Why We Do We Write Wimpily?

The Wall Street Journal runs a regular feature every Saturday called “Word Craft,” wherein writers discuss their craft.  The pieces are mostly thinly veiled plugs for the author’s latest project but occasionally someone says something interesting.

E.g., Emma Coats recently offered 20 pretty decent tips to good plotting.  There’s wisdom here, especially tips #2 and #9.

But it was tip #13 that made me flinch: “Give your characters opinions.  Passive malleable characters might seem likable to you as you write, but they are poison to the audience.”

Confession:  My characters tend to be passive.  Also malleable.  Especially, ulp, the main character.  Not that I’m alone in this–I’ve noticed that many other novice fiction writers do the same thing.  We write wimpily.


Well, I think that, for starters, writers themselves tend to be passive types.  We hang back at parties.  We wear glasses.  Bullies steal our lunch money.  Sand is kicked in our faces every summer.  (Maybe this is why we write in the first place?  See reason #5 in 15 Reasons to Write Fiction.)

In short, we are weenies.  So naturally that is the character type we gravitate to.

Also naturally, we want our protagonists to be likable.  And–guess what–likability tends to be less interesting than villainy.  Damn.  At the same time, we want our protags to be “deep.”  Like us, ha ha.  Unfortunately, plotwise, people who contemplate, who reflect, who ponder, who philosophize are not doing.  Even worse, they are often being done to.

Finally, and this is the most insidious reason of all:  We are not only told to “write what you know,” we can’t help writing anything else.  And, let’s face it, for most of us what we know–real life–is just not that interesting.  For most of us, life is pretty routine, pretty safe, pretty normal.  This is good because who needs all that trauma, really.

The problem here is that fiction is not real life.  Nope, not by a long shot.  In fact, real life is what we read books to get away from.  No matter how literary our efforts, how profound our theme, a story still needs to be on some level transporting.  Readers want to be brought out of themselves.  They want to be entertained.

There.  I’ve said it.

Anyway, don’t believe me.  Believe John Updike:  “We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings,” he said.  “Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.”

3 Responses to “Why We Do We Write Wimpily?”

  1. Lynn Says:

    Great post, Karen. Emma Coats’ #1–we admire characters more for trying than succeeding and #7 come up with your ending before you figure out your middle both resonate with regard to my current ms.
    And yes, it does boil down to the reader wishing to be entertained. Daunting to think that our mandate then is ENTERTAIN THEM.

  2. Lady Jane Says:

    I must admit, I am much more drawn to the villains because I try to imagine what the story would be like if told from their viewpoint. This is true in fiction AND in reality– villains are interesting characters because they seem to be placed in that category only by the standards of another story teller. The deep and wimpy character, though, is a good protagonist… most of my favorite classic novels have such a character. I’m thinking about Howard Roark.

  3. Jon Egan Says:

    Love this post, and agree almost wholeheartedly aside from the fact that I, a writer, (not related to Jennifer,) am not a wimp, I don’t wear glasses (I prefer contacts,) No one steals my lunch money, just let the buggers try and see what happens, and I write mostly emotional stuff!
    So, after reading your post, I went back and re-read my latest ms draft, and realized that my protagonist needed to grow a pair.
    Thanks, more bloody work!

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