Thursday, December 17, 2009

Writing craft: Misconceptions

Now playing on Internet radio - "Come in Number 51, Your Time is Up" - Pink Floyd

Over at the forums on, there's a discussion titled "Mistaken notions people have about your job". And while writing isn't my job per se (meaning, it doesn't pay the bills), there are a few misconceptions about it that I've run into over the years, and since I'm slightly crabby and have nothing else to do while I wait for the brownies I baked for tomorrow's work potluck to cool down, here goes.

Misconception #1: You can't write about something you haven't experienced.

Actually: If that were the case, I wouldn't write at all. Frankly, my life wouldn't make a good story, and considering that fiction derives from conflict, which in turn derives from bad things happening, it's probably just as well. I have used some elements and experiences from my life in my fiction, but the most fun in writing comes from imagining what it's like to be in a situation unlike any I've been in, and how that person (not I) would act in that situation. Which leads to...

Misconception #2: All characters are just the writer in disguise.

Actually: Many writers do write about themselves, and as long as that works for them, more power to them. I do put some elements of my life and personality into my characters (i.e., journalism training, tendencies to be somewhat insecure). But those are condiments rather than the whole meal. I once read an interview with an actor in which he said that he approached roles by wondering, "I wonder what it's like to be this character." That's much like the approach I take - how is a given character I've created going to react to a particular situation? How will character A's reaction differ from character B's? How can I keep the reader interested in these people, even when their actions and reactions aren't always admirable? Which segues nicely into...

Misconception #3: The writer heartily approves of every thought, word, and deed his characters have.

Actually: Boy, where to begin? I once read a strange Internet post (no really) by a fellow who said a well-known thriller/horror writer was no better than a murderer. Because (so went the rationale) the writer had to imagine the thoughts and actions a murderous character had, and that meant the writer was just a baby step away from being a murderer himself. Uh, OK. Leaving aside the fact that this fellow had a shaky grasp on the distinction between thought and deed, let alone fantasy and reality, consider this. If every character had to mirror the writer's exact personality, every book would have not a set of characters but a bunch of identical people - and how boring would that be?

This fellow's post was an extreme example of what I've become all too aware of - that a depressingly large number of people don't have an imaginative life at all. They have trouble comprehending any thoughts or worldviews that don't mirror their own, and therefore can't fathom how a writer can create the thoughts and actions of a character who may be completely unlike the writer. Which is a shame - the most fun I've had in writing was with the characters who were least like me, and in a few cases these characters were utterly loathsome people. It was like putting on a Halloween costume - for however long it takes to write a particular chapter, I got to put on a disguise as Character X, and see the world through that person's eyes. And when I was done, off came the disguise and I was back to the regular me.

Villains and other loathsome sorts aside, every character needs flaws. Even fun, fine, upstanding people can have (and should have) flaws that make them recognizable as human beings. Otherwise they're cardboard (or worse, they're a Mary Sue). Nobody is perfect, and none of one's characters should be. Even wonderful, often admirable people have flaws - insecurity, inability to let go of the past, pettiness, mistrust, or even being too nice and accommodating (and becoming an Emotional Vending Machine).

Characters don't always have to be nice, but they do have to be interesting - not just to the reader, but to the author as well (because if the people who created these characters doesn't give a tinker's damn about them, no one else will either).

And lastly, here's....

Misconception #4: All you need to write a book is a good idea.

Actually: While an idea (preferably a good one) is the starting point for a book, there's much more that's needed. An idea is usually based on a situation, and a situation is not the same as a story. A situation is an event. The story lies in what takes place before, during, and after that event; in the people who are cause and/or are affected by the event; where all this happens, and when. And so much more. If that sounds like a lot of hard work, it is. But if the notion appeals - if you want to shape that story and build that world - go for it.

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