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The user's journey

I’ve been lucky to get some productive, actionable criticism on my short stories, both from writing classes I’ve been a part of and journals I’ve submitted to.

The most common criticism goes something like this: “your line to line writing is solid, but you let the idea become the story”. In other words, rather than letting the story stand on its own feet, I fall into the trap of treating it like a kind of argument with a point I want to drive home.

I’m pretty sure I’ve developed this habit from 23 years of opinionated blogging: I write regular posts that try and argue for a particular worldview, or a way of doing things. Even if you’re a newcomer, you’ve probably noticed that I talk quite a bit about decentralization, data ownership, and the dangers of centralized data silos as a means to build concentrated wealth. I care about those things, and I’d love for more people to join me.

It’s served me pretty well as a way to write on my website, but it doesn’t really work for stories. The underlying idea can certainly inform how the story is written - and it should - but the narrative needs to be driven by its characters. Stories are about telling “true lies” that shine a light on some aspect of being human. In genre fiction that will often be accompanied by an exploration of an overt idea, but if, for example, a science fiction story is just about the science and not about how real human characters live and breathe in a world where that science is true, the story will suck.

It’s a trap and I’m learning to get over it.

Here’s the thing: I’ve realized that I fall into the exact same trap in my technology work, too. I’m often so wrapped up in an idea I care about - scroll up for a list of some of them - that I let it subsume the most important thing about any technology project. Just as a story needs to be driven by human characters (or proxies for human characters; I’m not arguing against Redwall here), technology products need to be driven by the people who use them. It’s not about your story as a creator; it’s about their story as a user.

It’s an ego thing, in a way. In both cases, I become so excited by the idea that I let myself become the character: the person expressing the idea, either in prose or code. The trick, the real art of it, is to inform the story with your ideas, but to center the character. Their journey is the all-important thing, and if an idea doesn’t fit with that journey, it doesn’t belong there.

Like I said: it’s a trap and I’m learning to get over it. And I strongly suspect I’m not alone.

You serve the reader by telling a human story; you serve the user by serving their story. It’s not about educating them, or forcing them around to your point of view. Whether you’re shining a light on the human condition or making a tool to make a part of it easier, it’s about service. Our goal should be to disappear and let the work speak for itself.