ecosystems. Combine Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters with The Law of Conservation of Detail, add a dash of Chekhov’s Gun, and you can start to see what I mean. Such stories aren’t predictable, per se – though this is can definitely be a problem – but are rather defined by absolute catharsis. They’re murder mysteries without the red herrings, worlds where you can’t go off-mission and explore the map, meals without any delicious leftovers to be used for future cookery and consumption. Speaking of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett has said that he created the city of Ankh-Morpork as somewhere that would keep going once the book is closed; the sort of place where the characters have lives to be getting on with even after the story ends. The Discworld might well exist on the back of four elephants stuck to a giant turtle flying through space, but it feels real, because its many stories, inhabitants and cities are – just like our own world – awash in irrelevant detail. To wankily quote myself, I’ve said before that:

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right… Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

It’s a view I stand by, and something I think it’s important to remember. More and more often, it feels like arguments about writing in the SFF community – such as the recent Mary Sue debate, for instance – hinge on a fundamental failure to distinguish between bad writing and narrative tropes and decisions exacerbated by bad writing, as though the inclusion of specific ideas, character traits or story-forms  is the real problem, and not, as might actually be the case, the quality of their execution. Point being, I think we’ve started to become a bit too deeply invested in streamlined narratives. We talk about trimming the dead weight from stories the same way one might imagine some shark-smiled management consultant talking about axing the creative department over budgetary concerns; as though the story is a high-profile office in which can be found no room for cheerful, eccentric sentences who wear colourful shirts on Friday and eat all the biscuits at meetings. Stories without foible, indulgence or quirk, but where everything must arrive at 9am sharp in a business suit with a briefcase. In fact, it strikes me as telling that much of the language we use to discuss the improvement of books is simultaneously fat-phobic, sports-centric and corporate. Bad books are flabby, soft and bloated; good books are lean, raw and hard-hitting. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

In my own writing, I tend to sit somewhere in the middle of the pantser/plotter continuum, which isn’t particularly unusual. Though I almost always start with a single protagonist as a narrative focal point, my casts invariably grow in the worldbuilding process, and while I do write out copious backstory for my original characters, I’m still frequently surprised when bit-players queen themselves, or when planned protagonists turn out to be happy in the background. I chart my main plot points and narrative arc, but leave everything else to chance – often with unexpected results. Some writers are far more rigid; others are far more lax. But if this blog had a point, it was the realisation that the reason my stories tend to end up with so many main characters is because I inevitably become involved with their backstories. As has been pointed out by innumerable people, every character is the hero of their own adventure – and as I’m now nearly 40,000 words into a new novel, jumping between POVs while wrangling multiple events, this felt like a good time to stop and discuss what that actually means. Thanks to O’Duffy, I’ve come away with a much stronger concept of what backstory is – to me, to others and in general. Thanks to Wendig, I’ve got a sharper idea of how to apply it without turning my story into a swamp of boring detail. And thanks to Bodard, I’ve realised the importance of sprawl – not just in the worlds I already love, but in the creation of my own.