If a story is “something that happened to someone,” then it should be no surprise that action (the something) and character (the someone) are central to storytelling. Ask a child of any age to tell you a story and you will instantly be bombarded with character and action. The character may be a person, an animal, a toy or an object; the action may be possible, fanciful, reasoned, chaotic — it doesn’t matter. Character and action will be there, always.
Hills introduces character and action in this section, but he will come back to each again and again. In fact, this section is more preface than anything else. You’ve thought about character and action before, Hills is saying, but I’m going to lead you somewhere new, grounding the journey in craft and technique. Consider:
In fiction, an author sets a character out on the road in the first place and then within certain limitations, shoves him down whatever paths the author wants him to take for as long as he wants him to go.
This is author-as-God, author-as-artist. This is character and action as personal expression. It is the assertion of freedom and imagination as rights in keeping with the greatest literary traditions. It is the creed of the MFA writer and workshop.
And yet, in the very next sentence, Hills says:
But the author is ultimately responsible to the reader, although this responsibility is often denied. The author must explain to the reader why a character took one road instead of the other…
In literature artistic freedom comes with an obligation that most other arts don’t have to meet. If you’re a painter you can wander into abstraction to your heart’s content. In literature abstraction would look like this:
Flog mamab u dogo day. Wakacno!!!
Provocative, perhaps, but also gibberish. (There is no gibberish in painting.)
In all forms of storytelling it’s not enough to bleed on the page in a fit of expression, you have to convey your intent to the reader. It’s not enough to push your characters around: you must show the forces that move your characters to action. This same lesson is clearly a staple of formulaic fiction gurus, but here Hills is talking about literary fiction.
How can this be?
Well, what Hills means by “explain” is decidedly not what most how-to-write books mean. Hills is not arguing that you should make every aspect of the relationship between character and action clear to every person on the face of the earth, or even every person who reads your story. The literary reader, by definition, is a different breed from the mass-market reader, and that’s not meant to be pejorative. Part of the thrill of the literary game is deciphering allusion and innuendo, but that’s neither license nor excuse for what Hills will later describe as authorial obscurity.
Still, stating that literary authors have a responsibility to communicate with their readers lumps all authors under that same umbrella. Again, the lesson Hills is preaching is completely portable to other genres and forms of storytelling. As an author, you get to decide who your readers are and what you write, but the obligation of communicating your intent remains.
How character and action relate to each other has been written about endlessly. Hills is going to take the conversation in a direction that demands more of you as an author by insisting that you eschew formulaic expressions in your work. It’s not complicated, but it’s probably at odds with some of the things you’ve been told. Fortunately, Hills takes each step in turn, and provides useful context and examples along the way.
Next up: Fixed Action, as against Moving Action.
— Mark Barrett