Review: Elements of Fiction Writing: Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters & ViewpointElements of Fiction Writing – Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a fiction writer, I am both a magician and a doctor. I pull characters out of my mind like a magician pulls rabbits out of a seemingly empty hat. If these characters I’ve brought forth act in ways I don’t find conducive to the story I’m telling, I press a stethoscope to my characters’ hearts and listen so I can give them the right literary medication, if needed.

In this regard, Elements of Fiction Writing: Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card is not a character clinic that will help you turn your characters around. In fact, Card spends the least amount of time explaining character creation. The majority of this book, and its ultimate purpose, deals with how to write better on the paragraph and sentence level by incorporating more of your character into narration.

I also wouldn’t describe it like Card does in his introduction either — as “a set of tools: literary crowbars, chisels, mallets, pliers, tongs, sieves, and drills…to pry, chip, beat, wrench, yank, sift, or punch good characters out of the place where they already live: your memory, your imagination, your soul” (3). In other writing craft books I’ve read, some had very clear tools: worksheets, exercises, and examples that held your hand and went on the writing journey with me. And so, when I first read that passage in the introduction, I thought I was going to go on an incredible journey and examine my characters from the inside-out with Orson Scott Card holding my hand.

That didn’t happen. Instead, the chapters felt more like reading essays on why certain fictional strategies work over others when dealing with characters. And I’m not a huge fan of false advertising when it comes to these things.

But… this isn’t to say that Card’s book is bad. He knows what he’s talking about. And at many points, I caught myself thinking that I wish I had this book earlier, because I would have saved myself a lot of years for berating myself for how I dealt with my characters.

For example, I used to think that I had to have completely developed characters for all the stories I ever wrote. But according to Card, I don’t, and for good reason. He calls it the MICE quotient. It’s an acronym standing for the four factors that determine how much characterization a story should have: milieu, idea, character, and events, respectively. Milieu refers to the world surrounding the characters; idea refers to information that the reader is supposed to learn or discover by the end of the story; character refers to, you guessed it, the nature of one or more characters in the story and the conclusion the reader reaches with them; and events refer to everything that’s happened in the story along with their causes. In some stories, some of these factors overlap. In others, one dominates over everything else.

Woo-hoo! I thought. Depending on what type of story I write, I don’t have to develop my characters as much. Less work for me.

Mmm, kinda.

For example, The Lord of the Rings, according to Card, is a story with a high milieu factor. It focuses a lot on the gorgeous setting, world, and history of Middle Earth. However, it’s not a pure milieu-type story, because there are some heroic characters that require a bit more characterization simply because their heroes. We don’t have a lot on Frodo’s past, likes, and dislikes, because Tolkien’s desire for the setting to be paramount is what gets to be paramount. We don’t need to know about Frodo’s childhood or if he likes ice cream. Those kinds of development choices don’t get shown if they happen, and they probably weren’t made in the first place due to the milieu factor.

Though, as with most writing books out there, this is not the only one you will need to read. And you will probably get conflicting advice from multiple craft books, like me. For example, in The Positive Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Pugilisi, they list Samwise Gamgee as a pretty well-developed character: “Develop all your characters thoroughly, and each will be memorable in some way. For example, Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings is loyal, down-to-earth, and attentive” (15). But it’s a milieu story! It can’t have well-developed characters!, you cry. Sorry, my friends. It can. And Card acknowledges that certain factors can overlap in writing a story, and rules can break. If it’s enough for the story you’re telling, it’s enough. And that’s just what all writers have to deal with from story to story.

If you do decide to pick up this book and don’t find what you’re looking for, don’t feel bad. Though I imagine there will be something useful for you, even in the small, character creation discussions. Card’s voice is gentle and sometimes harsh, but it’s passionate and worth listening to.

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