Making It Matter: Characters

In the previous post of this series, I talked about using Morning Pages to get ideas for what you want to write about. This is a way to see what’s just beneath the surface of your mind: something that’s ready to emerge.

But once you’ve found such material, what do you do with it? The answer is to come up with characters for whom it’s important, and to put them in situations where they’ll be forced to cope with the issue.

Let’s say you find yourself thinking about taking a stand on something important—a topic that’s on a lot of people’s minds these days. (Gee, I wonder why.) To use this theme in a story, you might develop a character who finds him or herself in a position where taking a stand seems necessary, but where it’s also going to have serious negative consequences.

After all, there’s no drama if a character has things easy. If the issue is just, “We should be nice to puppies,” the character isn’t going to lose friends, alienate family, and risk jail time for spreading that message. (Yes, I’m sure some of you out there can quickly come up with a scenario where being nice to puppies is hugely threatening to the social order. But chill. You know what I’m getting at.)

So you make a character who’s torn between (at least) two strongly weighted alternatives. Remember that the character should be someone you care about, and that readers are likely to care about too. Also remember that the character should have something significant to lose…and not just in a material sense. The character should face an emotional price, whichever option (s)he chooses.

Then be honest about consequences. Even when an issue has an unambiguously right decision (if such a thing ever exists), there are bound to be negative consequences even when you do the right thing. People get hurt. Things go wrong. Side effects happen. It’s never perfect sweetness and light.

But if you’ve chosen to write about something that truly means something to you, thinking and writing about such matters is a worthwhile way to spend your time, even if the writing is difficult.

Writing is good. Writing about meaningful things is better.

Making It Matter: What If You Don’t Know What You Want To Say?

In a preceding series of posts, I’ve talked about making your writing mean something.

Your writing should be about more than just people running around doing stuff. It should be about something that matters. I’m not saying you should deliver some kind of “message” (although there’s nothing wrong with that if there’s a message you think the world needs). However, I’m saying you should write about something that’s worth the time you invest in writing it, and the time that a reader spends reading it.

In other words, you should write about something that you and your prospective readers care about: learning to love, dealing with pain, finding friends, coping with family, making the world a better place, et cetera, et cetera.

But what if you don’t have anything to say? Or what if there are things you want to write about, but you’re worried that your thoughts will be dull or that people will laugh at you?

First, if you’re worried about such things, you are not alone. Plenty of writers go through bouts of insecurity and impostor syndrome. Furthermore, writing about things that matter can dredge up all kinds of baggage, and dealing with that stuff may not be easy. It’s even harder if you’re coping with depression, anxiety, or other such conditions. I am totally not the person to advise you on those kinds of trouble…except to say that you should consider finding someone who is qualified to help you. Caring for yourself is important, and may be a prerequisite for being able to write at all.

Second, remember that unless you’re a professional writer with a contract in hand, you’re under no obligation to show anyone your writing. If you write something and then decide to hide it in a drawer (or more likely, to stash it in a computer folder with some boring name that’ll discourage other people from looking at it even if they hack into your system), that’s totally fine.

In fact, I strongly recommend that you don’t share your work with anyone too soon. Work on it until it’s in a shareable state. It doesn’t have to be perfect (especially if you’re giving it to alpha readers or a workshopping group) but it shouldn’t be too raw. Go back and revise the piece until it’s ready to leave the nest. And if that day never comes, so be it. Every good writer occasionally has stories that just don’t gel. If you don’t sometimes find that you’ve reached too high, then you aren’t trying to reach high enough.

With those two caveats out of the way, let’s talk about finding meaningful stuff to write about. Sometimes you already feel driven to deal with a topic, and that’s great. Write what demands to be written. But other times, you might just struggle.

This is where daily writing comes to your rescue. In the first real writing workshop I ever took (an embarrassingly long time ago), we called this “freefall”. Now it’s often called Morning Pages. (That link tells you where the name comes from.) Whatever you call it, the idea is that you write freely and loosely every day—not to create something you’d ever show to anyone else, but just to let your brain play around. See what surfaces from your subconscious. Plumb your memories and your senses. Practice getting words on paper or pixels, just to develop your word-slinging skills.

Then (and this is important), review your morning pages a few days later. Read them over. Mark them up. Do certain themes or images keep repeating? Are some passages more alive than others? Are there points where you approach something that’s close to the bone, but then shy away?

Over time, morning pages will show you where your mind is at: what you’re truly concerned about…what engages your brain and your heart.

So that’s where to start. Next time, I’ll talk about how to use what you find in your morning pages if and when you’re ready to write a story.

Making It Matter: Theme

The reason I started writing this series of posts was because I wanted to talk about Theme.

The idea of Theme scares lots of people, including writers themselves. I blame this on badly taught English courses, which often force students to state the theme of a story, novel or play. When this happens, you can get the sense that there’s a single correct answer: that a good piece of writing ought to have a single statement of what it’s about.

Of course, that’s nonsense. Very short stories may indeed only be about one thing, but any longer piece is about multiple subjects. Furthermore, few pieces of writing can have their “meaning” boiled down to a single easily stated idea. Meaning is cumulative. It’s also ongoing, even continuing past the point where the story ends. We’ve all heard the saying that the journey is more important than the destination; it’s a cliché, but in writing it’s also true.

So I see no reason why a story should have a single easy-to-articulate theme. At the same time, a story should be about something: something worth writing about. A novel takes months or years to write; why spend so much of your time on something vapid?

Write about something that has actual human meaning. Love. Friendship. Loyalty. Growth. Forgiveness. Change. Loss. Redemption. Warnings of danger. Wonder. Reason. Corruption. Kindness.

I’m not saying you need to have some message you want to preach. If you do, go ahead—there are things that people need to be told (although you and I may disagree on what those things are).

But if you don’t have a message, that’s fine too. What kind of message can you have, for example, about love? Certainly nothing that hasn’t been said a million times before. But writers will be writing about love as long as writing and humans exist. Why? Because it’s a subject worth writing about. It’s a subject that’s never exhausted, provided you aren’t just going through the motions. It’s a subject that’s close to many writer’s hearts, so they’re driven to write about it.

And what if you don’t know your heart? What if you can’t tell what you’re driven to deal with in writing? Those are excellent questions. I’ll talk about them in the next post of this series.

[Image is the famous theme from Beethoven’s Fifth symphony.]

Making It Matter: Caring

Simple principle: A story should mean something to the reader. Otherwise, it’s just people running around.

We’ve all read stories that didn’t grab us. Maybe they had plots that looked okay on paper (ha ha)—they had a “heroic” character who had to deal with problems until finally reaching a solution. But we just didn’t connect with the character or the incidents. We weren’t moved. We didn’t care.

If you find a story like that (or if you already know of one), it’s valuable to investigate why it left you cold. What was it missing? Or perhaps what did it do that turned you off?

It can be difficult to analyze and learn from good stories because it’s like vivisecting a living frog—as you start slicing and dicing, the frog dies. The living essence of a successful story is often a complex interplay between story elements. But an unsuccessful story can be easier to examine, because it starts off dead. Cutting it into pieces won’t hurt it.

In my experience as a writer and editor, stories end up dead when they aren’t about something meaningful. They don’t deal with anything that matters to the reader. More precisely, they don’t manage to make things matter to the reader. Even if they deal with elements that seem universal—love, survival, success, etc.—they do so in a way that doesn’t click. They don’t engage our emotions or our interest.

So if you’re a writer, how do you make readers care?

Step 1: You have to care. If you’re writing about a situation that ought to be engaging, but it doesn’t engage you personally, then your story is already dead. The elements must matter to you.

Take a simple example. Many thriller stories start with characters discovering that their lives are in danger. Character X is walking down the street when a bullet barely misses X’s head. (Yes, this is a cliché, but it will probably be used in stories long after you and I are both dead.)

To make such a story work, you the writer have to care a great deal about Character X. You have to be interested in the person and in that person’s survival. Then you have to communicate that feeling to the reader. Why is X someone who deserves to live? What is X living for? Why would it matter if X were killed?

Emotional engagement starts with you, the writer. What makes you care? And then how do you stir similar feelings in the reader?

There’s often a getting-started problem involved. You may care about Character X because you know a lot of cool things about them. However, you may not be able to tell all those things to the reader at the very beginning of the story, especially if some of those things are secrets that only get revealed later on. Besides, you hope to hook the reader with the sudden surprise attack, so you want to get to that as soon as possible, rather than first spending time on momentum-less characterization.

Well, too bad. Story beginnings always have to juggle multiple elements at once. You have to introduce the setting, at least one character, the action, the story’s tone and maybe more, all simultaneously. Readers might give you a small amount of slack—let’s say a paragraph or two—but for some readers, you may only have a single sentence to get in the hook.

So you have to connect fast. You have to give readers a reason to care. That means presenting a character worth caring about—a character you care about—and a promise that you aren’t going to waste the reader’s time.

In Part 2 of this series of blog posts, I’ll say more about how you do this.

[Bullet picture from User Moriori on en.wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons]