Monday, May 28, 2012

Keep the 'Memorable' and Lose the 'Meh'

by Matt Sinclair

What’s the difference between a memorable character and ‘meh’? In my opinion, that's a simple answersort of.

Effort and focus.

There are characters that just leap off the page, despite the quality of the story around them. Lisbeth Salandar of Stieg Larrson's Millennium trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo, et al.) comes immediately to mind. That's a character who is unlike anyone I'd ever met before in literature and she totally captivated me. While I enjoyed the stories in the trilogy, however, they could have used a bit more editing. Quibble.

How does this affect us? Let me ask a different way.

Who do you write for?

Are you one of the many writers who love writing for the sake of writing and write only to please yourself? That's fine. A lot of great literature starts that way.

But I've come to the opinionand some of you will disagreethat you're unlikely to find any success outside your own home that way in terms of writing a great, memorable character. I'm not talking about financial success. That's beside the point. If you're writing for yourself, after all, you don't care about earning money off your writing. Not really.

But writing a great character, a great story, a great manuscript involves taking risks beyond pleasing yourself, so to speak. You need to see your characters and stories through the eyes of another. In his wonderful book about the craft of writing, Stephen King talks about his Ideal Reader. In his case, he's usually talking about his wife, Tabitha, who is a writer also and from all accounts a fine critic of all things King.

Maybe your significant other is your ideal reader. Maybe it depends on the manuscript. But what I'm ultimately trying to get to is who is your audience? Will they remember you and the characters you write?

I'm working on a short story at the moment that is different from what I usually write: it's a post-apocalyptic tale and so far it is intriguing me: it has tension and interesting characters, a death or two, and a spooky specter who looks like a Neanderthal. Neat!

But I'm not sure where it's going. It remains unfocused. You all know the answer to what I need: revision and more revision. It will take time. What I have right now is fine if I'm just writing for myself, but I'm not simply writing for myself. I'm writing for the thousands of people I want to please. They just don't know me very well yet.

We put the time into our work because we believe it's worthwhile. That our audience is worth fighting off the powers of "meh" and striving for excellence. We may not reach our goal every time. But it's worth the fight. Our readers and future readers will respect the decisions we make to get there.

Happy Memorial Day, fellow writers. Create something memorable!

Matt Sinclair, a New York City-based journalist and fiction writer, recently published a short story anthology called Spring Fevers, which is available through Smashwords, Amazon, and in print via CreateSpace. It includes stories by fellow FTWA writers, including Cat Woods, J. Lea Lopez, Mindy McGinnis, and R.S. Mellette. He also blogs at the Elephant's Bookshelf and is on Twitter @elephantguy68.


Jean Oram said...

For me, making the switch from writing for the sheer joy of it over to writing for the attention of those in the publishing industry and to please readers meant finally putting the story arc front and center. Before I had fun characters and kooky scenes, but they didn't always go somewhere and the story didn't always resolve in a way that made sense. Now, I think I am getting a handle on that. :)

I hope.

Kela McClelland said...

This is an awesome post, Matt. I write things sometimes that I don't love personally, but I know it's something my readers would want. In fact I was just talking about this subject yesterday with a friend.

Hope you have a wonderful Memorial Day :)

Rick Pieters said...

This has been on my mind so much lately, but from the angle of platform building. Great to see it from the angle of character creation. In either case, we need to focus on those we're writing for (other than ourselves.) We have to know our audience, whether in blogging or character, story arc, or world building. For me, it helps to see them (Ideal Readers) as a small group rather than thousands. I can focus more specifically (and it's a little less intimidating.)

Thanks for this.

Jemi Fraser said...

Good post Matt - it's important to think of the audience. When I'm teaching writing to my students I talk about how purpose and audience will lead you to the right form of writing - so audience is part of it from the very beginning :)

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, everyone. I really appreciate your comments!

Lynn Proctor said...

very interesting post!

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, Lynn.