Finding Your Thark

There’s storytelling.  There’s plotting.  While they’re loosely related, they are not the same thing.

Most books about writing I’ve glanced through tend to focus on plot, and there’s a reason for that.  Plotting is a technical process.  It’s definable elements like conflicts, goals, complications, and resolutions.  It’s the blueprint of which many a story is built, and many writers even trade on their ability to create complex plots that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

But plot isn’t all that important.

Like most things in life, our public perception and our reality are at odds when it comes to plotting.  Most of the time, when we talk about our favorite stories, we talk about the characters.  Those things we do remember aren’t necessarily the twists and turns, but the way a character leaves an impression on us.  We think we want tightly plotted stories and surprises.  What we really want is a character we’re interested in (likable or not), doing something worth watching.

If you think about classics of literature and fiction, they almost always have remarkably simple stories.  From myths to classics to even modern day tales, complexity is an overrated commodity.  It might make the writer and the reader feel as if a lot of work was put into the tale, but it doesn’t always stand the test of time.  Of course, neither do many simple stories.  But still, put a simple story against a complicated one, and odds are good that the simple one will be told longer.

Disney built an empire on fairy tales, some of the simplest stories ever created.  It doesn’t stop them from being popular to this day, and while we probably won’t remember most of today’s writers in a thousand years, it’s a fairly safe bet that Snow White, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood will still exist in some form.

Plot is important.  Don’t misquote me and tell your friends that semi-famous novelologist A. Lee Martinez says it isn’t.  But if a story fails, it tends to fall on weak characters rather than the plot.

One of the reasons the Star Wars prequels are weaker than the original trilogy is because the original films are about the characters.  The storyline is so basic, you could write it down on a cocktail napkin.  Heck, there’s three original films and two of them hinge upon destroying a deathstar.  So it’s not as if there’s a lot going on here.  But the deathstar is not what makes Star Wars great.  It’s Han Solo, Darth Vader, and Chewbaca.  It’s Princess Leia in a slave girl outfit strangling Jabba the Hutt to death.  It’s Boba Fett, one of the most startling ineffective characters in all of fantasy fiction, who still manages to earn a place in our hearts because he looks cool and says a couple of awesome lines.

Heck, R2-D2 has more life and character than most characters in serious fiction.

Meanwhile, the prequels are thick with plotting (even if it doesn’t always make sense) and filled with watered down characters.  Jar Jar Binks’s crime wasn’t being lame.  It was being the poor man’s C3po.  Anakin Skywalker isn’t compelling.  He’s whiny.  And the Jedi are a bunch of sanctimonious jerks who come across as bumbling dunderheads.

The Rancor has more personality than anyone in the prequels.

Search your heart.  You know this to be true.

I liked John Carter quite a bit, and I can tell you why.  It’s not for the story (which is fine), but for Tars Tarkas, one of my favorite characters of all times.  The movie shines for me whenever the chief of the Tharks is on screen.  To me, Carter will always play second fiddle to Tars, and that the movie captures Tars so well makes me easily forgive its flaws.

Edgar Rice Burroughs is my favorite writer, and honestly, it’s because his characters are so damned fun and cool.  As a writer, Burroughs cheats a lot.  He’ll contrive coincidences to get his characters out of trouble.  He doesn’t world build in the classic sense because Barsoom (aka Mars) doesn’t work in any realistic sense.  But none of that matters because he creates wonderful characters worth cheering for.  Tarzan is a rich and fantastic protagonist.  And while, honestly, John Carter is kind of a boring guy in the books, he’s surrounded by an awesome supporting cast like Tars Tarkas, Woola, Dejah Thoris, and Kantos Kan.  He fights white apes and leaps headlong into adventure with a gleeful joy that always brings a smile to my face.

It’s simple.  If a writer creates a rich, complex plot and fills it with flat, two-dimensional characters, it’s hard to win over the audience.  But if a writer creates characters with appeal and plots them in a by-the-numbers story, the audience will usually go with it.  Although creating appealing characters isn’t always easy, and one person’s flat character is another’s favorite.

People might knock Twilight, but it succeeded in creating characters that spoke to its audience.  As did Harry Potter, Star Wars, the plays of Shakespeare, the myths of old, our favorite bedtime stories.

And when I think of good writing, I don’t think of story acts or plotting requirements.  I think of Tars Tarkas.  Once you’ve got him, most of your work is done.

Well, except for all the sitting down and writing, which is, in reality, the hardest damn part of novelology.  But nobody likes to read about that.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Posted March 15, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Lee. It really is about the characters. If you can’t love them or hate them, you’re stuck being wishy-washy about them. And no one likes wishy-washy, except Charlie Brown.

  2. Alberto Lara
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    I guess that’s why, no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get into A Game of Thrones. Other than Tyrion Lannister, who is fantastic, I couldn’t care one bit about what happened to any of those people. As for the boy king, I rather kick my TV than spend any time with him.

    I really loved the John Carter movie. I’ve seen it twice and I hope to see it again. Woola and Tars are by far the best thing in it, but I think that Carter himself and Dejah Thoris are better characters in the movie than in the books. Heck, in the books Dejah is more a MacGuffin than a character. I liked what they did with the Therns as well. In the books, the Therns, the First Born, the Yellow men, you name them, they all behave in the same way: we are superior so we’re either gonna slaughter you or enslave you. Which I grant you is the normal human way, but I liked how in the movies the Therns are more mysterious and are a threat on a bigger scale, even raising the stakes beyond Mars itself.

  3. corey
    Posted March 29, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    I’m really glad that I found your blog after devouring every story that you have created. This entry hits the proverbial nail right on its head without bruising the other thumb. Characters indeed are THE most important part of any story. In the banal conversations of everyday people leaning their heads over their cubicles to discuss the latest popular sitcom on tv, they don’t describe the show by plot, but rather blurt out, “You know that show with Urkel.”. They can’t even remember the name of the mind numbing 23 minute (plus seven of glorious commercials!) Long program they had watched. That’s why I enjoy your writing so much. Your charaters are organic. The humor that your books contain isn’t forced…hell, it derives from the actions and habits of your characters in the circumstances they find themselves in. Reading your blog entries is probably better than wasting money on a creative writing course.

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