December 16th, 2009

books in a stack

What is story telling?

I always say that I consider myself a story teller first and a writer second. People tell stories in different ways. When I went to see a co-worker's son perform a recital, he mentioned that he liked to do show tunes because musical theater was just story telling set to music. For the first time, I felt an instant sense of kinship with a musician— not something easy to do when you have a tin ear.

Dance can be a kind of story telling, as can painting, and, of course, telling stories out loud. If I had a timescope that allowed me to look back at history, I would be interested to know which came first, dance as story telling or spoken story telling. Music in the form of songs would have to come after the development of language, but dance could have been around before that.

Someone on Twitter recently asked people to tweet back their most memorable book of the year, and in reviewing the books I read, I came to the conclusion that what makes a book live in my memory is the characters. The more real the characters are to me, the more I remember them and the book. They don't have to be nice— although I do have to care what happens to them— but they do have to be real.

One of my all time favorite books is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. She's also known for The Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy, but none of her other books resonated with me the same way that TSG did. The main character of TSG is Mary Lennox, a little girl who well-off parents spoiled her but neglected her. They turned her care over to servants who were afraid of the tiny tyrant she became. When the story opens, she is a proper little bitch, unlike the sappy, saccharine-sweet Cedric Errol, Lord Fauntleroy, who is remembered today mostly for his velvet suit and curls, or little princess Sara Crewe, who seems unable to hold a decent grudge even when she's treated horribly. Over time Mary becomes more likable because she learns she is not, in fact, the center of the universe, but she still keeps her core sense of prickliness. It should be noted that she is the only one with bad parents. Sara's widowed father doted on her, and Cedric's widowed mother is practically a candidate for sainthood.

So, the same writer created three very different young characters, and for me, the one who works best is the one who changes most and seems most realistic. That sums things up for me. Story telling is character building. It helps to be a good writer, but if you can't create memorable characters, then it won't matter how well you string the words together.

Got any characters who make or break a story for you?

free hit counter