Authorguy's Blog

Story knows best

Posted on: January 26, 2011

I was told, once upon a time, that the central character of Moby Dick was supposed to be a character who ended up getting washed overboard in the first chapter. Don’t ask me why, I haven’t read the book. The point is that the story at some point decided it didn’t want to be about this guy, and so he was gone, because Melville was smart and didn’t argue with his story.

This is a common problem among authors, I suspect. I’ve experienced it in various forms over the years myself. I’ve never had it so bad that I killed off my MC, but I have had stories that wouldn’t let me develop the MC the way I intended to, which is to most intents and purposes the same thing, the story equivalent of “If I’d been born to the family next door…” (Which is silly, since obviously I wouldn’t be me if I’d been born to someone else, or in another country or time.)

One reason I don’t have it is that I tend to give my MCs social roles which are, let us say, indeterminate. They can be whatever they need to be, so if I don’t like the way they’re going I can easily send them off somewhere else. I couldn’t do that if I was writing romances or anything else set in a rigidly stratified social milieu. Comedy maybe, Gilbert and Sullivan did quite a lot of lampooning of just such things. My stories take place in such places, sometimes, but they aren’t set in them, if you know what I mean.

Another reason I don’t experience this problem much is that I write character-based fiction. The plot (such as it is) grows with the character, and I discover it along with him. As a result I never, for example, make the character act out of character to serve the plot. The plot should only be seen in bits and pieces, as the character sees it. The story is not the plot, or the setting. The story is the character discovering the plot and perceiving the setting. Stories are characters in motion.

(This blog post is an example of this. You’ll never know or see the crappy titles and first paragraphs I started with.)

So if you have an idea, develop a plot, create some characters, and start your story, only find that the story wants you to bury your plot, kill your characters, and run off to a foreign land, my advice would be to listen. We’ve all seen kids whose parents force them, urge them, manipulate them into being what they don’t want to be, and they’re usually unhappy people as a result. Don’t do that to your stories.



5 Responses to "Story knows best"

“We’ve all seen kids whose parents force them, urge them, manipulate them into being what they don’t want to be, and they’re usually unhappy people as a result. Don’t do that to your stories.”

Great advice this. I try to follow it. Unfortunately, my novels tend to be like college freshman – they really don’t know what they want to be and keep changing their minds.


Which is fine. It’s the same story, and getting multiple perspectives on it can only make it richer. In some ways I feel sorry for those ‘geniuses’ who have strong talents that dominate their lives and never even try to learn about other things.


“Stories are characters in motion.” – i LOVE that quote – good stuff =D


It’s my favorite too. The best epiphanies are short ones.


[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Guy, sean hayden and Marc Vun Kannon, Kerry Schafer. Kerry Schafer said: RT @AuthorGuy: Story knows best: Well, it DOES. […]


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