Read to write

Posted on June 8, 2011

The Woman in White

Okay – I LOVE reading the preface in classic (old) literature. For some reason, novelists these days just don’t seem to lay into their writing like these earlier writers. The preface is an explanation of style, choices, process, promise and of course an opportunity for thanks.

About five minutes ago I cracked open my new Penguin Classic, The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. As a writer, I find the preface just so wonderful. Here is a slice of Mr Collins’ knowledge as an accomplished novelist:

“It may be possible, in novel-writing, to present characters successfully without telling a story; but it is not possible to tell a story successfully without presenting characters: their existence, as recognizable realities, being the sole condition on which the story can be effectively told. The only narrative which can hope to lay a strong hold on the attention of readers, is a narrative which interests them about men and women – for the perfectly obvious reason that they are men and women themselves.”

“Here is a novel which has met with a very kind reception, because it is a Story; and here is a story, the interest of which […] is never disconnected from the interest of character.”

What came first, the character or the story? Some writers are story driven, and from there unravels this a world full of characters, adventure, beauty and darkness. Other writers are character driven – and from that comes background, reasoning, empathy and impulse which ultimately develops into story.

Me – while I start with a story (‘wouldn’t it be great if . . .’) it’s always dominated by characters. Characters rule the page, and the pace, and the narration. For better or worse, I find it difficult to follow a ‘and then’ pattern, because my characters get stuck in a moment and seem to never want to leave. That’s when editing and plot planning  helps.

I have to agree with the wisdom of Wilkie Collins; characters are essential. They are the heart. They are the fuel. They are what matters.

Fingers crossed my character construction is sound, or at least, capable of reaching great heights. I certainly enjoy them, so that’s a good start.