Thursday, November 15, 2012

The "Character-Driven" Trap

I'm beginning to despise the phrase "character-driven" and all of its variations. It's something a lot of  genre writers use feel better about their writing, because the literary writers and their critics have told us that only that kind of story or work is worthwhile. It drives me bananas. These writers will use it to describe a fantasy story that they feel is a better cut than the rest. "This deserves attention and awards," they think. So they spout off that it's character driven. Then I pick it up or download it and wonder how this new experimentation in high fantasy will read. I watch as stock characters go by and mountains of text that builds up worlds but ignores the character's thoughts. An inner journey is sometimes shown, but it's all based on emotion or action, not the totality of the character. I only get a small part of the character, but the events--the happenings surrounding them--are laid out in all their full glory.

Disappointed, I put the story down. I've had my expectations directed to experience one thing and was given something else.

The sorry part is that I could have enjoyed that story if it weren't pretending to be something else. That writer said that this story is driven by the characters, and I began reading it because that's what I wanted.  I don't always look for this type of story, but when I do, I want to get what I'm looking for.

I'll just say this: "Well-developed" or round characters do not equal a story that is character-driven. They are not one and the same. I wish some authors would get this because it makes me not look forward to their next work. I think, "If this person doesn't know the craft of writing well enough to see the difference in what that person is saying the work is and what it actually is, then I can't trust the writer enough to spend hours of my day reading those stories." I mean, what else do they not fully understand? I don't want to struggle through some careless, ignorant text while they figure out what they're doing. This is a piece of my life and my income that I'm exchanging for this experience. The least the author could do is be honest.

But no, we let others shame us into lying to ourselves. Then we wonder why the readers throw shrill words back at us. This doesn't have to be. We have to stop being ashamed of the wonders we have written. If I spend a year developing a character, a world, and their stories, I'm going to be freaking proud of what I've accomplished. So what, it isn't a character study? Not everyone is looking for that. Oh, but the people who are give out those prestigious awards and the writers who create that work get all kinds of recognition. This small group says that this is an important work.

Who cares?

Not me. I've struggled through many an important work, full of basic writing atrocities. They show me this character in all of its aspects, but forget to connect it to me. They write if for themselves and the critics and leave me out of the picture. It exists for dry study, shallow because it only explores the one dimension of idea. Don't we realize that those stories are flat too?

In fact, the literary stories I have enjoyed the most had an external journey for the character to follow while pieces of the whole character were revealed to me. Those are the ones that stuck with me. Today, the critics honor those experimental pieces that move the indifferent parts of the mind, but don't touch the heart. Tomorrow, that might not be so. This is just a current trend in writing that may pass away.

But you know, that story that turns me into a character study, that inspires me to explore my mind, my heart, my soul, my past, present, my future, and that of those around me--that story will endure. So that plot that is disdained but secretly loved (admit it; you love it) is what drives your story. This happened and the character reacted. The character did that and this happened. (We do realize that the order doesn't matter, right? Plot-driven is plot driven.) Well, this is how my life goes. It passes me by and I run to catch up, to get ahead of it. I like to see that reflection in situations (plot + setting!) that aren't mine. I am a well-developed character in the midst of plot. Aren't you? Are we ashamed of ourselves?

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