Kurt Vonnegut on Creative Writing #6
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
I have three thoughts on this subject.
First I am just a nice guy. Yes I have probably done a few mean things in my life but basically it is my nature to be nice. For the most part I don’t even yell at other drivers. (My wife says that is because I don’t commute.) So to intentionally be mean to a character seems to ruin my nice guy self-image.
Second I find it very difficult to be mean to my main character. I really like him. I wouldn't write about him if I didn't like him, more than that I want him to succeed. If he needs something I give it to him. Early in my writing even before reading this list from Kurt Vonnegut it was pointed out to me that I didn't make my characters challenges big enough. My first attempts at giving Henry some obstacles seemed rather artificial. I think through rewriting they became real and congruent with the story.
I enjoyed reading some of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. He seems to have a fairly simple and easy formula. In each chapter Percy is at a new location encountering a new challenger emerging from Greek, or Roman Mythology. It works.
So I have accepted that once I figure out what a character wants (No. 3 above) it is my job as the writer to do all I can to make achieving that goal impossible.
My third point is a problem. In Henry on Fire, Henry’s antagonist is his middle grade self. In this first story Henry struggles with his anger. In one draft of the story Henry became so angry no body, meaning no reader, would have cared enough to read the story.
In the sequel a new character appears, Sean, who really annoys Henry. Henry refers to him as a freak. Sean is a very sympathetic character and Henry is a real jerk in what he says about Sean. So when the character is both protagonist and antagonist the challenge is to create a likable character that the reader will root for while he works through his issues.
7. 7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.