The Human Condition:

What Makes a Good Book? – March 17, 2013

Every author wants to know this, as if it’s a secret. For most of us, though, I think the answer is, “Well, what kind of book do you like to read?” That will work as a guideline—except for two problems. One is the issue of skill. I as an author may not have the ability to write the kinds of books I like as a reader, although the attempt will probably make me a better writer in the long term. Still, the kinds of ideas, characters, notions, and pieces of action that come naturally to my mind as a writer may be significantly different from the story elements that I like as a reader.

The other problem is one of surprise. As a reader, we don’t know what’s behind the curtain. We don’t see the work that must take place offstage in order for the play to proceed. We may anticipate plot turns and twists, may hope to see a certain kind of outcome, but we are still following the trail of clues, hints, and structural devices that the author lays out for us. We don’t actually know, until the end, how it will all turn out. That suspense followed by surprise creates a pleasurable experience for the reader.

It doesn’t work for the writer, however. In order to lay that trail of clues, the writer must know where the story is ultimately going. Every ravel and stitch, the exact nature of the denouement, and how each character will be paid off, may not be whole and specific in the author’s mind at the beginning of the writing. But the general idea must exist in the structure, at least in outline.1 If you tried to present a play on the basis of a bare stage with the actors all working by improvisation, you would end up subjecting the audience to a pretty pokey rehearsal and perhaps even a couple of hours of tedium.

So the act of writing is not like the act of reading. It’s the difference between watching a play and putting on a production. For the audience, each line is new and fresh; for the players, the script is memorized by rote, counted off in minutes, and delivered under careful direction and stage management.2 “Fresh” gets lost in practicing the art.

But still, the things we like as readers can guide the practice we do as writers.

Characters with Know-How and Resilience

I like characters—at least main characters—who are smart, self-possessed, clever, and resilient. They should be “centered” in the martial-arts, yoga, Buddhist sense: they know the world they inhabit; they know how they fit into that world; they trust their own senses and skills; they have solid relationships based on affection and trust; they have the answers to life’s basic questions. In real life, people like this can actually be asses: smug, independent, self-satisfied, archly superior, and a know-it-all. So the characters I like have a bit of humility, too. They fit into the world, but they understand that the universe is a much bigger place, full of questions and wonder.

Contrary to what they tell you in creative writing class and in writing groups, I don’t need to identify with a character. Not, that is, if “identify” means “find ways that he is just like me.” If that were the case, I could only like male characters with middle-class backgrounds who are entering middle age carrying the life artifacts of a marriage, kinship, and responsibility. The beauty of imagination is that I can—and most readers can, too—find ways to identify with people of the opposite sex or different orientations, as well as different races, backgrounds, nationalities, belief systems, and operative fantasies and goals. As a science fiction writer, I would even go so far as to say different species and material compositions, too.3

The secret, for the reader, in identifying with characters not like yourself is seeing represented in the character the same kinds of needs and urges you feel. You identify with other beings, of whatever kind, who inhabit the human condition. But what is the “human condition”?

To my mind, it encompasses: being self-aware; being able to remember the past and look into the future while staying fixed in the present; being vulnerable to hurt, injury, and death; being susceptible to hope, to needs and wants, to plans and goals, to caring for others; being pitched into conflict with forces greater than oneself and perhaps greater than the limits of one’s available resources; being willing to try. In this configuration, stones and lizards don’t make good characters, and neither do the immortal gods. But pretty much anyone else is fair game in the hands of the right author.

The secret, for the writer, in creating characters that almost any reader can identify with is finding and revealing that human awareness, those vulnerabilities and susceptibilities, those conflicts, and that willingness. The writer’s imagination lets him or her “put on the face and life” of the character, live that character’s story from the inside out, and proceed with confidence through the story’s demands and actions. This immersion in character is one of the reasons I like to write each scene from a single point of view, taking the reader inside the character’s mind and perceptions—even at the expense of repeating some piece of action later from another character’s point of view—rather than dancing from head to head through the story.4

Plots with Energy and Action

In the books I like, things must happen and they must have meaning as they happen. People must want certain things or fear certain things and then take the steps to achieve or avoid them. They may be confronted by evil-doers, villains, or blind bad luck, but they must fight back and fight for something. This is part of that “being willing to try.”5

Of course, that makes it sound as if all good stories must be either pirate adventures or spy novels. Heroic characters fighting arch villains mano a mano over Reichenbach Falls. But those kinds of stories can quickly lose their thread of meaning—especially in the modern thrillers based on Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, where the central object of dispute, theft, pursuit, or desire is either taken for granted or even never revealed in the first place. And action that is reduced to mindless car chases and fireballs, with hurts and consequences that touch neither the characters involved nor the reader/viewer, cheapen the overall experience. Sometimes the most powerful stories can hinge on a single word or glance of ambiguous or misinterpreted meaning. Sometimes the action may encompass a love that waits a decade or more and is refused in a moment of thoughtlessness. Sometimes the most valorous achievement of the human heart is simply to endure.

Whatever real, human people can value, strive for, wager, and win—or lose—may be the basis of a story full of action. Whenever people interact on the basis of liking or loathing, in cooperation or in conflict, the story may pick up energy that carries the reader forward.

Stories with Forward Momentum

Momentum is the key to storytelling. Editors and agents talk about “keeping the reader turning pages.” In whatever format, the story must set up expectations. Those expectations may be fulfilled, but along the way the reader must have cause to doubt. The writer plays the reader’s mind as an angler plays his fish.

How do you set up expectation? Usually, by stopping before the last step. The writer establishes a scene, a path, a direction for the characters and the reader to follow—and then takes them almost to the end. This is going to be difficult for writers who are afflicted with obsessive/compulsive disorder, who must tell each story through to the end at one sitting. The key to page-turning is for the writing to break off, leave the action almost complete, turn to other story lines and events, leave the final step to be discovered later, in other mouths and other minds, in the context of other discoveries.

Another technique is to focus, like the lens of a movie camera, on a certain object, action, or situation that might be important later. Do this skillfully, with good judgment and timing, and the reader will know that something important is being shown but will not know how to interpret it. That sets up the reader’s mind and imagination to wonder what’s going on, how the object/action/situation will be used or will play out later, and how the story might bend or twist so that it adapts to this newfound focus.6

If this sounds like the writer is playing with the reader’s mind … well, of course! Readers come to a work of fiction for the same reason they sit through a magician’s act. They want to be shown something new and different. They want to see something familiar become something strange and wonderful. They want to guess at the secrets behind the show, to think through what they are seeing and feeling, to be tricked with that element of “non-lethal surprise” which is the basis of all humor, wonder, and good storytelling.

The worst thing a story can be is predictable, plodding, and obvious. The worst plots move from A to B to C with all the lines drawn in and connections made. The worst characters start out familiar and bland, have nothing to want or achieve, and end up in much the same state. If the optimistic Candide suffers no hardship and remains in “the best of all possible worlds,” then the writer has not done his or her job. Characters should be made to struggle and suffer. Why? So that we as readers won’t have to.

1. Some writers avoid outlines. They pull out a blank piece of paper or computer screen, and the only solid idea in their heads might be a character’s name or just a glimmer of personality, a bit of setting, and a starting piece of action … then they shut their eyes and let the story come to them, day by day, chapter by chapter. It might work for some people, but I need a more specific outline—which I may then bend and extend as necessary—before I can start walking the path of imagination. I suspect that writers who try the “eyes closed” method are really looking for that element of surprise they get when reading another author’s hard-won work. What their own readers get might be exciting, but it could also be a dribbling bore and not likely to end up anyplace in particular.

2. Don’t ask how many times I might rework a sentence to get the energy and pacing just right. Some thoughts come out of my head fresh and perfect the first time. Some take a dozen rewrites to become even halfway acceptable and still, in my mind, remain provisional.

3. I’ve written from the viewpoint—that is, slipped inside the mindset—of self-aware lines of computer code in ME: A Novel of Self-Discovery and from the viewpoint of an 11th-millennium time traveler for whom 20th-century humans are a cross between Neanderthals and chimpanzees in The Children of Possibility.

4. See my blog post Writing for Point of View from April 22, 2012.

5. It would seem odd, then, that the main characters in my two fictional family histories, William Henry Wheelock in The Professor’s Mistress and Robert Wheelock before him in The Judge’s Daughter, are both mostly passive characters, for whom the most significant events in their lives come to and pass through them, rather than their going out and forcing the action of the story through their desires and passions. Call these books an experiment in the way most people really live: wanting certain things, taking the steps they know they can, but in the end enduring what actually comes their way. That, too, is part of the human condition.

6. Of course, do this too often, or do it randomly without effect—like a drunk swinging the camera around on the set, or the reader’s eye around in the story—and the technique will fall apart. It will become a trick, like another meaningless car chase or fireball: the effect might be dazzling but it remains unsatisfying.