Up until about a week ago, I had a fast and firm list of things that the reader needs to know about the main character. That list included:
- Story goal
Leave any one of those out and I’d have something to say about it. But then I read a piece of flash fiction, Fear of the Sentry by Tracy Maxwell, that made me question all of this.
SPOILER ALERT (DON’T READ PAST THIS POINT IF KNOWING HOW THE STORY ENDS WILL BOTHER YOU!)
The entire story is 5 paragraphs long. For the first three, you follow the main character who is seeking out the enemy sentry. And then if paragraph #4 you discover that this is a child sneaking up on fighting parents. The goal, the only thing that you thought you knew was figurative.
That’s right. You don’t know the character’s gender, age, or name. You think you know the story goal only to discover that you really don’t.
Yet, the story works and works to great effect.
Wow. That’s all I can say is WOW.
Now I’m wondering, how would an editor react if you didn’t divulge your child character’s age? Or name? I’m guessing that if it works, no questions will be asked, no comments will be made. But the story still needs to work.
In this case, Maxwell knew the writing rules and set out very deliberately to break them. Age, name and gender are traits that serve to orient the reader in relation to the character. If you leave one or more of these things out, you still need to orient your reader but you need to do it in a way that reveals something even more important. In this case, we discover what the reader fears. We learn that in spite of this fear, there is no choice but to move forward. And we aren’t told these things. They are shown to us.
For every support that you cut, you need to provide another. Anyone else up for the challenge?