Monday Motivation: Who does a writer answer to?
In times of political turmoil – I have in mind not Christmas parties at No 10, but Russia’s ambitions with regard to Ukraine – one’s thoughts lightly turn to questions of accountability.
But since I am neither a prime minister nor a dictator but merely a humble scribe, accountability in my book (haha) relates to the writer.
To whom is the writer accountable? Is it his muse? In the great romantic period, it seemed obvious that the writer’s first and last responsibility was to do justice to the vision his imagination supplied. William Faulkner articulated this view, shared by many including Walter Pater and that arch-romantic, Oscar Wilde, best: “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art.”
In today’s much more commercial climate, you can imagine there are platoons of writers who believe that they’re accountable first and foremost to their readers. After all, if a book attracts no readers, they’d argue, what is the point of writing it at all, however inspired it might be?
And so books, in this view, should be regarded as products which respond to the fickle tastes of the reading public. The logic of this position implies that it would make good sense to conduct market research into what next year’s readers might find most attractive, and to design a book to meet those desires, just as fashion designers anticipate next year’s fashion choices.
But then, in the “me generation”, perhaps the writer is accountable first and foremost to himself. This, I suppose, is a variation on the romantic notion – but it’s particularly suited to an environment in which everyone and his dog has the option of publishing his manuscript online – or, indeed, in hardcopy. The only person he has to satisfy is himself.
There is, in fact, an argument to be made in favour of each of these propositions. And yet my belief is that not one of them captures the writer’s central and overwhelming obligation. I think that the writer is first and last accountable to his characters. If she gets that right, then everything else falls neatly into place: she will be true to her vision, she will serve her own interests best, and she has the best chance of attracting an army of readers.
Because it’s the characters that matter most in a story, whether it’s a family drama, a space opera, or a fast-paced thriller. Understand your characters in depth, and you’ll be able to judge their responses to anything you throw at them. There’ll be a sense of authenticity to their dialogue, their reflections, their choices.
And, best of all, if you’ve devoted enough time and creative energy to your characters, you’re much more likely to get the story right. Because it’s true that story springs from character. Great characters give rise to great stories.
So bear in mind as you write your story, that in the end it’s your characters that you’re accountable to.