Sunday, August 28, 2016

Letting characters and situation run the show

I’ve recently been re-reading Stephen King’s On Writing, a book I’d easily recommend as my favorite on writing craft. So many books about writing tend to land somewhere in the dull realm of a how-to manual, or focus so much on mechanics and grammar that the life and creativity of writing–the art, as it were–is neglected. On Writing avoids these pitfalls, and the result is a page-turning exploration of writing as seen through the eyes of one writer.

[Disclaimer: While I recommend this particular book, I can’t get through most of Stephen King’s novels, but not for a lack of gripping writing. (It’s just that the content that often disturbs me.)]

One of the passages I read this morning was so good that I thought I’d share it here. I’m sure not all authors subscribe to this method, but I feel it’s got a lot of merit, and is worth the consideration of anyone attempting to tell a story:
“I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety—those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot—but to watch what happens and then write it down.
The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I “never expected.”
The reason, King believes, that this is a superior method of writing (as opposed to meticulously plotting everything out before putting pen to paper), is that the author ends up reading (and enjoying!) the story’s twists and turns along with his audience. And if the author is enjoying the process of recording the story, readers are sure to sense it, and want more.

This is more or less the way things happened with The Unrighteous. The novel itself sprung from a simple concept: What if, in the New World, some of the unrighteous believed, not that they were resurrected by Divine power, but wrapped up in some kind of conspiracy? From that came the characters: Jack, a hardened American soldier who’d suffered a grisly death on a battlefield in the Middle East. Harold, an arrogant British evolutionary biologist firmly opposed to the idea of God. Liping, a Chinese woman who’d been swindled, cheated, and lied to her whole (previous) life. A lot of the things they said and thought and objected to were based on actual conversations I’ve had with those in the military, evolutionists, atheists, and Chinese. At least in this way, the story had the ring of truth. Jack, Harold, and Liping were very real characters (at least in my mind). And they made my job–that of telling the story–a relatively easy task. All I had to do was supply the environment (a Welcome Center on a mountaintop run by perfect people) and let them interact.

Interestingly, almost everything that happened after the First Act of that book was unscripted. [Spoilers to follow, so skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t read it and want to be surprised…] I had no idea Jack and Harold would get into a fistfight, and was shocked when they decided to run off into the woods. I was as exasperated with their actions and attitudes as Charlie and his family, and many readers have been able to relate to their emotions as well. After all, who of us hasn’t had a particularly difficult Bible student (or child), who repeatedly disappointed us despite our best efforts at love and patience? The setting of The Unrighteous may be a distant future yet to unfold, but the emotions here resonate with us, today, as imperfect Witnesses doing our best with the tools we’ve been given.

This is another key to story-telling, and one I still struggle with (I am a very novice writer, after all): being honest. For the characters to behave believably, the writer must be honest. If a character’s actions and words don’t meld with the way the reader has been perceiving him or her, things will start to feel out of place. Like King says, this is the ‘jackhammer of plot’ at work. The author is forcing his will on the story, squeezing things into his mold, and making a distracting ruckus in the process.

In the end, I find it best to go with the flow, to let the characters run the show. After all, we've been given free will; we might as well extend it to the people on the page.

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