On Rules of Writing, or, Riffing on Rechy

Ursula K. Le Guin

In his terse and cogent essay, “When Rules Are Made to be Broken ,” (LATBR, October 6, 2002), John Rechy attacks three “rules of writing” that, as he says, go virtually unchallenged in most fiction workshops and writing classes: Show, don’t tell — Write about what you know — Always have a sympathetic character for the reader to relate to. I read the piece cheering and arguing all the way.

The first two “rules” were developed in response to faults common in the writing of inexperienced writers — abstract exposition without concrete imagery, windy vagueness unsupported by experience. As guides for beginners, they’re useful. Expanded into laws, they are, as Rechy says, nonsense.

Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented. (I make them read the first chapter of The Return of the Native, a description of a landscape, in which absolutely nothing happens until in the last paragraph a man is seen, from far away, walking along a road. If that won’t cure them nothing will.)

This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present. They believe the narrator’s voice (ponderously described as “omniscient”) distances the story — whereas it’s the most intimate voice of all, the one that tells you what is in the characters’ hearts, and in yours. The same fear of “distancing” leads writers to abandon the narrative past tense, which involves and includes past, present, and future, for the tight-focused, inflexible present tense. But distance lends enchantment...

As for “Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation. Like any other novelist. All this rule needs is a good definition of “know.”

The Brontes are a marvelous example of fictional knowledge, because they show so clearly the relative importance of imagination and experience. Patrick O’Brian is another. I don’t think he ever sailed in a three-master.

Where I wanted to argue a bit with Rechy was over the sympathetic character rule. It’s only silly if you define sympathetic as warm-and-fuzzy. And is it true that we “love hateful, selfish, manipulative characters” — that we love Iago, as Rechy says? Who “we,” white man? I hate Iago. Of course I recognise the power of the portrait, but I despise and fear the man portrayed, recognising the affectless psychopath all too common in the corridors of power.

Cathy and Heathcliff are a totally different matter; they are people overwhelmed by affect, wrecked by passion, and so for all the harm they do we suffer with them. Sympathy doesn’t mean liking. It means feeling with, suffering with. Most of us prefer Milton’s Satan to Milton’s God, because God is invulnerable, but Satan hurts — like us.

Rechy’s examples of great books with unsympathetic main characters — Gone With the Wind, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Lolita , The Turn of the Screw — gave me a clue as to why in fact I think those books over-rated. It’s not that the characters are evil or hateful, it’s that they’re jejune, or shallow, or callow. I’d rather read about grown-ups. (Iago is definitely a grown-up.) Rechy says that Carson McCullers “depises every one of her characters, and so does the reader, but one reads on” — Not this one. I quit halfway, years ago. Now I know why.

Even Gregor Samsa, a shocker the first time you meet him, remains just that. Fable has no characters. A cockroach doesn’t grow on acquaintance, the way Orestes and Electra, or Jim and Huck, or Pierre and Natasha, or Mr and Mrs Ramsay do. Fable can provide the shock of revelation; but the characters of novel and short story fascinate us slowly, deeply, by their passion, their pain, their moral and psychological complexity.


First published in the Los Angeles Times as
When to Bend, When to Break
January 05, 2003

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