An open book

There was a writer named Stanley Elkin who said something very important about creating interesting characters: “I never write about anyone who isn’t at the end of their rope.”

We don’t need to hear about anyone’s ordinary, average day. In gripping fiction, everything is urgent and intensified. The most interesting characters have found themselves in a dangerous, or thrilling, or frightening, or in some way life-changing place. I think we read fiction not only as an escape from tedium or our own problems, but to find out how people who lead interesting lives, who find themselves in risky places, handle themselves. I think reading is, among other things, our quest to learn how we can do better.

Our own lives tend to meander, with a lot of loose ends and dead ends and unresolved issues. Fiction is an escape from that. It’s a cheap thrill. The best writers don’t dilute the stress—we love the stress of fictional characters we are involved with. It requires nothing from us, really. We don’t have to comfort them in the middle of the night, or lend them money, or hide them from the bad guy, or have our hearts broken. We can just read about them, and when we can’t take it another second, we just close the book. Oh, if only life could be like that!

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