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26 January 2012

Lesson 2: Don't Judge a Book by its Cover

One of my favorite quotes from DYNAMIC CHARACTERS by Nancy Kress is
"Fiction (like life) happens to people." 
In other words, if you have characters that are realistic, who have needs and desires, fears and hopes, they will create conflict that in turn will drive the plot. In fact, by picking different characters you can essentially have the same story but end up with different plots.

Sounds like a contradiction, but bear with me.

Let's take a look at Romance novels.

I said bear with me! There's a point to this, honest!

Where was I? Ah, yes! Romance novels.

As I was saying, this much maligned genre is often accused of being the same old story told over and over again. Boy meets girl, they fall in love happily-every-after, the end. But if it's the same story retold ad nauseum why does anyone bother reading them? Why do Romance novels account for more sales than Science Fiction and Fantasy combined?  The answer is: the characters. 

Romance novels are inhabited by different people. The women may be all looking for their happily ever after but like people they come with their own unique repertoire of  prejudices, fears, and flaws. As such, they do not solve problems the same way. While heaving bosom #1 might run away from her prince charming, damsel in distress #2 might fall desperately in love on page one. Every step along the way towards the happily-ever-after-ending of a typical romance novel will be different. 

Different people will react differently. They will have their own set of conflicts. In other words, this is how romance novelists come up with new plots and get away with telling the "same old story...a fight for love and glory..."

So if you ever feel like your story idea isn't original, don't fret. Don't succumb to "Oh no...not another earthlings versus aliens story!" (Childhood's End by Asimov, Ender's Game by Card, Uplift Trilogy by Brin).  Or, "really, yet another kid in wizard/witch school?" (The Worst Witch series by Murphy, Harry Potter by Rowling). 

Remember the quote above: "Fiction (like life) happens to people."

Inhabit your story with characters that are believable and the rest will follow.


letterwriter said...

Inner conflicts are essential for novelists.

Anonymous said...

Though I agree with the essentials of what you're saying, I must mention that the reasons for Romance outselling Fantasy and Science Fiction are a bit more complex and probably, in my view, a bit sadder than the characters.

I'd also add, in the same vein, that the same sort of variability can come from other elements as well, for instance in a magic school story, the nature of the magic and its interaction with the setting could lead to some pretty hefty differences.
There is more than one way to cut the tail off Steerpike's monkey, and more than 1,001 ways to approach a given plot or concept.

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