“Where some might see ugliness, I see beauty, at least the potential of it.”
A question many writers and authors get asked is why they write what they write.
You have probably also heard it said that you should write what you know.
I’ll admit, much of the details of what I write isn’t what I know directly — that is, I haven’t experienced it firsthand. But I can tell you that I know what it is to feel suffering, pain, pleasure, sadness, anger, or any number of emotions. This is part of the human condition.
Someone once suggested I write about my experience of raising an autistic son. While I write about this in my blogs, I do not do so in fiction. Why? Because it’s too close to home. I live this reality every day. When I write, that is my escape. Why would I want to bring something that has caused me tremendous emotional pain at times into my fiction? For some writers, this works. This is therapeutic for them. It’s not for me, so I’ll stop right here and not address that issue further.
However, what I can say is that I can take my anguish from my own experiences and pour it into my characters. When I am describing a character whose sadness is so overwhelming that she cannot even find the words, I know this. She has dropped to the floor like a rag doll, her head flopped forward as tears stream uncontrollably down her face. Her nose drains. Her throat is closed up. She’s shaking, almost convulsing. This pain runs so deep, her body shudders.
Or the opposite: such elation, such euphoria that she feels like she might very well burst out of her physical body. The body can’t contain the soul! It’s the closest thing to flying without feet actually leaving the ground.
The cool thing about writing my experiences with different emotions is that I can show, rather than simply tell, my readers what the character is feeling. That alone is huge, so what I choose to write about translates into how I write and how I feel I am supposed to write…if that makes sense.
I write what I write mostly based on what I love to read. Most of the books I read are based in reality. They take place in this world, not in some fantasy world like Middle Earth or Narnia. I have read The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, and I love those stories, but it isn’t the fantasy aspect that spoke to me in them. It was the hardships the characters went through. Like anything I read, I am attracted to highly-flawed, even broken, protagonists. The underdog or even the anti-hero is who I root for.
I love seeing how these smashed vessels are made whole again, even with pieces missing. If romance is involved, I adore seeing two such characters come together to create something beautiful by the end of the book. Again, their love story isn’t perfect. They won’t live happily ever after, but they will have each other.
I was never the popular girl growing up, although I wouldn’t make the assumption that just because someone is gorgeous, wealthy, and well-known that they are happy. My experiences in my youth as someone who was ridiculed incessantly for any number of reasons (take your pick — I was too skinny; my parents wouldn’t buy me the “cool” clothes; my dad liked to garbage-pick; I was a nerd; I wore glasses; I didn’t stand up for myself and other reasons I won’t get into) made me drawn toward the characters who were ugly. Maybe not physically ugly, but they could be. And I don’t mean so ugly personality-wise that they have no redeeming qualities. A male character who is simply a jerk and treats women like pieces of meat isn’t someone I am going to root for or write about. A female character who is a bitch toward everyone just for the fact of being so isn’t someone I’d want to read about, let alone write about.
Where some might see ugliness, I see beauty, at least the potential of it.
I write for my characters. My characters, in turn, drive the plot. Flimsy characters that are as flat as a sheet of paper won’t stand up to the trials I will put them through in the story. My characters need to be believable. It’s like stepping into another body for a time, learning how that soul operates differently from mine, and listening to the voice that inhabits it. I am merely a visitor who’s holding a notepad, writing down that character’s story. The character’s voice is strong enough to tell me what to do, not the other way around.
The stories I love to read are character-driven. My writing is character-driven.
A part of writing character-driven stories comes with having to do things to characters that hurt me deeply. I have had to kill off several characters, for example. It’s heartbreaking every time. I think one of the saddest character deaths I wrote was a man who was a father-figure to the protagonist in the story. This guy had given the protagonist, a young man who had made many foolish choices and was trying to rebuild his life, a leg up. He loved this young man like his own son. The protagonist adored this older man, and then I killed him. It’s something that happens often in stories — the mentor figure must die so that the hero can rise to the occasion.
I kind of hated myself for a few days after doing that, but if I can convince my reader to feel the heartbreak of that character’s death, then I have done my job as a writer.
My first story evolved around my late grandma’s life. I told the story of Hannah, a character loosely based off my grandma, from her birth to her death. Writing her death was the most realistic thing I’ve written, as that part of the story was based very much on my experience. From that story, I branched out to exploring other tough topics, like alcoholism, car accidents, illnesses, miscarriages, and simply the inner conflict of the character struggling to figure out who they are.
When someone reads one of my stories and says it made them cry, I know I’m doing an effective job at creating believable characters. When I read a story, if I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the story.
Sometimes I still take a step back and wonder how I can create characters and the worlds they inhabit. I guess it’s just practice, time, effort, and perseverance. And listening to what others tell me. The feedback I get, especially the constructive criticism that tells me what I’m screwing up, is invaluable. This sort of criticism only serves to improve my writing, so long as I am willing to listen and put it into practice. And I am. I do. I take my writing seriously.
For me, writing is part of my soul, as much a part of me as my children or my husband. It’s like breathing. To not write, to me, would be to die a little every day.
At the end of the day, I write because I must. As for why I write what I write, I will show you rather than tell you with this excerpt from one of my stories:
“We were, neither one of us, one persona or the other, but rather some beautiful, messy, complicated version splattered on a canvas, but a masterpiece painting nonetheless.”
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One response to “Why I Write What I Write”
YESSS! Characters drive my plots too—and I’ve always been attracted to the “broken ones,” at least in real life. My characters thus far have not been so broken, though my current ones go through their fair share of hardship. But I know what it is to see the good in the ugly. Happens to me in real life all the time.
As far as character-driven plot…I think it’s essential in every novel. I’ve heard Stephen King does something like this, though I can’t speak for sure since I haven’t read much from him. Pitting characters against one another, each with their separate but equally valid motivations, drives plot. Put them in a specific situation, and they expand your “situation” into a whole novel. Just think—my novel “Penumbra” sprouted from wondering what would happen if people in a dystopian world were being mind-controlled. I put a character in that situation, with a mind-control chip in her brain. But there’s more to that character—she has a long past of being disadvantaged by her government and by others, and she’s sick of it. Everything she does is with the aim of getting people to see her for herself, and not for her paralyzed leg. The mind-control chip just connects her to the “situation” that makes the “background plot” of the story…I guess I do character-driven and world-driven plots equally.