Monday, February 25, 2008

The First Rule of Fiction

In one of my recent fiction workshops, one student gave another a story critique that began, "I get the impression that you don't want to hurt these people, which is problematic since the first rule of fiction is to do the worst possible thing to your characters and see how they handle it."

The critique continues, describing how things could be much worse for the particular characters in this story. The critic concludes with the memorable line, "Go ahead and hurt them -- that's what they're for."

Ah, writers. We're a bloodthirsty bunch!

(And yes, that really is the first rule of fiction, or at least in the top ten.)


  1. Wow, talk about good mini lessons. Didn't know that was a rule. Thanks for sharing it. Is it hard to be blood thirsty about beings you've created? Is that what triggered the students comment?

    I'm talking to a friend about learning how to play D&D and I'm hoping it will be a good mental exercise in creativity, experimenting with settings and such.


  2. ...Although we did write to one of our favorite authors to warn her that she was going to hell for gratuitous character abuse (note: gratuitous.) She allowed as how her characters were an unruly and fickle lot and deserved whatever she did to them.

  3. The worst thing you can do to them, other than eliminating them, I guess.

    No wonder some fiction is so traumatic to read.

  4. Anonymous4:17 PM

    Being mean to characters sounds too much like real life! Maybe that's what the critic meant -- that life is cruel and that's what the writer is supposed to show.

    What are your students reading? Do they have favorite authors? It seems like Hemingway and Tolkien were idols of previous generations.

  5. Well, you should see what situations your characters get themselves into and what proceeds naturally from there. I don't know if I entirely agree with the workshopper's comment. Yes, put the characters through ordeals, but it should be seemless so that the audience doesn't feel like they are watching a bunch of puppets on a string. The man behind the curtain in Oz should be invisible - that's how the story remains real and yet magical. It is like the difference between watching someone from across the room unnoticed and having them be told by someone else to act a certain way when you are in the room. (This is something I wish I could perfect in my own fiction ;-))

  6. Like Faulkner said, "Kill your darlings."


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