I love stories. It doesn't matter if you've written a Western space opera or a Medieval heist romance. When it comes to stories, I love a heady mix of plot, character, and high stakes.
I think reading and writing often go hand in hand. As writers, we are constantly reading, because it’s our passion. But the more we write, the more critical we can be of others’ work because it’s easy to see the flaws when you’re not close to a project.
We’re in a great position as readers, as the literary market is now full of stories written by talented authors. But we aren't just seeing one incredible writer in a generation, like Tolkien, Dafoe, or Dickens, we’re seeing loads. More than you could count.
The literary genres are also multiplying and the trends are widespread and constantly changing, and that’s a great thing. But that also means life is too short to read bad books, and we’re more critical of what we read and how well it’s put together.
Does the story have compelling characters? In my historical mystery, The Strangled Servant, the main character is a shy young woman who makes bad choices, and this divided a lot of readers.
Some hated the main character and wanted them to be strong and independent, others liked seeing the potential for growth. Having woken up to 1-star reviews on my book launch day, I can tell you that characters matter, and you won’t please everyone.
You have to write the story, and the character that comes out is what you go with.
But you don’t have to craft likable characters, as long as they are memorable. If I’ve written a character that people are still talking (or ranting) about later, that’s a win in my book.
I also think having a plot is essential because otherwise, I’ll wonder, is this a story? Or is it a dialogue? There are excellent tales that feature dialogue between dynamic characters, but without currents of plot to steer the story along, I think readers would ask themselves whether it was a story they were reading.
What happens? What makes us want to keep reading? What makes you want to turn the page? Those sorts of questions bring us to stakes.
With any story where you have a plot and characters, you must have stakes, be they external (the world will end if the character doesn’t do this) or internal (the character’s best friend will never forgive them if they miss their party). It’s where you have to ask yourself what does the main character want, and what happens if they don’t meet their goal? What happens if they fail? And then you have to make it happen. Push your characters, shove them into corners and see how they dig themselves out. Maybe they won't. Maybe they'll die. Or maybe they'll change and surprise you. It's all part of the story.
The struggle, the journey, and growth are what we want to read about. Like in Fight Club, we don’t just want to see the fight in all its blood and teeth-jarring glory. We want to see who’s involved, why they’re fighting, and have a reason to root (or not) for the various fighters. That’s a story.
When I approach a story I want to write, I normally have in mind three things. Character, a setting, and a 'what if' scenario that lends itself to creating a plotline and stakes.
So for instance, in my historical fantasy, Wolf’s Blood, I knew I wanted to write about a witch-hunter, but not just any witch-hunter. The character I envisioned was a man who lived in a time when England was at war and many men were fighting overseas. The remaining men were either in the clergy, too old, too young, or wealthy enough to pay someone else to fight for them, so any man who was doing something different could face a certain level of distrust from society.
In this story, I’ve got a setting, a character with a chip on his shoulder, but I needed more. That’s where the motivations and stakes come in. What if you have a boy whose genitals have been spirited away by a witch, and he comes to the witch-hunter for help? The only problem is, this witch-hunter is an atheist in medieval Catholic England and doesn’t believe in ghosts, or witches. If he doesn't help the boy, he won't earn his keep, or have any money to buy food to survive. If he does help the boy, he'll be challenging his personal beliefs, and risk revealing his true nature. That was my opening scenario, and I took it from there.
Stories are unique things, that can comment on society, poke fun at political figures, or bring people to tears. Stories can be powerful or entertaining, but to make a story great, I think it needs to have those three key elements.
As a writer, I'm quickly learning that I write polarising characters. I'm learning to write characters that people love to hate, which is pretty cool. Every story I write reflects a bit of myself in some way, and I can only speak for myself. So if you want to disagree with me or with any of the opinions I've shared here, write a story and prove me wrong. I'd love to read it!
About the Author: E. L. Johnson writes historical mysteries. A Boston native, she gave up clam chowder and lobster rolls for tea and scones when she moved across the pond to London, where she studied medieval magic at UCL and medieval remedies at Birkbeck College. Now based in Hertfordshire, she is a member of the Hertford Writers’ Circle and the founder of the London Seasonal Book Club.
When not writing, Erin spends her days working as a press officer for a royal charity and her evenings as the lead singer of the gothic progressive metal band, Orpheum. She is also an avid Jane Austen fan and has a growing collection of period drama films.