When you’re reading a story, watching a movie, or picking a new TV series to obsess over, which do you care about more–that the premise is new and interesting or that the characters are believable and interesting?
I recently had a discussion with my wife about this because while watching Doctor Who with my dad, I had one of those whizz-bang ideas that just won’t leave you alone. I pulled out my iPhone and started making notes immediately. The idea was too good to lose.
So I went home, handed the notes to my wife, and told her, “tell me what you think.” I was beaming. I was so proud of myself.
Her response was simple: “Meh. Who is it about?”
I was dumbfounded. I had no idea. To me, it didn’t matter who it was about. The whole point was the idea itself. It was a fantastic idea. It was high concept, something that had the potential to blend genre and literary fiction. The who could come later.
Just not for Jennifer. She couldn’t care less about the idea. High concept or not, there was no one to relate to, so she wasn’t interested.
That got me to thinking: which is more important? As a writer, do I need to focus more on the people these stories are about than the premise of the stories I’m writing? Is one better than the other?
No, one isn’t better than the other. A good story is a good story is a good story. But there are specific elements that comprise a good story, and finding that balance is important.
Tobias Buckell has that down pat. He says that there are two things a writer should remember when putting together a short story: “What’s the fucking point?” and “a short story is often said to be about the most important day of a character’s life.”
When broken down, one is high concept while the other is high character.
Ideas are easy. Every writer has a thousand ideas, and every reader thinks he or she has a thousand better ones. Most of those two thousand ideas are crap–rehashed, recycled, cliches, blah blah blah.
But once in a blue moon, you have an idea that’s fresh and interesting, that does something new you’ve never thought of. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi is high concept: 75 year old men and women are recruited for the army to fight in an intergalactic war for territory. “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Has Made” is high concept: Mormon space whales living in the sun. ‘Nuff said.
In these stories, there are obviously characters. But the characters are not the point. The characters, while three-dimensional and real, are not the focus of the story. They are facilitators of the story. They are motivated and pushed through the narrative so that readers get a full view and explanation of the concept at its core.
Coming up with a high concept idea is one thing. Writing it well and making it salable is something else. Short stories and novels aren’t just ideas. They can start that way, but without a rounded narrative, they are empty.
There are millions of desk-drawer high concept novels out there just because the writers couldn’t figure out how to put a beginning, middle, and an end to it. If you’ve got a high concept idea, be sure that you flesh it out, that you make sure it has some meaning.
Take your fantastic idea, and if you can’t answer “What’s the fucking point?” then you should probably keep it stewing for a while until you can.
On the other hand, sometimes you have the idea for a character and have nowhere to stick her. You have this kick-ass heroine who battles ogres by night and is a world-class tennis champion by day. You have a backstory for her, and you know every detail about why she is the way she is.
But you’ve got no real story other than that. You don’t have the day-to-day life of this person. You don’t have a situation in which her tennis skills will help her in her crusade against the ogres. You just know that she’s awesome.
That’s what high character novels and stories are about. That’s how you can write a story and let the reader see, as Buckell put it, “the most important day of that character’s life.” That day might be just another day for you and me. We might stroll idly past the ogre-filled brothel none the wiser, but your heroine…no, she goes in there, slaughters some ogres-of-the-night, and comes out an entirely different person.
The events in-between don’t matter. Just her evolution and character arc because we see her going from Point A to Point Z.
There are a lot of examples of high character works out there. Harry Potter is a prime example. Sure, the school of witchcraft and wizardry is cool, but those kinds of books are honestly a dime a dozen. What keeps us reading those books then? To find out what happens to Harry, Hermione, and Ron! That’s what!
Even TV has its high character forays. Take ABC’s Castle for instance. As much as I love the show, the procedural aspect of the series is nothing we haven’t seen before. However, because of who Rick Castle is–a NYT bestelling author with a daugher and live-in, actress mother–I watch the show every week. The whodunnit aspect of the show is good enough, but the real draw of the show is Richard Castle himself.
In the end…
In the end, though, there’s nothing saying that you can’t have a novel or a movie or a show that has a fantastically awesome premise and a fantastically interesting character to go along with it. Just more often than not, it’s one or the other.
Do you have a preference for one over the other? Are you more interested in the premise of a text, or the people it’s about?