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Students, faculty pack Bernath to see award winning author

September 29, 2014

Students and faculty packed the Bernath Auditorium in the Undergraduate Library on Monday, September 22 to see accomplished and award-winning author Charles Baxter give a lecture on what makes good fiction.

Irvin D. Reid Honors College Dean Dr. Jerry Herron introduced Baxter, a former Wayne State English Professor, who delighted the capacity crowd by reading a few selections from his short story “Westland” from his book A Relative Stranger. Baxter informed the audience he selected “Westland” because he wrote it while at Wayne State.

A question and answer session with Dr. Herron and members of the audience followed the reading. 

“Some writers know exactly where the story is going to go and they outline the whole thing before they start…and I tried that and the stories just went dead,” Baxter said when answering a question about how he maneuvers through a story. “Westland, I started out, I didn’t know where it was going to go and I felt actually like it was a jazz improvisation; I’ll take it wherever these characters want me to take it.”

He added the following ideas to help him get through a story: an idea of trouble, a character wanting something or being afraid of something, and the story having something at stake. “I like to have a character I call Captain Happen in the story. Captain Happen is the person who makes things happen…who blurts things out or does something nobody else will do,” he said.

Additionally, Baxter likes to have character request moments, a deadline for characters to get things done, to crowd characters into uncomfortable situations, and give them the chance to win or lose something. Furthermore, he likes to build in “one-way gates” for characters. He explained those gates are specific actions characters do that does not allow the character to revert back to a previous self before an event takes place.

He encouraged the young writers in the audience to “be collectors” and keep a journal of things they see people do and say, and see if they can weave it into a story.

The Honors College and Wayne State University’s English Department co-hosted the event.