Last night during a meeting with a book club — fast becoming my favorite book-related activity — a woman asked me the following question: “What did you think of first in the book?”
I’d never thought of it before. The answer, of course, was clear and easy: the character. Always, always the character. We chatted some about Edward Stanton, the protagonist of 600 Hours of Edward, and the process of giving him a personality and a point of view. That was fun. Long after the meeting, though, the question stayed with me, and I wondered how other writers come to a new story. Though I’d never contemplated it before, it seemed plausible that some might first imagine a conflict or a setting, then begin populating that vision with the people who will carry it forth. I don’t read a lot of whodunits or suspense novels, but it seems to me that the crime or the menace is, in essence, a character unto itself. Viewed through that lens, it certainly makes sense that a writer might first flesh out those aspects of a story, at least in his/her own mind, before moving on to the human elements.
My pleasure reading is mostly fiction with a literary bent, and thus character tends to drive most of the narrative. The question of what constitutes literary fiction can be difficult to answer (though my friend Richard Wheeler does an excellent job of it here). For purposes of casual conversation, let’s just say that it emphasizes character more than plot. That being the case, it’s rather difficult to imagine a literary writer — an Ivan Doig or a Mark Spragg — not spending the bulk of his effort on giving those characters a richness and depth not necessarily demanded by genre fiction. (A quick aside: In plenty of literary fiction, the landscape is the star of the story, and the deep characterization occurs there.)
And, of course, the stories that speak to both constituencies — those who want a literary experience and a crackling good read — are often the most satisfying. I find myself nodding vigorously in agreement with Michael Chabon, an undeniably literary writer who has been direct in his desire to see more genre elements in serious fiction.
From the interview:
Q: Where did this bias against work created for a popular audience come from?
A: In all fairness, it came from the fact that the vast preponderance of art created for a mass audience is crap. It’s impossible to ignore that. But the vast preponderance of work written as literary art is high-toned crap. The proportion may settle down in the neighborhood of 90/10 — Sturgeon’s Law said that 90% of everything is crud.