I've found that even though we have given up cable, we haven't quite given up TV. For instance, now that we only have seven channels, we watch much more syndicated television, which is amazing, considering the 2000s of network television came and went without my ever seeing an episode of "Survivor," "24," "30 Rock," "Ugly Betty," or any of those other big shows. The shows we watch are the "New Adventures of Old Christine" and "How I Met Your Mother," which are both on WGN, a Chicago channel we inexplicitly get in Baltimore. I didn't planned to get hooked on watching either show, and I could probably give them up if I had to, but I think the reason I'm drawn to them is because we are innately drawn to characters, to people. We revel in intimacy and its problems, even if they are not our own.
And it's the same in writing, too. We discussed this for a while during my short story class the other night, and we probably will have to discuss it in every short story class I ever teach. People care about people. You cannot write stories unless you care about people, more specifically the people in your story. They're not GPS points, trail markers in the plot. They drive the plot through their action but also by their humanity. Readers try to find a way to emphasize, to bond, with a story; if they can't, they usually give up. As an editor, I'm much more forgiving of stories with great characters but improbable plots that I am great vistas, great plots, and cardboard characters.
But characters are hard. As writers, we are required to possess a wide dynamic of human motivation, to put ourselves in other people's shoes, regardless of who they are, and blow gently into them and twist these balloons into real people. And yet sometimes I have trouble even knowing what my dog is thinking, who is the most obvious creature on earth.
Valentine's day is coming up, which fills me with dread. Not because I don't love my partner ravishly but because, although I am a personable person, I'm not a romantic one. Or, I'm not an extra romantic one. If you strive every day to be kind an loving to your partner, a whole day of extra-ordinary kindness and love with roses and wine and chocolates and surprise getaways seems insurmountable or overkill or both. Every day should be valentine's day if you're in a relationship. But maybe I need to brush up more on character before I buy my sweetheart a pair of wool socks or under armor or something (it is unspeakably cold, after all).
Well, it's not too late: WGN will play both "New Adventures of Old Christine" and "How I Met Your Mother" at least once before Valentine's Day on Monday, if I need any ideas.