Novel-vember; Four Camps of Writers

One of the things I’ve learned, as a student of writing, is that you don’t need to limit your teachers to those who are teaching your medium. I’m an aspiring novelist, but two of my favorite books on storytelling aren’t about novels. First there’s Robert McKee’s Story, which is about film scripts. Second is Scott McCloud’s Making Comics, which, as the title suggests, is about making comics. It could make the list solely on the strength of his chapter about understanding yourself as an artist.

He groups writers into four camps, based on their priorities in their writing. First are the Classicists. They are primarily interested in creating works of art that are beautiful. They want to stun readers with pure aesthetics. Second are the Animists. They are the purest storytellers. They want to move people with the content, the story and characters. Third are the Formalists, who enjoy playing with the art forms themselves, breaking the rules and reinventing the medium. Fourth are the Iconoclasts, who are interested in using stories to spread or deconstruct ideas, and honestly portray life as it is.

He doesn’t treat these as rigid, exclusive categories. Most people would like to create art that is beautiful, moving, inventive and profound. That said, writers often come into a situation where those values come into conflict, and they will tend to be drawn to pick one over the other. It’s relatively easy to be someone who treads the borderline between Iconoclast and Formalist, because both camps prioritize revolution and invention, while Classicists and Animists tend to fall back on the traditions and archetypes of the craft. Classicism and Formalism are also extremely compatible, as they both focus on the medium itself, while Iconoclasts and Animists are more focused on the medium as a means to transmit feelings and ideas. Being a Classicist and an Iconoclast is more difficult, as the need to tell a beautiful story can get in the way of telling a story that is baldly honest about the ugly sides of life. Likewise, dramatically experimenting with the form, as Formalists do, can distract readers from the content of the story, which is anathema to most Animists. This does not mean that you can’t be a Classicist whose primary secondary concerns are spreading ideas, or an Animist who also wants to experiment, just that those pairs of camps come into conflict most often.

In my last post I wrote about objective vs subjective story issues, and I talked a bit about how the lines between the two can become blurred when a writer prioritizes one aspect of storytelling over another. As you improve one aspect of your craft, it’s easy for others to get neglected over time. I am an Iconoclast with strong Animist leanings. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to tell stories with strong, complex themes and compelling plots. It also means I care less about my prose style and I’m liable to neglect that aspect of my writing, as well as the descriptions of where the characters are and what is around them. I never want to take enough time away from my characters to properly describe where they are, and as a result my settings suffer somewhat. Everyone makes these kinds of tradeoffs. Given a finite amount of time to improve your craft, and a natural bias towards some elements of good writing over others, everyone will have weaknesses.

That’s all fine. Truth is, I think this art form would become boring if you could truly master it. Knowing that I can always improve keeps me challenged and interested in the craft. I am working on my prose, and I’m trying to learn how to world-build more effectively. In the meantime, I have this comfort; writers don’t have to be perfect at all aspects of storytelling in order to provide meaningful, enduring content.

Take J. R. R. Tolkien, for example. I can acknowledge that he’s good, but I don’t care for him. He spends too much time on pretty sentences and elaborate world-building, and too little on making complex characters or giving the moral aspects of his world shades of grey. To put it in McCloud’s terms, I don’t enjoy his work because he’s too much of a Classicist. That doesn’t matter. For those who do enjoy poetic language and breathtaking fantasy worlds, Tolkien is perfect. He means something to them, and my lack of appreciation for that doesn’t take away from the relationship he has with his fans at all (I say has, not had, because I think the relationships readers have with authors can continue to exist after that author’s death. The book is a little piece of the author that stays after the rest of them has gone).

Furthermore, despite those caveats I mentioned, Tolkien isn’t a bad writer even at his weakest points. There are more complex characters in other works, but Gollum/Smeagol is fascinating, Merry and Pippin have wonderful character arcs, and even the more flat characters, like Legolas, are well written enough to serve their function in the story. He doesn’t break new philosophical ground either, but he uses the classical battle between good and evil in a way that has enduring, archetypal strength.

My previous post was all about recognizing what good writing is, and distinguishing that from what you like subjectively in other people’s work. The point I’ve been leading up to here is that it’s equally important to distinguish between what is bad in your own work, and what is simply not the kind of story you want to write. I think it’s acceptable, even desirable, to write based on your values as a writer. I think it’s fine to care more about plot than character, or character than plot, or setting than either. This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to work on your weaknesses or leave the type of story you are most comfortable with, only that it is all right to decide which areas you want to flourish in and which ones you are contented merely to pass in. You are the only one who can decide what kind of artist you aim to be.

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