Beginner’s Beware

Failure to recognize that the central character must act, not simply be acted upon, is the single most common mistake in the fiction of beginners.

John Gardner from The Art of Fiction



2 thoughts on “Beginner’s Beware

  1. That certainly holds true for (most kinds of) genre fiction and is good advice for beginners. However, one must keep in mind that Gardner had a very narrow view of what constitutes good literature (famously, he disliked most of his contemporaries, like Roth, Bellow, Heller, Nabokov, Pynchon, Vonnegut, etc.). He took a moral view — in his opinion, art was meant to inspire to better behavior. One aspect of that is proactive characters as the focus of the story.

    I would flip his precept around and say that if you want to be true to life, you should not shy away from protagonists who are reactive, flailing around at the mercy of forces beyond their control and comprehension, or even passive. That, of course, is *much* harder to pull off effectively (see Beckett, Paul Bowles, noir writers like David Goodis, etc.).

    Anyway, Vonnegut expressed a similar idea, but with much broader applicability: “Make your characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water.  Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

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