Real on the page is not real in the world

When I wrote my post on making decisions, I described how a writer must decide things about the characters, plot, and world of their book rather than leaving them up in the air. It’s important to know what you’re trying to accomplish in order to compare that blueprint against the understanding your beta readers receive. Are they getting the message? What you choose to put on the page will change how your readers understand the story.

The more I read, the more amazed I am at how many things a story can be. It could be a traditional “Hero’s Journey” that seems to move in a circle. It could be flash fiction. It could be prose poetry. It could be a multi-generational stream-of-consciousness novel told from the omni POV of several bushes in Brooklyn. The art form known as “the novel” is like the ocean in that we have barely begun to plunge its depths. The novel has only been around for something like two hundred years. A new genre could come out tomorrow that we’ve never thought of. In opposition to the hero’s journey, I do not believe that all stories are the same. I believe that stories can take any form imaginable.

It all depends on what form you want them to take. It is important to ask, “What is worth showing the reader?” A book is not real life. It is a simulacrum. It is like a window with one view, or a signal through noise. As a writer, you are in effect a literary cameraman directing the shot to where your readers follow.

THIS is a movie about the “Shandification” or flexible world-building of Fallout. (I love this video.)  It concisely relays how Western storytelling utilizes a series of choices shown to the reader that demonstrate an A to B to C to D chain of causality. The opposite of this would be relying on “fate” as causality. I liken this description to how authors choose causes to build forward, one-directional causality or plot in their stories. They intentionally show A, then B, then C, and the choice of variables (as well as the order they arrive in) creates the story.

This intentionality can be applied to many things in writing. The plot, the world building, characterization. When a character comes off as “two-dimensional”, i.e. flat, or not fleshed out, or vague, I see it as a symptom of the writer not having made concrete decisions about who the character is, how they got from their past to where they are today, and failing to reflect their characterization in the character’s current actions.

The funny thing about the complaint “two-dimensional” is that if an author were to give their characters two dimensions, or two depths–two passions or two motives or two fears–that might very well be enough. It doesn’t actually take that much fleshing out to create a vibrant, “lifelike” character. The human brain is able to extrapolate what the rest of a character might be like based on what they see on a few pages of text. Our brains do this all the time when we’re interacting with people in person. We make assumptions based on the way a person speaks, their posture, their clothes, their history–all after only a few minutes. The way readers conceptualize a character is the same. They come to a conclusion based on what is on the page, which is not a literally fleshed out real person, but limited text.

To convey character via text, I believe it’s better to be too upfront about a character’s desires and motivations rather than to be too vague. When you concretely know a few things about a character, it’s easy for readers (or editors, or agents) to get an idea of who they are. They might not know everything about that character, but they will have at least the concept.

For example:

  • Remy in Ratatouille wants to be a chef
  • Harry Potter wants to stay at Hogwarts
  • Clarice Starling wants to catch Buffalo Bill

You could argue that those characters also want other things, or they might want different things at different times, but you can glean an idea of what a person is like from “they want to be a chef.” That laser-like statement of passion is short, but even in its brevity it conveys a spectrum of assumptions. You could very easily assume they like food, that they have an appreciation for flavors or ingredients, and that their desire to become a chef will be driving many of their other, smaller decisions throughout the story.

In writing, we are not creating real people. Real people have dozens of identities, scars, formative memories, and passions that take a lifetime to manifest. If you tried to chronicle an entire person via text, it would be too long–not to mention boring. In a book, you only have a few hundred pages, so you work with those limitations. You show limited facets of each character, hopefully clearly, and have faith in the audience’s imaginative abilities to form the rest. Characterization and world building are more like impressionism than photo-realism, and even a photo is a snapshot with a finite edge. Each of your characters might only have one distinct scar, passion, and motivation (in a short story, they might have fewer) but as long as you are clear about what those driving causes are, your audience will follow.


Hi everyone! Thank you for subscribing to my newsletter. (And if you haven’t you can do so here.)

I just moved house, so it was a bit later than I wanted to send it out. I hope you’re all well and you find my post thought-provoking! Ka-blammo! ❤

Also I’m not sure if the hyperlink above is going to work so this is the movie I linked to:

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