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What's New?
Uncle Orson's Writing Class
The "Maguffin"
April 26, 2000


Question:

As I recently read Ender's Game, I got to thinking about what the draw of the story was for me. What I liked. And I discovered that I didn't care much about the Buggers, or the war. What really interested me was Ender and his struggles to grow despite the injustice of his situation. I got to thinking about your Alvin series, and I found the same thing applied. I don't care about the Crystal City. I'm glad it's there, because I know all this means something, but I really don't care about it. I care about Alvin, and Peggy, and Arthur, etc, and how they are getting along in the world.

What I'm wondering is, two things: From the feedback you get from others concerning these novels, is my reaction typical? Do most people really identify with Ender's problems growing up, and facing injustice and so forth, (same with Alvin). And secondly, are you aware of that as you write your stories.

As I learn so much about writing, I find that while the overall question is important, it's the characters struggle against injustice that gets me really hooked. Like I said, I wasn't too worried or concerned about the Buggers, nor was I worried or concerned about the Crystal City. Yet one novel you've written I can think of I was concerned with the Uber Question, which was Speaker for the Dead. While I loved the characters in that story (particularly Ender) I was also just as hooked by the Descolada Virus and very drawn by the Piggies themselves. I couldn't wait to meet the females, and I was on the edge of my seat when I finally got to find out why they 'planted' people. In that book I was concerned with the ending question concerning the Piggies. Yet I wasn't as much in any of The Alvin series or the Ender book.

The reason I'm exploring this is that I'm investigating what really makes a book interesting to people. And good characters are part of it, as are a good story, but it seems the pattern that is emerging from most real good fiction is this: Overall big picture story, question, event, milieu etc. Then you take interesting characters and give them problems, most notably problems of injustice, manipulation, and fairness (these seem to resonate with most people and generate sympathy and interesting far more than simply putting your character in physical jeopardy). Then eventually you solve the end problem (Ender Beats the Buggers). But what sticks in our heads is not that our characters won, but their struggles in life getting there. We bond with Ender not because he beat the buggers, but because he struggled against bullies and unjust manipulative teachers in the battle school. That's where we love him. Or Alvin struggles against Makepeace, and Arthur against prejudice, etc. It's not the end we are so concerned about, and yet it has to be there. It's like your MICE quotient for the overall story, yet what matters is the individual person's struggle. In other words it's the journey that is so important.

Maybe that's why so many fantasy and science fiction stories are based around the concept of a quest or a trek somewhere.

-- Jason F. Smith

OSC Replies:

You've just run into what Hitchcock called "the maguffin" -- the issue that the characters care about, but the audience does not necessarily care so much about. Alvin cares about the Crystal City, Ender and Bean about the alien invasion, etc., but the readers should care about Alvin and Ender and Bean. In short, your response tells me that the novels are working.

This is, by the way, how we all get around the central problem of fiction: We ask readers to pay money and spend time and invest their emotions in stories about people who do not exist. We must somehow, since we cannot make them real, make these characters matter. And what we do to accomplish this is give them an intense and understandable desire or ambition or need. The audience does not share the need, but comprehends it and cares about the character. We do not even care, necessarily, if the character achieves the ambition (certainly in My Best Friend's Wedding, we were all hoping the heroine would fail!) -- what we care about is that this character be happy, or at least feel this his or her life has been worth living. We care about moral issues, nobility, decency, happiness, goodness -- the issues that matter in the real world, but which can only be addressed, in their purity, in fiction. Since there is no Crystal City, and for that matter no Alvin Maker, it hardly matters whether it is built or not. But if he dies for it, we will shed tears -- for his death, not for the Crystal City.

This is why I have been puzzled when readers ask for (and sometimes demand!) another book after Children of the Mind. The question of whether the planet of the Descoladores is raman or varelse just didn't matter to me, as a writer -- the planet doesn't exist, so who cares which it turns out to be? What matters is the discussion the characters had, the decision they had to make that IF the planet was varelse, then they would have the right to destroy it in order for our own species to be safe. Than issue was, to my mind at least, fully resolved. But ... sometimes the maguffin can be a bit oversold ... my fault if it was.

The reason that you stayed involved with the resolution of Speaker for the Dead is that the question of the pequeninos' nature was not a maguffin at all. Speaker, while people take it for a character novel (and it does function on that level), is really structured as a mystery: Why did Pipo -- and then Libo -- die? Why did the pequeninos kill them in such a gruesome manner? What's it all about, Rooter? And so the story could not resolve until that question was answered. That's built into the structure. The first actual maguffin of the Speaker trilogy is the issue of whether Lusitania will be destroyed by the M.D. device; the second is the issue of the Descoladores as raman or varelse. They overlap, but as with any good maguffin, the resolution of the maguffin, when it happens, is not all that awfully important compared to the resolution of the characters' stories.

The questions that matter are the moral questions -- what is noble? What is good? What is right? What is fair? (often these have contradictory answers in the same story -- especially if it's a story by me <grin>) -- and the causal questions -- why do people do what they do? Why does the universe work the way it works? And the reason these matter to us is that they are the issues that we must resolve in our own minds in order to make sense of the world and live within it. We not only must know how people behave, but how they should behave, and most especially how we should behave; what goodness is, so we'll know when we've achieved it; what nobility is, so we'll know whom to honor; etc. The issues of causality are inextricably connected with the moral issues, too: If I cause a thing, then I am responsible for it; but if I was caused by something else to do that thing, than I am less responsible, and the thing that made me act in such a way is also or entirely to blame. When normative stories come from religion, fiction is less necessary; we get our mythic framework from the stories of the public religion (which usually includes patriotism as well as theology and ritual). But when, as in our society, public religion has been denigrated, debased, and/or replaced by weak substitutes, fiction remains as a source of moral and causal truth (i.e., stories so believed that they are acted upon). We are so hungry for this that we will share stories even when we're dying, not as an escape to "take our minds off it," but as a palliative, to make life make sense, to make sacrifice worthwhile, to make loss bearable, to make happiness recognizable.


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