Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 04/21/2022

Episode 6: Breath of Life

This was published in Writer’s Digest August, 1943, and is now in the public domain. This one is kind of light on how-to details, but is an important concept to consider. It’s hard to get someone to read a story if he isn’t interested in the characters. Marian ended up writing often for TV, including a few episodes from the original Batman TV show.

by Marian B. Cockrell

No one thing in writing fiction is so important that nothing else matters, but I think that making the characters in stories individuals who are real and believable, instead of male and female puppets moved about by the author arbitrarily for the purposes of his plot with no consideration for their feelings (and how can one consider their feelings if he doesn’t know what they are?) is so important that it is impossible to write a good story without it.

It is said that there are no new plots. But there are new people. No person in the world is exactly like another, and no character in a story, presented by a writer who knows him well, is exactly like any other that was ever depicted by anyone else. Even such fundamentally exciting things as violence and death are interesting in fiction only according to whom they happen to. If the reader doesn’t care whether a character lives or dies, then whether he does or not is completely unlimportant.

If there is a man on a submarine who likes to be on submarines, then the fact that he is on one is not very interesting in itself, and the reader waits impatiently for something to happen that will arouse his Interest. But if the man on the submarine suffers from claustrophobia, why the mere fact that he is there, before any action whatever takes place, produces the sense of anticipation in the reader that is so important in persuading him to finish the story.

A plot has to be credible and interesting. Its basis may be quite fantastic, but the story is made perfectly credible if the people engaged in the action are the kind of people who would act that way. Or the plot may be about things intrinsically dull and Commonplace, but made absorbing by the kind of people these dull things are happening to.

I read an article in the Writer’s Year Book called “Tag Your Characters” and the general idea was to be sure and give each character some individual idiosyncrasy, such as a habit of biting his nails, or always remembering names, or never getting a haircut, so that the reader could always tell them apart. I think that is a step in the right direction, but to my mind arbitrary tagging merely for purposes of identification is sliding lazily over the most important thing in the story. The reader should be able to tell the characters apart with ease, without the device of having different colored ribbons around their necks. Of course, people do have idiosyncrasies, and the ones the people in the story have should be included, but they should spring from the personality of the character, and the writer should know very definitely what that is.

I have written a good many short stories, and have sold about a third of them. I searched for interesting, unusual plots (none of them were, very) and some of the stories sold and some didn’t. They were all written with the same care and in much the same style. On looking them over and analysing the plots, I have come to the conclusion that if synopses were made of them all, of the bare fiction, no one on earth could possibly tell which were the ones that sold and which weren’t. But on reading the stories the difference is immediately apparent. The ones which sold were stories about real, living people (I don’t mean portraits from life) who aroused the reader’s interest and anticipation before they had done anything at all.

And a character doesn’t have to be particularly unusual to be the kind of person people like to read about. He simply has to be alive. He can be the village idiot and have the reader palpitating with anxiety because he can’t find his other shoe, if the reader knows what it means to him to find it. The reader has to know him as a person-not a type, not a shadowy shape.

I don’t mean that one should go into tedious detail about the life and appearance and psychology of every character in his story. There isn’t time, and it slows up action. But the writer should know so much about his character that he can indicate his personality and emotions with very few words.

Suppose one decides to write a story about Joe, a typical high school boy. He will do this and this. So it is written, and it was supposed to be funny, or tragic, but somehow it doesn’t quite come off. So-suppose we start over.

What is a typical high school boy? And of course the answer to that is, there isn’t any. Well, what is this particular boy, who happens to be going to high school, like? The practical thing to do is write a short biography, a character sketch. What kind of people are his parents, how much money have they, what kind of home, what does Joe think of them, what kind of girls does he like, who are his friends, how does he stand in school, what are his interests?

By the time the writer has done a page or so about Joe, probably completely extemporaneous, he knows things about him that never occurred to him when he was writing the story the first time. And when he writes it over he may suddenly say to himself, “But Joe wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t feel that way about it at all. And if this happens to him, what difference does it make? He doesn’t care. Let that happen to him instead. That would be terribly important to Joe.” And that is the time when he changes his plot, and when he doesn’t try to jam Joe into the one he had originally, because Joe wouldn’t be comfortable there.

The writer knows Joe so well by now that the reader knows him too, and if Joe is made to act or react unnaturally the reader will resent it. And there are things in the story about Joe that reveal his personality, things the writer couldn’t have put in the first time, because he didn’t know them himself.

If the writer is absolutely determined to use the original plot, why he must change Joe’s name (because by now he knows Joe too well-he’ll have to write it about someone else) and invent a boy who would do those things, and feel them; and then he’ll write with conviction and the reader will feel what he feels.

In writing a book, of course, convincing characters are even more important than in a short story, and one should be especially thorough in getting acquainted with his people before he starts writing. Even then they will grow and develop and sometimes run away with the plot entirely. And a plot that has been run away with is usually a good plot, for the people in it have had enough vigor in them to insist on being themselves.

These things apply to any kind of story. It is perfectly possible to lay down a detective story with a yawn in the midst of spouting blood and sudden death. I have read a great many detective and mystery stories where the sole interest of the reader could only be the mental problem of who done-it-and a few where the characters were so interesting to read about that the book would have been good whether anybody ever got murdered or not. And these are the best ones, and the most successful. They are interesting novels.

In writing any kind of story it is important to remember that in fiction nothing is important except in relation to the people it happens to. Anything can be important if it happens to, or is done by, the right person. If a writer has a character, or characters, who are interesting and unusual personalities, they can go through the most commonplace actions and incidents, and hold the reader’s interest completely. Or an unusual or exciting plot can be written about the most ordinary run-of-themill people, and if they are real and alive they can produce an absorbing story merely by their reactions to an unusual situation.

Having written the paragraph above, it occurs to me that of the two books I have written, the first was about ordinary people faced with an unusual situation, and the second was about an unusual girl’s reactions to the most everyday experiences possible.

A friend of mine, who has read innumerable books on writing, read the second book in manuscript form, and told me when she had finished, that if she didn’t know already that the book had been sold, she could tell me dozens of things that were wrong with it.

“The fact that it’s sold doesn’t mean that it’s perfect,” I said. “But did you find it interesting to read?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “I was so afraid that girl was going to marry Martin. But I think you should have more in it about Giles.”

“But he’s just a sub-character, and the rules you’ve been talking about-”

“I don’t care about the rules. I liked him. I want to know more about him.”

“There you are. There are dozens of things wrong with it. It would be a better book if there weren’t. I’ve written only two books and don’t know as much about novel construction as I should. But the characters are alive and make you intersted in them, and anxious to see what happens to them, and the book is going to be published because of that, and in spite of the dozens of things that are wrong with it. And if the construction were perfect and the characters dead it wouldn’t have been. Maybe next time I can get them both right, but the people in it are the part that has to be right no matter what. (I did put in more about Giles, because I had got interested in him too).

Successful fiction is fiction that is interesting to read, in which the people behave consistently and don’t let the reader down; and one may follow every rule of construction in all the books and still come up with something anyone would go to sleep over. Or one may write a story which contains flagrant violations of some of the rules of the how-to-write boys, and still know that it is right and the way it ought to be, and someone will buy it while his drawn-with-a-ruler stories are still making the weary rounds.

I don’t mean that one should ignore the sensible and helpful rules that are generally acknowledged to be good. But if a writer finds he can’t use them in a particular instance, he shouldn’t let them get in his hair.

If a writer with any ability to express himself knows his characters and presents them faithfully without trying to twist them out of shape to suit him, and has them do and experience things that are important to them, he has accomplished the most important thing in fiction writing. All the other things one has to learn are important too, but not that important.