A thought on writing

About two and a half years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Jim Butcher speak at a convention near Baltimore. I’m a big enough fanboy for his work that I was wearing a (still incomplete) Harry Dresden costume when I asked him point blank how he deals with characters who refuse to cooperate – that is, you’ve written yourself into a corner and maybe you’re not sure where to go next because nothing feels ‘authentic’ to the character image you have in your head.

Hail to the King.

There’s a lot of fear that goes into writing and most of it belongs to the writer. You form an attachment to your characters, especially if you’re trying to put together a series. You get worried about them, you empathize with them, and at some level, unless you’re a bloodthirsty maniac, you don’t really want to see anything too awful happen to them.

Pictured: A bloodthirsty maniac.

Per the notes that I was scribbling furiously at the time, his answer went to the effect of Railroad them to the end that you want; don’t be too cautious about what you do to them; these people work for you, not the other way around.

There’s wisdom in that and it’s gotten me through drafting three books in the time since I saw him speak. I’m working on book four right now and I’ve hit one of those points where, once upon a time, I would’ve faceplanted into a corner and not known what to do, mostly because I wouldn’t want the characters hurt too badly to go on. Nowadays that isn’t the case.

The question isn’t if the character’s going to be hurt, but where, when, and in what way. How to spin the collateral damage and manage the fallout is an adventure in itself, and writing wouldn’t be worth doing without it.

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One thought on “A thought on writing

  1. You always were prolific, weren’t you?

    This puts me in mind of a debate I keep seeing all over the place: do writers control characters or do characters set themselves on their own path?

    I’ve always found the latter argument to be disingenuous, if not downright lazy. I find it hard to give credence to the concept that writers are creating actual people in the sense that they are their own conscious entities. Nor do I particularly buy into the concept of character direction being entirely subconscious.

    I’ve always thought of writing as a craft. There can be art to it, but just like a artistically crafted chair made from excellent wood will sell for a higher price than sturdy, but boring chair. Both serve the purpose of a place to park your ass, but one of them shows both a dedication and skill the other might not. So goes fiction: a well crafted story with those sparks of artistic brilliance we love will more than likely be better received than a formulaic ebook with no more frills than the aforementioned chair.

    As writers crafting stories, we are consciously engaging the act of creation, the same as a carpenter. There is usually a plan (to greater and lesser degrees) and a direction. While we can, and often do, discover new things about our characters in writing them, it is because we come to understand the nature of what we have created better, the same way a carpenter will understand how to shape, stain and build with the wood they use. They’ll see an aesthetically pleasing line in the grain and decide to use that to both make the chair stronger and more attractive, the same we we will see an element of our characters and decide to explore it a bit more to make the story, character and world a bit deeper.

    But at the end of the tale, the character is our creation. All they did or didn’t do was at the hands of the writer. We may have had ideas that took the story in a direction we didn’t anticipate or plan for, or even spot something in the process that makes us abandon one direction for another. No matter how natural or grueling that process is, it is still a conscious process. (At least, as much as anything is completely a conscious thought or decision.)

    Which to me, mean that yes – characters are just tools we use to tell a particular story. I often wonder if our fear of hurting our characters is a fear of changing them. A good storyteller knows that any sufficiently traumatic or profound moment will bring change to the character. Those changes help drive the story, yes, but those changes also reshape. The character that emerges from those changes don’t often resemble our mental image of what the character is or should be, and that takes some adjusting.

    I don’t have an answer, but despite my issues with some of the storytelling choices Mr. Butcher has made, I have to admire his advice here.

    Liked by 1 person

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