Monday, June 20, 2011

What's it like?

    What’s it like?

    I spend a fair amount of time trying to figure that out. So do you, probably. If you’re a writer of fiction, things happen to your characters that never happened to you. Likewise, your characters do things that you’ve never done: evil things, noble things, courageous things, things they can’t help and things they relish. What’s it like?

    What’s it like to gouge someone’s eyes out? Or rescue a child from drowning? Kill someone for personal gain? Or in self defense? What’s it like to meet a sentient being from another species? Witness a murder? Be hung by the neck? Save your one true love? Save a people? Save a world? Save a galaxy? Destroy the universe? Sheesh, we writers get ourselves into a hell of a pickle.

    Fortunately, we don’t have to experience everything we write about. Were that the case, my genre would almost certainly be erotica. What a wonderful excuse for hedonism; “I must do research for my book.” But alas, we have imagination, darn it.

    However, raw imagination is not enough. We, as writers, have to direct our imagination, personalize and internalize the scene. If we imagine something as an observer, the best we can do is a newspaper article. To write it like we want to write it, we have to live it in our imagination. We have to be the aggressor or the victim, the hero or the coward or the killer, the rapist, the husband, the wife, the doctor, the get the point.  We need to be actors. We need to immerse ourselves in the role. We need to imagine ourselves the character and live the scene.

    That’s the way I do it anyway. As I write, my imagination forges ahead twisting and turning, wringing my brain like a threadbare dishcloth. Often, I look up and ask, “What the hell am I doing here?” Then I have to back up and unleash the imagination again.  But, most of the time, my imagination gets me where I need to go; deep inside the head of one of my characters as they endure or perpetrate, flee or pursue, or fight or kiss or whatever. Until I started writing and took control of my imagination, I never knew you could have so much fun and never leave your head.

    Well, reading is kind of like that, but not exactly. Reading is like a roller-coaster ride; you are put aboard and the thing takes off twisting and turning and wringing your brain but your imagination is on rails. Writing is akin to flying an F-15; no rails, you are in control, you, with the help of your trained imagination, direct the action. The twisting and turning are free-form, the route and destination are up to you. That’s what makes writing fun, and torturous, and disturbing, arousing, humorous, frightening and fulfilling.

    All of it is something. Imagining what it’s like to fly on the back of a dragon is exhilarating, imagining what it’s like to be tortured or worse is disturbing. But it’s all important. It’s important because I want to take others where I’ve been. It’ll be on rails for them, that’s true but I want to make it a ride they’ll remember. I want to scare the crap out of them. I want to make them laugh, make them cry, arouse them, make them hate and love, ache and burst. I want control of their feelings. I  want to take them deep inside my characters and give them a dragon ride followed by a little time with a pair of thumb screws. That’s what I want.

    How about you? Do you imagine what it’s like to make love, or whatever as one of your characters?


  1. I sometimes have to act out emotional scenes. I'll do blocking (stage direction) as if I were doing a play to try and figure out how my characters should move in a fight or during an argument. It helps for dialogue too.

    Yeah, there's some stuff I put my characters through that I'll never experience. I have no idea what it feels like to get shot by an arrow, but I can use my imagination to make a good guess.

  2. I've written a few plays and worked out some of the blocking that way but never did it for a novel. However, I have made crit partners get up and act out something that they wrote so I could show them something.

  3. Like Mike, I see the blocking/acting-it-out used often in a different form (screenwriting), but less so with novel writing (maybe because the novel tends to be more POV-bound?).

    Interesting to hear about tactics others use...

  4. Great post. I especially liked the line about your brain being a thread bare dishcloth. What we have experienced in life can be translated to fit nearly everything we write. Oh yes, my imagination gets a work out.
    N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium

  5. Novels are POV bound where plays and screenplays are not. That is why you have to imagine yourself as the POV character otherwise you are merely an observer. Watching a roller coaster is far different from riding one.

    And my brain only feels like a threadbare dishcloth some of the time, the rest it feels like a woven potholder that has lost its knot.

  6. I don't really act things out or visualise them as drama, but I do try to imagine what they feel like. I'd say it takes a mixture of learning facts to ground the description, extrapolating from the closest equivalent in my experience, and a huge dollop of empathy and imagination.

  7. Speaking as a reader, sometimes the author gets it wrong. I've been reading a series of novels with psychic characters. The most recent episode has the characters being able to sense "dreamlight." In the real world, her concept of how this works is slightly ridiculous. I can just barely suspend disbelief to enjoy the story. If it gets anymore ludicrous, then I'll probably stop reading the series.

    Imagination is a good thing, but I think writers also need to make a plausibility check even if they are writing fantasy.

  8. We talked about something similar on one of the forums I'm part of. The question was, "Are you a Method Writer or Technical Writer?" It was funny how many of us were actors, either currently or in the past, so we knew what method acting and technical acting were.

    For me, I'm more Technical. I do imagine things in my head. I can see my characters, hear their voices, watch them move. However, I rarely get emotional, so I guess I'm not immersing myself too much. The only time my own emotions come out, is if I make myself the character. Not sure why, but I tend to refrain from that. After reading your article, I may reconsider it.

    Perhaps, my aversion to Method Writing is the fact that the Method Actors I knew drove me crazy :)

    PS - Yours is the blog title that's been haunting my dreams. I want to write a story about Cowboys that ride Dragons :)

  9. You've got a cool title too; kind of sums up what we are afflicted with.

    Our title came from our crit group. We are all overt the place as far a genres. Fantasy and Western Historical Romance are two of the many and we meet at a coffee shop sometimes so, Cowboys and Dragons at the Cafe. Plus, I already had a short story I could post that fit, bonus.

    See you at FWO.

  10. It has been said that many authors write thinly veiled, romanticized versions of their own lives.

    Even the mighty James Bond was a "Gary Stu" for Ian Fleming, rooted in his own experiences as a WWII-era British Naval Intelligence Officer.

    So what does this say about authors who write vampire and werewolf tales? As your story becomes more popular, the odds increase that someone out there will mistake your fantasy story for reality. Using a real location setting (such as Forks, WA) multiplies those odds. And keep in mind these people would be the most motivated to attend your book signings. >:)

  11. I read or heard somewhere that Agatha Christie tired to frame her husband for her own murder. She disappeared and left some sort of incriminating evidence, her husband was even arrested. But, someone spotted her and her plan fell apart. Maybe she was trying to murder her husband by having the State execute him. So, you have a point.

    I know I borrow personality traits from people around me and even incorporate some of my own, of course, mine are the heroic traits. It may be as simple as a writer starting with something familiar and imagining from there, some of us imagine farther than other and that's okay.

    As for someone mistaking my stories for reality, it could happen. Probably will if I achieve the kind of fame I dream about. The world is full of people, some of those people have a tenuous grip on reality. Ergo, if my fans are people, some will be unbalanced; fact of life.

    As for people who write vampire stuff, I just hope none of their unbalanced fans have changed their name to, Buffy or Blade. :)