We all want to write what we’re passionate about, but sometimes that’s not as simple as it sounds. What happens when an author discovers halfway through a story that they’re more interested in a side character than the protagonist? What’s a writer to do when the idea they’re most passionate about doesn’t fit in the plot? That’s what we’re talking about this week, plus a little rant about what happens when you advertise as Grimdark Harry Potter but are actually Grimdark Narnia.
Generously transcribed by Bellis. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]
Oren: This episode was made possible by the support of our patron, Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory in Star Trek.
Chris: This is the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me are…
Chris: And we’re gonna follow our passion on this podcast. So I know we were originally planning on talking about writing your passion, but I just want to talk about tea parties. So do you guys mind if we just spend this whole podcast talking about tea parties? Can we do that?
Wes: I mean, I’m fine with that.
Oren: Okay. I mean, let’s see, that sounds like a good idea, but what probably is actually going to happen is that we’re going to stick to talking about writing your passion, but take weird side journeys into tea parties that aren’t really related. But the tea parties will be way more interesting and well-developed and detailed because that’s really what we’re interested in. But we feel obligated to talk about writing your passion.
Wes: Yeah. The podcast is just an excuse for us to explore our hobbies.
Chris: Well, that is actually quite true because our hobbies are definitely spec fic.
Wes: This is true.
Chris: So, yeah, the reason why we decided to bring up this topic is that it’s very, very common for writers to become divided between what their story is supposed to be about and what they’re clearly interested in. And it’s actually one of the biggest wreckers of plots. And I had a blog post recently: The One Big Thing Most Manuscripts Lack. Got to go for the big dramatic title there.
But it was really talking about the problem with writers not knowing what their story is about and having a throughline that is not working. And it’s interesting to look at the symptoms of not knowing what your story’s about, or not having a cohesive throughline. Actually a lot of them are just symptoms of, supposedly you’re trying to write about one thing, but actually being interested in something else. Because it really divides the story.
Oren: That’s a very common thing that comes up in my client work. When I do content edits with people, very often the questions that I ask are to figure out: Who is your favorite character? Which character is the most important to your vision of the story and which theme is the most important? And very often I get answers where their favorite character or their most important character is not the main character.
Oren: And the theme that they’re most interested in is not the theme that most of the story is about. And that explains a lot. That’s very often, okay, that explains why the story is really slow and dull until you get to this point and then suddenly it kind of comes alive. And you’re like, “Why is that?” It’s like, oh, it’s because you really wanted to start with that, but you didn’t know how.
There’s actually, if I had to pick a published example, and I don’t know, a hundred percent, if this is actually what happened, but it’s exactly what it really looks like. This is The Magicians. The novel, not the TV show.
Wes: The Lev Grossman book, right?
Oren: Yeah. So the novel really builds itself as grimdark Harry Potter. It is advertised that way and the character’s time at grimdark magic school takes more than half the book. So it’s a huge amount of time spent in grimdark Harry Potter land, but none of it matters.
Almost the entire time is done with summary and hand-waving to the point where, even though this was half the book and like four years of in-character time, I came out of it with almost no idea of what Quentin was capable of as a mage. Like what kind of powers he had and how hard were they to use and when could he use them and what was the cost of using them? Because that’s all hand waved. It’s like, “Oh, whatever,” it’s whatever it needs to be. And as long as I’m extremely vague about it, I can’t ever be pinned down on anything.
Oren: Then, then it transitions into being grimdark Narnia, when they get these little things that let them go to this magical world that they previously thought was just fictional. And the story even opens with this stuff. It opens with the main character being obsessed with this world’s version of Narnia. And then they actually go there and it’s super grimdark and scary and gross, but it’s also really detailed and the rules of how everything works are suddenly really clear.
And I won’t say it’s necessarily good, but it’s clearly much more developed than all of that Harry Potter stuff. And that, I think, is a symptom of what Grossman really wanted to write about was grimdark Narnia. And apparently he’s even said stuff like that in interviews, that this was his response to Narnia. And it’s like, okay, why did we spend half the book at magic school then? [laughs]
Chris: I have a strong theory about that, and that’s–
Oren: Yeah, yeah?
Chris: After he published his first work, an agent told him that magic schools were the big thing now, and that publishers want more Harry Potter and he has to write something like Harry Potter. Very likely.
Oren: Yeah. I would not be surprised at all if that was what happened.
Chris: Right. And I’m not going to say, if it works for you to try to look at what’s popular and what’s selling out there and then write those types of stories, if that actually works for you, fine, I’m not going to criticize it. Everybody does their own thing. But there is definitely a danger in trying to go for popular trends and not being actually interested in them and then not creating a good piece as a result.
Wes: Yeah. We’re talking about writing your passion. So if you’re interested in the current trends, presumably you are reading everything that’s coming out about all of those, and that has inspired you to build on that and add something to the conversation. Not just say: “Psh! Whatever, anybody can write about [with disdain:] magic schools. I’ll just include that in my grimdark Narnia story.”
Chris: Yeah. Well, and I think that it’s worth mentioning fan fiction in there because there’s definitely an art to taking something that exists and taking the best parts of it and putting your own twist on it. And this is what a lot of fan writers love to do, they love to take the parts that they like, but then fix it or cast new light on it or change it. And so, if you’re a person who likes to see what’s popular and then put your own take on it, that’s fantastic. But there’s a lot of peril in ignoring what you’re passionate about.
Writing is hard. Writers need inspiration to keep going even though it’s hard. And people are just better at things that they are passionate about. This is something I’ve– working with people I’ve learned again and again: I don’t care how smart a person is, if they don’t like something, they’re just not going to do a good job, but they’re going to start cutting corners and, you know, getting lazy about it. Cause they just don’t like doing it.
Whereas somebody who’s passionate about a thing cares about the small details, cares about doing quality work, cares about getting it right. And it makes a huge difference to an end product.
Oren: Right. And it’s worth noting that at least with The Magicians, and this is not a scientific study, but based on what I’ve seen people say about The Magicians, I’m pretty sure that to the extent that it succeeds, it succeeds in the first half largely not because of anything having to do with the magic school, but because some people really identify with the main character. The main character is extremely polarizing. And this is not one of those times where it’s like, oh, I say it’s polarizing, but I really feel neutral about it. No, I hate the main character. Like I want him to die a terrible death.
Oren: But other people really identify with him. And I think it has a lot to do with where the reader is, cause you know, for better or worse, Lev Grossman created a very distinct POV character with Quentin. And I believe that is really where you could attribute the book’s success.
I think that if it was not for that, nobody would sit through half a book of hand waved magic school. Because it just doesn’t have anything that attracts people to magic schools, or really a lot that attracts people to grimdark stories, frankly.
Oren: So I think that’s what’s going– and that’s just another reason why not to force yourself to write about something you’re not interested in. Because it will show.
Chris: Yeah. I have another example of a published work that looks a lot like what client work tends to look like when I think that was a problem. And that is Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker.
Oren: Oh, Warbreaker, yeah, yeah.
Chris: So it starts out and it’s basically about two female point of view characters, two female protagonists, and they’re sisters. And it really feels like Sanderson decided, “you know what? I want to expand and write about women. So I’m going to have a story about women.”
But then the story goes on, there’s one third point of view character that’s a guy. But then as the story goes on, it increasingly centers around powerful men. And it ends with the women serving the men and the men saving the day. And they’re the ones that solve all the problems, not the women who were supposed to be the protagonists. So basically, it turns into just male wish fulfillment. And for a reader who liked the female characters it was supposed to be about it really feels like a bait and switch.
And this is fairly typical and I’ve seen this before, when you have somebody who sets out to write one person as their main character, but then they get attached to another character. And oftentimes it’s not uncommon for it to be the character that is more like you. Who is the same gender as you; sometimes it’s also a quirky side character that’s just fun, that can happen too. But a lot of times it’s the character that’s more like you. The writer starts to identify with that character and then that character who’s supposed to be a side character, just kind of swoops in and steals the story and saves the day. [laughs]
Oren: I have seen– oh gosh, it’s as if half the manuscripts that I edit were alive and before my eyes…
Chris: Right? Yeah, no, this is the thing that is very common in manuscripts that we look at. And it’s kind of a problem. And look, I’m not gonna– If you want to write about people of your own demographic, that’s fine. I’m not going to be like, “No, you’re not an artist unless you do.” [laughs] But I think at some point in time, it’s good to stop and realize that that’s happening and then decide what you’re going to do.
Oren: Let me put it this way: It’s better to have a story that is about a character who resembles you from the beginning than it is to have a story that looks like it’s about somebody else, but then you bring your avatar in to save the day at the end.
Oren: That’s the worst case scenario. Like, just don’t. Just don’t. Just make it about that character from the start, okay.
Chris: Yeah. And I do think that sometimes though, especially for discovery writers, it’s hard to always control what you get attached to during a story, right? I think probably the best you can do in some situations is try to stay in touch with what you like about the story and what you don’t, as you’re writing it, especially if you are doing that discovery process.
And even if you’re not doing a discovery process, you can totally outline a story and then write it and then when you write it, things come to life, you have a different opinion of them. You get attached to something that wasn’t important to your outline. That kind of thing. In which case, sometimes tough decisions have to be made. And I think the best you could do though, is at least stop, realize what you’re really interested in and decide what you’re going to do about that. And decide if this is worth restarting from the beginning. And sometimes it might work to give the character that you like a different story, instead. Sometimes there’s just a huge gap between your story as it’s been written and your ideal story that’s hard to reconcile.
Oren: Yeah. I have a couple of ways that I often recommend that people do this: There’s always, you know, go back to the beginning, and to restructure the story to be about the thing that you’re passionate in. And that’s a lot of work. But very often that’s the best solution.
There’s also, you can very often, especially in manuscripts that I edit, you can very often sort of extract the thing that the author was really interested in. And now that’s just its own, shorter, story. A lot of the stuff that the author didn’t really care about is mostly filler anyway.
And you know, frankly, book length does matter eventually. But when you’re at this level, for the most part, you really want to care more about the quality of the story and not the arbitrary word count limits the publishers have decided on.
Wes: Definitely, yeah.
Oren: Especially since self publishing, for better or worse, is overtaking the main publishers as we speak. It’s very likely that, in my opinion, that word count won’t even be that important going forward.
Chris: Well, I mean, it certainly helps with e-publishing. Word count is a lot more important to physical books because there’s printing costs involved, is one thing. And at least when you pick up a book, you can see– you have a physical sign of how long it is.
I think that with online publishing word count has become sort of less important. It’s a lot easier to package and sell stories of unusual size, that are movie length for instance, than it was before. So yeah, certainly, again, if you’re experienced enough to look at, to plan your story out and like, “Hey, I have to get to this word count. I have enough experience that I know how many plot– how much plot can fit in that word count.”
Chris: And some really experienced writers still can’t do that, still can’t judge how long something will take. Everything often seems simpler than it ends up being. Often, usually it takes more words than you think. In the beginning, adding extra challenges by aiming for a certain word count is– again: Writing when you’re new is hard enough.
Oren: Yeah, that’s my feeling on it. There are also, if the thing that you want that you’re really passionate about will not carry a story and it’s just sort of getting in the way, sometimes it can be helpful to find some other creative outlet for it.
I do that with roleplaying games a lot. For a while, I just had this idea that I was like, I’m really into this idea of a fantasy story where the characters have to go out and found a town. And the more I thought about it, I was like, okay, there’s not really a plot here. It’s just sort of meandering. It would not really work as a written story, especially not as a short story. But it was on my mind, I could not get it out of my mind. So I was like, “Okay, fine. I’m just going to run this as a roleplaying game.” Because you have a lot more flexibility in roleplaying games than you do in prose fiction.
And different people are going to have different other creative outlets that they can do, right? Roleplaying games aren’t the one for everyone, but there’s usually some– everyone will usually have something.
Chris: Yeah. I will say that there are plenty of people online who build worlds and make a website for their world and then just share it. The world building doesn’t have to be for a story, it could just be for its own sake. And then you don’t have to worry about bending it to fit a story.
But sometimes it can be a little hard when, a lot of times what happens is, a client comes in and they were trying to do a particular thing with their story and that’s what calls to them. That’s what they want to accomplish, that’s what they care about, but they don’t have the technical knowledge and skill to know how they make a story that accomplishes that thing.
And so, when they show up their story is doing something else. Especially once you’ve already finished a whole novel draft, you know, completely revamping it is a lot of work. And so sometimes there has to be some look at, should you accept the story as it is, instead of as the original thing that you wanted it to be. And again, it does no good if you don’t have enough motivation to revise it because drafts always need revising, right. That doesn’t go too good.
But sometimes there is something special in what you’ve created that is not what you originally intended. I have an example of, we had a short story that was from the viewpoint of a parasite. That was really cool, that the actual parasite viewpoint gave the story a lot of novelty, a lot of flavor.
But what the writer wanted to accomplish was completely undermined by using the human– the parasite viewpoint. And they were inherently at odds. But at the same time, that viewpoint was special. And at that point you kind of have to make a choice about whether or not you really want to go with your original vision or go with the thing that spontaneously cropped up that you were not expecting.
Oren: Right. And sometimes you can, it’s possible that you can take those two things and do them in separate stories. If you have the bandwidth to write another one. Very often– Or at the very least you can put it in your idea bank. And you might not use it, but it’s not gone.
Chris: Yeah. For sure.
Oren: That’s what I usually recommend to clients who have this problem. I had one client who wanted to do a– and I’m changing a lot of details here, cause I don’t want to just tell someone’s novel on the podcast. But they had a novel that on the one hand was very morally ambiguous and very political. But on the other hand–which was cool, I did like that–but on the other hand, it had this really cool reveal where this character that we thought was a good guy, was actually a villain. But a straight up evil villain.
And those two things were both good, but they didn’t really work together. And so in that situation, I sort of recommended that they choose which one they were most interested in this time and save the other one for another story. Cause there wasn’t really a way to reconcile them, or at least not one that I could see.
Wes: I really like your idea, Oren, of just kind of getting things out as it were. I mean, experimenting with storytelling through roleplaying games is definitely a great way to do that. But, yeah, limited means, there’s– I’ve talked with friends and worked on little shorts as well and sometimes it’s just a matter of, for whatever reason, I think we’ve all been there, you get a character concept in your head and that character kind of just doesn’t really have a story. So writing that down or talking it out is probably a good way to just, almost satisfy that need to share.
And then it’s not, sharing this, it’s gonna go away, but also doesn’t mean that you need to start working on it immediately. It’s valuable in discovering what you really want to write about to talk it over. You know, don’t put so much of a burden on your friends and peers, but it’s important to share ideas.
If you– I understand this works for some people, but if you decide to just be completely isolated in your process and then present it, chances are there’s gonna be issues, because the ideas that we get for our stories come from places, right? So they respond or react to the type of genre maybe you’re writing in. And so talk to professionals or talk to your friends who have experience in that, to help you discover really what’s going on.
Oren: Yeah. Although I would advise some caution, and everyone’s different, but in my experience, if you start sharing an idea too early, it is not dissimilar from attempting to observe a quantum particle.
Oren: In that if a story– If an idea is so nebulous, when you start sharing it, other people cannot comment on it without altering it. Which is a quantum mechanics joke because once particles get small enough, the act of striking one with a photon so that the photon can reflect back to you and you can see the particle changes the particle because it’s so tiny. And I have actually edited people’s work that they were at that stage where their idea was still so open that even me giving them recommendations was changing their idea as I was talking to them. And so I would be cautious of that. When you’re sharing ideas, try to make sure that the idea has enough form that it can actually be examined without dissolving.
Chris: Yeah. I’ve honestly had almost the same problem with fully written short stories. It is really difficult as an editor to work with somebody who– I don’t know, as an editor, it feels like goalpost moving. It’s like, “Okay, make these changes to the story.” And then the new version is just doing something entirely different. It’s like, “Okay, well, the recommendations I gave you last time were for the story that you had before. But now you have a different story.”
And I had one person who was just a discovery writer. And so basically when I would give him revisions, he would rewrite the story, but he would still do his kind of discovery process. And so, I understand for many writers that’s inspiring, which is fine, but the story would just continue to transform and each time we need something different and it’s like, there’s no way to get to an end point when this is happening.
Oren: Another way that I see this come up a lot is in the conflict between making a story that the creator views as high art or meaningful and saying something versus following these sort of best practices of storytelling to make something that’s entertaining.
And my favorite real world example of this is the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Gene Roddenberry was really dead set on telling a story about his weird futurist ideas that were– some of them were just kind of bizarre. Like his idea that in the future, there will be no grief. We just won’t have any. Cause to him that was very important. That was one of the signs of an advanced society, is that we didn’t grieve anymore.
Chris: Very strange.
Oren: Yeah. And it was just like, I’m sorry, Gene, we can’t do that on a television show. We just can’t make that work. Also, Why do you have a counselor on the ship if no one can grieve? But anyway, that’s a different question.
And I see that a lot in my client work, I see clients who have this idea in their head of what is meaningful. And they’re like, “I have learned that this conception of what art is has value, and is prestigious. So I want to do that.”
And it’s like, yeah, but that’s not really what the story you’re writing is, or in some cases it’s like, yeah, but that’s not really a good story. It’s famous for various reasons, but ain’t nobody want to read the Iliad anymore, unless it’s actually the Iliad. No one wants to read you rewriting the Iliad.
Wes: I read this science fiction short novel the other month by, I think it’s a British author, M. John Harrison. Have either of you read anything by him?
Oren: I’m not familiar with him.
Wes: Anyway, it was called Light and a lot of the problems you just described where in it. I think this got published a couple of decades ago, but the idea was simply: I got this idea. It was my first real hard science fiction encounter. Which– it was difficult, I’ll admit.
But if you’re writing stories, you cannot neglect your plot and your characters for the sake of exploring your ideas. That is my truth. And I’m going to stick to that. I’m sorry, as cool as your spaceship is, I still need to have a motivation to care about what happens to these people. I still have to know that it’s going somewhere.
And at the end of this book, turns out that one of the main characters who was a serial killer, but also a brilliant scientist, turns out he was a serial killer because this supernatural monster would appear and killing people would keep it at bay. At the end, turns out that the supernatural creature confronts him and says, “I have no idea why you were doing that. I just wanted to get my dice back.” Or something… stupid.
Wes: I just felt so betrayed. Cause I was like, “I’m going to stick this out,” but then it was more about exploring a futuristic alternative reality and neglecting to bring the characters along for the ride. And that was tough. That was tough. You know, ideas should be grounded, is what I’m saying.
Chris: Right. Well, I do think that this is where the concept of story stage is really, really important, that when you are first thinking about your story and what your story is going to be about, you have to look at what interests you, and then actually make a plot that is built around that.
Chris: And I think a lot of the people who end up abandoning their plot and their characters to get into ideas, they made the wrong plot. They needed a plot that would focus on their ideas and highlight their ideas. Not one that is at inherent conflict with it.
So, if you really have this cool spaceship and you want to talk about how this spaceship works, you need a plot that’s around how this spaceship works, where you have a character whose job it is to, for instance, maintain this ship as it’s falling apart. Then suddenly how the ship works really matters to the story. The character’s ability to figure out how it works, for instance, if they didn’t design the ship and then fix it when it’s broken means that everybody doesn’t die in space. And now what you’re passionate about is centered in the plot.
And I think that’s– But when people think about story ideas, kind of by default, they’re not a lot of times thinking about this. They think about what’s novel and interesting to them. And then they’re like, “Okay, well, I gotta have a plot somewhere, so I guess this is my plot.” Or whatever just happens to come to mind is what they go with. And they’re not thinking about how to take that thing that they’re passionate about and make sure that the story has to dwell on it and that it is central and that it matters not just to them, but to the audience too.
Oren: Yeah. And Chris, for the record, has a post on how to turn your concept into a story, which is very helpful. And we will link to that in the show notes.
Wes: So, yeah, I think, maybe returning to what we’ve been talking about: Writing your passion. It sounds like we touched on: If you don’t seem to care about your protagonist as much as your other characters, you should reevaluate. If your side plots are more engrossing than your main plot, you should it reevaluate. If your main plot doesn’t show up until halfway through your story, you should revisit what’s going on. And then finally: If your prose is meandering, you should probably check what a desired length is.
I mean, it’s okay to revise, but I think the most important thing based on your guys’ excellent advice here is: If you’re truly seeking to write your passion, boy, you have to be very open to change and feedback, all of that. Because it’s not set, it’s a creative process. You’re not just gonna say “I’m passionate about this and I’m going to sit down and do it.” because if it’s something you actually care about, it’s going to be really hard. And just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.
These things take a lot of process, take a lot of iterations and a lot of chance to get people helping you out on it. So I think it’s important to be flexible, as flexible as possible in discovering what you really are passionate about writing.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, as much as I would really love to be able to have an idea and then just burst a story fully formed from the forehead of Zeus–
Oren: –I have not yet figured out how to do that? If anybody knows, go ahead and leave that in the comments and we will be very happy!
But we are out of time for this episode. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Particularly if you know the secret of just having a story appear without having to do a lot of work and revamping and stuff. Otherwise we will talk to you next week.
If you’re stuck on your next draft, we’d love to help. We offer consulting and editing services on mythcreants.com.
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