Our new battery-powered riding lawnmower had its maiden voyage yesterday, and Cathy, who took the wheel, reports that it did great. When you turn the key, you don’t hear anything, and you might be tempted to believe there’s a malfunction. When you put the mower in gear, though, and back up or go forward, it moves with deceptive quiet. When you engage the blades, you hear only the sound of them turning, a sound akin to that of a robust fan. Sometimes you just don’t know the power that lurks beneath the silence.
Such is the case for the work we fiction writers do. The power often comes from something only the writer can detect. When I write a novel, for instance, and the writing is going well, I sense myself—my fears, my desires, my passions, my contradictions—accompanying my characters through the events of their lives. You don’t have to know where I am in a novel, but trust me, you’ll know if I’m only pretending to be there, if I’m not invested, not vulnerable, if there’s nothing at stake for me in the writing. At some point, I need to know why the story matters to me, so I can make it matter to you.
Here, then, are some tips for how fiction writers can be more fully invested in the characters and the plots they invent.
- Engage yourself. If the writing feels wooden to you and the characters aren’t fully engaged with the world and the events of the novel or story, it may be because you are likewise disengaged. Try stopping the writing. Then use the premise, or what there is of a plot, or the characters themselves, to suggest intersections with you and your own experiences. Free-associate. Say to yourself, “When I think of this plot, or this character, I remember. . . .” Just make a list until you feel something click. Maybe it’s a physical sensation—a squiggle in your gut, a lump in your throat—that says to you this is why I’m telling this story.
- Daydream yourself. For those of you who are more visual thinkers, try the approach in number 1 by using the power of the daydream. Daydream your characters and your plots into your own memory. Again, look for that click that announces your stakes in the telling of this story.
- Pressure yourself. What parts of the plot make you uncomfortable? Or what is it about your main characters that makes you squirm in your chair? These are usually the aspects of the narrative that will contain the most contradictions or ironies, and they often come from something you’ve experienced. Don’t let yourself off easy. Press down into that discomfort. Feel it. Then transfer it to your characters. Let them create and then try to find their way out of trouble.
The key is to do anything you can to make yourself aware of why you’re telling a particular story and what its stakes are for you. You never have to share that personal information with a reader. You only have to know and feel it yourself.