People Versus Things

by | Jan 29, 2007 | Approaches to Writing

As for subjects, there’s really only one, and that’s people, isn’t it?  Virginia Woolf takes H. G. Wells to task for writing instead about things.  She’s right.  Wells’ characters talk just they do in the recent movie Flyboys, an oater about airplanes.  Unfortunately there are actors in the airplanes, and the actors have to deliver this set of lines so hackneyed that I wanted to howl.  Has some wonderful shots of airplanes flying around.  Wells cares about two things, his backdrops and his ideas, so his characters are either window dressing or mouthpieces.  No character by Wells has ever threatened to have a life outside of the story.

Woolf hardly writes a story at all.  What she cares about is people.  Her novels are like cubist group portraits.  You catch glimpses of people, scraps of what they’re thinking, gestures.  Characters bump into each other, say something in passing on the stairs.  They take up physical space.  Mr. Ramsay, for example lumbering about the property in To the Lighthouse, declaiming ‘Someone had blundered!’ and bumping into the guests.  Woolf writes about people, and you can read her over and over.

Look at genre fiction.  The mystery, for example.  The mystery writers we like are those who create amusing characters, are they not?  Who can resist Hercule Poirot?  A good mystery novel is not about the mystery so much as it is about the cast of characters thrown together at the isolated country house on a dark and stormy night.

Even in science fiction, the best of it is people-driven, the things (spaceships, giant robots, space aliens) merely backdrops.  In Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, a classic of the genre, people tote ray-guns and all that, but what motivates them is basic human stuff, like wanting to set up the first hotdog stand on Mars.