Vonnegut’s Third Rule for Fiction

Bad me. I’ve neglected to direct you to Aaron’s wonderful short story, An Affair To Forget. Only 99¢ in the Amazon Kindle Store!

Now on to the 3rd Rule in his guest post this week:

By adgansky

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. –Kurt Vonnegut

It should go without saying that our protagonists should want something. If they don’t, then we have no story. There really are three indispensable elements of fiction: character, desire, and conflict. Without these three, fiction cannot exist. Conflict, however, is derived from the character and their desire. If a character wants a glass of water, the conflict might be that they’re stuck in a desert, or the fact that he forgot to pay the water bill and now his tap is dry. Without the desire for water, the bill is superfluous.

All that being said, what we as writers forget is the first portion of this adage. Vonnegut does not say “Every main character,” but simply, “Every character.” Giving protagonists a desire is usually pretty easy. Remembering that our smaller characters have desires of their own is a different matter. We tend to think of these “minor” characters as planets circling the sun of our protagonist. They exist and revolve around their story. But this robs us of a beautiful opportunity. Conflict is often derived from opposition of character desires.

For example, there is one glass of water, and two characters want it. Or, there is one glass of water. One wants to drink it, the other wants to dump it on his head for some momentary relief from the suns unrelenting rays. Bob wants to marry Sally now, but Sally wants to explore Africa before settling down. Sue wants to go to college, but her mom wants her to stay to care for her ailing father.

Then, take it to the next step. Give Sarah a friend. This friend should want Sarah to come to college with her. But Sarah’s boyfriend, who’s staying in town, should pressure her to stay and care for her father so that he can be with her.

The hot dog vendor, who overhears all of this, just wants all the rowdy kids to clear out from in front of his stand so he can get to the people behind them in line. The guy at the end of the line should be late for an appointment. They may be bit characters, but their desires should be clear, and should play a part in our story.

If you’re like me, you often forget to apply this rule to our auxiliary characters. We just don’t put the same amount of thought into our bit characters, so the become stock and irrelevant. Go through whatever you’re working on now. Identify every character in your story. Then, find out what it is that they want. Why do they want it? What will they do to get it? How might it affect the course of the protagonists story. Often, you’ll find this takes your novel in a new direction, a more organic, believable, poignant direction.

in defense of physical books

“Those of you who are considering replacing your libraries with ebooks; think again. Your books are yours; you buy them, you own them, and they are the same, yesterday and today. They will not change, and they will not disappear, or suddenly be “pulled” or “unsourced” from you, as ebooks can be. And someday you may NEED them, to show your children and your grandchildren what the realities of life, of war, of social upheaval really were, before the digital age.” — from Elizabeth Scalia.

Whether or not you agree the entire post, this is an under-discussed point in the debate about the future of publishing. (Calling all dystopian writers, there’s your new Fahrenheit 451 meets 1984 and yes, it was tempting to link to the Kindle editions!)

My own disclaimers: I like the iPad, but since it would require an additional keyboard for me to comfortably type up a novel or screenplay, I see no need for now (though I wouldn’t refuse it as a gift – my birthday is October 18, thanks!). I have a Kindle given to me by a generous friend for plane trips, the laptop and pads of paper work best for my writing and my walls are and will continue to be lined with books.

A young scholar who loves books quotes The Art of Literary Research by Richard Altick:

“Though time is always short, we have the lifelong company of books; and what is more, we have good human companionship… Love of books and a consuming interest in the intellectual and esthetic questions they pose make brothers of men with amazingly different backgrounds and tastes. In scholarship there is no prejudice born of national origin, creed, color, or social class; we live in the truest democracy of all, the democracy of the intellect.”

In addition to the value of physical books for students, there’s real value in learning to research in a traditional library before beginning to research online and the textbook-free university is a step away from that. The administrators responsible for this decision would no doubt protest that there have no plans to digitize entire libraries, but as cost cutting increases, it’s only a matter of time until that library building “can be put to better use” Come on, all that space to store physical books? I wish Ray Bradbury was in better health to comment. Perhaps Fahrenheit 451 was really about a much cooler burn…

B&N sees digital future

William Lynch is set to guide the retailer into a the digital. He’s just been named the new CEO of Barnes and Noble.

I don’t have a problem with ebooks. I love my Kindle for travel, but I also love books. I expect both will be with us in the future, but traditional publishing is going to have to adapt. That most likely means printing books as they are ordered, perhaps on site as Harvard’s doing.  As mentioned before, The Northshire Bookstore in Vermont has had success with print on demand, too.

the e-reader

From old to new…

First pictures of Barnes and Noble’s new e-readerBNereader

What’s that, Kindle? You hear footsteps? The light at the top is a nice touch. I like my Kindle, but I’ll go have a look when the e-reader arrives in stores. It debuts October 20 in New York.

National Book Award finalists have been announced. Which fiction finalist do you favor? Haven’t read them (yet), so no comment. I do have a couple of them on my Kindle, but first I need to finish my own novel. Back to work.