A triad of forces clash together when I write, and they are more often than not conflicting forces. There are times when I feel as if these forces are welling up a balloon inside of me, inflating it toward its breaking point and radiating tension into my writing process. I’m stretched among what I want to happen, what is true for my character, and what I think a reader would enjoy.
I felt that tug of war this week as I finished the last short story in a collection of short stories I have been working on. The stories all have a common topic of people dealing with death in some way. This last story was a bit more abstract and covered how the characters dealt with the death of a relationship. How that relationship decayed was due to a number of factors, but the most important factor was because of the character traits of one of the people involved in the relationship. One of them was too afraid to fight for the relationship, stunned by fear and expectations of his environment where it wasn’t conducive to have the relationship thrive in the first place.
I read in one book on writing (I currently cannot recall the title) that it’s a writer’s job to provide hope. I’d like to think that I usually thread hope throughout my stories because humans need hope. Doing that is one way to provide food for a reader’s soul. But for this latest story, giving hope was not in line with being true to the character. I had to respect that.
Ultimately, I bowed to the needs of the character even though the outcome of the story was not how I envisioned it. In the end, I think the most fulfilling aspect of writing is being true to the medium. That means creating a character, letting him or her grow and expand to be their own entity, and the eventual fruition and acceptance of their own identity. The act of bringing forth something solely for the goal of letting it just be. In short, getting the fuck out of your own way.
One way I help remove myself from the equation is to strengthen the force that I think is the most important. For me, that’s always been the voice of the character. So, we get cozy; I take a deep dive into the character’s life, in a manner somewhat separate from the story. It can be as easy as getting a piece of paper and jotting down the kinds of experiences a given character has had, how old they are, what they’re favorite food is, or what kind of friends they have. These notes often will make their way into the story, but not directly. If I have a character who once was homeless, instead of blatantly telling it, maybe they act oddly around food, squirreling it away even when they don’t have to because they once experienced food insecurity.
Another exercise I’ve done in the past is to pick someone in that character’s life and write a letter to them as the character would. It allows me to get a feel for how they communicate or how they feel about that other person or how they see certain experiences through the lens of their life. If it feels daunting at first, pick a real-life person or experience you can use as a baseline. All of these things help breathe life into a character. And when those trifecta of forces come whirling through, the character’s voice triumphs. As it should since they are what drive the story.
Writing has to be pure. For me, at least. I have to get out of my own way to create, and that involves a lesson in humility. It’s a lesson in letting go as well, but it allows me to create a space that’s open for something magical to happen.
[Photo credit: CésarOP ]