On Writing Honestly

All good books have one thing in common–they are truer than if they had really happened. Ernest Hemingway

It is so difficult, yet so necessary, to write honestly. The real things we feel and want and experience are the only things worth writing, but exposing them makes us so vulnerable. This is, I think, something common to every type of art form, but it is perhaps the most true for writers. A visual artist exposes their emotions and heart on a canvas, but there is still the possibility of some ambiguity in the meaning of the image. There is room for misunderstanding, or concealment. If the artist wants to hide, she can. But words are much harder to hide behind. And I think stories even less so.

For example: in rare cases, I may create a lesser character that is a carbon copy of a real person for one reason or another. But if I create a primary character, I try to make them complete, distinct individuals who are unlike anyone I’ve met. That said, the character is inevitably either part of myself or part of someone I know. I have no other colors to work with. Then, I must put them in situations that are meaningful to me. So how do I create a parent or a lover that does not carry something of my own parents or lovers? How do I make a protagonist that is not infused with my perspective? When he is courageous, the reader sees my ideals. When he is cowardly, the reader is my confessor. The protagonist’s feelings are always, in their deepest places, mine.

The end result is a fictional world full of fictional people who are shouting out my personal fears and loves and hatreds to the real world, which is full of real people who can really judge me. But if I don’t tell the truth, what I write is not worth reading. A book is like a secret you tell the whole world.

Artists master the form.

Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form. — Robert McKee

Robert McKee’s book, Story, is the writer’s trip to Dagobah. If you are an aspiring storyteller, you cannot do better (in my opinion) than this book. He doesn’t just tell you how to write, he teaches you how to think about writing. He doesn’t just give you rules to follow, he shows you a whole world that you must master as an artist. The most valuable thing for me was the realization that storytelling is not a matter of pure talent. There are actual, structural, tangible elements to master. A visual artist has to learn perspective and shading before he can express his own vision on the canvas. The composer has to learn about notes and harmony before he can write a symphony. There are essentials that must be understood.

Storytelling is not different from the other art forms in this respect. The beautiful world in a writer’s mind will never be apparent to the reader if she chooses the wrong adjectives. I can tell you that my protagonist is heroic; I can insist upon it with passion, describe him with flowery language, etc. but if I don’t give you an inciting incident, a quest, and a climax that shows you how and why he is heroic, you will never really know what I mean.

Of course, truly masterful storytellers can *appear* to break rules. Only Lovers Left Alive, the romantic vampire film by Jim Jarmusch, is a perfect example of this. The elements are there, but they are so expertly hidden that you don’t notice them. You’re too busy being fascinated by what’s going on, and how it all feels. Jarmusch casts a magic spell, so that you can really feel the lazy, languid, existence of these slow-moving, long-living creatures. They might be bored, but you, the viewer, are completely riveted. I really don’t know how he did it. At the last scene, I felt like a person who has been shown a card trick. I think this is a sign that an artist has mastered the form of his art: when the rules of the art are being followed, but the execution is so flawless that you only see the story, not its working parts.


On heroic purpose

Recently, a friend pointed out to me the high death-rate among heroic characters. She cited, in particular, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins and Sherlock Holmes. Rowling, Tolkien and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle all intended to kill these beloved main characters, and they would have succeeded if their test-readers and audiences had not protested. It’s interesting that the author’s instinct is to kill the hero after he finishes his quest. My friend said, “that’s their purpose. That’s what they were created to do. They don’t have any purpose after the quest is over.”

Author Chris Hedges, in a recent Salon.com article about revolution, said: “James Baldwin writes it’s not so much that [revolutionaries] have a vision, it’s that they are possessed by it. I think that’s right. They are often difficult, eccentric personalities by nature, because they are stepping out front to confront a system of power [in a way that is] almost a kind of a form of suicide. But in moments of extremity, these rebels are absolutely key; and that you can’t pull off seismic change without them.”

A hero’s purpose is to give everything in pursuit of their goal, be it saving the world, confronting the oppressive regime, or ridding London of criminals. And it makes sense for them to burn out. Do we really think that Harry would be able to live a normal life after what he experienced? I like Tolkien’s solution better, it’s more honest. Samwise can return to the Shire, but Frodo has to go to the grey havens. Why? Because he’s the hero, and the hero gives literally everything he has in pursuit of his goal.

Oddly, the heroic death is mirrored in the lives of many, many artists. For some reason, artistic purpose often creates physical and psychological chaos. Jane Austen, Vincent Van Gogh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hank Williams, and the list goes on. Another friend of mine is on a mission to get rid of words like “disorder” and “dysfunction” when describing creative states of mind. There is a clear link between bi-polar disorder and creativity. But what if it’s not a disorder at all? What if it’s just how some people are? And what if they’re like that because of what they’ve been put on the earth to do? Isn’t that heroic, in its way, and just as purposeful?



Vulnerability and vengeance

“Great villains are made from tragic circumstances. They become dangerous when their vulnerability hardens into vengeance.” — Tom Hiddleston on playing Loki

Loki is a fantastic villain. He is unpredictable, capricious, capable of anything. He is lawless and power-hungry and mad and brilliant. But he is most compelling, and seems more deadly, when he’s placed in a cage. The Avengers and Thor 2: The Dark World both took advantage of that dynamic. It’s like watching a panther prowling behind bars, 6 inches from your face. I know he can’t get out but. . . what if he did? And why is there some part of me that wants him to get out?

The most compelling villains always start out vulnerable, and I wonder if that vulnerability that “hardens into vengeance” is compelling because it’s universally relatable? All of us have been hurt. Every person who has ever lived has stood dripping in pain at the crossroads of hero and villain and recognized that primal thing longing to be free of principle. The hero lives with the pain. The villain releases the monster.





Is femininity heroic?

I just attended the 2015 Comic Con in Denver. There was a persistent theme present in the panels I attended: the role of the female in superhero and dystopian fiction. Two characters in particular were mentioned: Black Widow and the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron film, and Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games.

In her commentary about Black Widow’s support role in the Marvel Universe, Jen Yamato of the Daily Beast writes,  

After exposing her true S.H.I.E.L.D. agent identity, the former Russian spy then paired off in 2012’s The Avengers with Renner’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye for a storyline that tore the stoic archer’s walls down for the audience’s benefit….in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you’d think Black Widow earned the right to brawl and battle her own demons, just like the boys. Nope. Playing sultry therapist to yet another Avenger, Black Widow was partnered with Evans’s Steve Rogers/Captain America in service of pulling the hero out of time into the 21st century….Age of Ultron sees Black Widow yet again employing her feminine charms to help advance a fellow male teammate’s personal growth. The Hulk can now finally control his rage-outs, but her soothing female touch and cooing ministrations are literally the only things that can calm him.

Yamato goes on to imply that Joss Whedon, who is known for writing strong female characters, dropped the ball with Black Widow, portraying her with “the kind of female troubles only a man can write” and reducing “the baddest bitch in the MCU to a shell of a superheroine who’s sad she can never be a complete woman.”

Now, we know that Black Widow was forced to become an assassin, right? Therefore, it is reasonable to assume she is not whoever she might have been had that mind-manipulation never occurred. It seems to me that Whedon is working that angle. He is choosing to present her as a woman whose true identity was stolen from her; a girl who was forced to become violent, or as Yamato puts it “just like the boys.” What the movies really show is a woman who is not comfortable with who she is. She is clearly choosing the supportive, soothing roles. Why? What if, deep down, she is nurturing and gentle? What if her violent nature is a result of abuse and exploitation? And if she embraces those things at the expense of her true nature, is that the kind of female superhero we really want? All this also explains her interest in Banner, who is essentially in the same predicament as herself: he is a man whose masculinity has been warped and overextended, so that he can never freely express himself as a man (interestingly, Banner’s heroism is never questioned, despite his moping, self-doubt, and insecurity.)

Now, Katniss. What I hear about Katniss is the complaint that she is “too much like a man” and also the question “why does she have to become like a man to be heroic?” or “When are we going to see a woman who is feminine and also heroic?” Katniss is strong, tough, and unemotional. She is what everybody seems to want Black Widow to be. But there’s a difference. Katniss is what she is naturally. Her environment has produced her. (Note: it also produced her sister, who is weak and shy and wants to be a nurse.) Katniss does what she does, not because she’s masculine or feminine, but because she can and because it’s needed. She finds herself to be strong, and able to protect. Her family needs protecting. So, she protects. And that choice is heroic. On the other hand, Black Widow’s struggle is internal. She fights against the evil that was done to her. She fights to allow her true nature to shine through, despite her programmed impulses to be a badass bitch. The only part of Age of Ultron that didn’t sit well with me was when, at the end, Cap tells Natasha to stop moping around and get ready to fight. That’s right. Quit being all feminine and weak and sad and reflective. Be a man. Be a hero.

Here’s my conclusion: the original premise of this debate is totally flawed. Femininity / masculinity are not qualities upon which heroism is predicated. I think Pepper Potts is heroic. But did I like the end of Iron Man 3? Not really. Because Pepper does not need to become Iron Man to be heroic. She only needs to be the best version of herself, and to use her strengths to overcome adversity by making difficult choices that are true to her goals. That’s what makes a heroic protagonist. Katniss uses physical violence and mental acuity to overcome her enemies. That’s who she is. She knows and uses her strengths. Natasha Romanoff’s mind has been warped and damaged by villains so as to make her an assassin. Any attempt to overcome that false identity, even if it involves becoming supportive and soothing, is, I think, heroic enough.





Under the surface of the brain.

When I first started writing, I attempted to maintain complete control of my characters, my plot, and every aspect of my world. I was micro-managing the universe I had created. It was like trying to solve an endless Rubik’s cube. Finally, in order to preserve my sanity, I was forced to put the project away and focus on other aspects of my life. But then, an amazing thing happened: my subconscious started solving the problems for me. I’d be cooking dinner, or listening to music, or walking in the park, and suddenly I would know where Tosier should go next, or how his character could be developed through a certain conflict, or why the planet Alar has ten months instead of twelve. This was a surprise, but pretty soon I was writing again, and it was actually fun.

Since then, I have been practicing trust in this occurrence, whatever it is. As soon as I hit a sandbar, creatively, I just walk away and think about something else. And after a few days, the answer bubbles to the surface of my brain and I know exactly what to do.

Recently, I made a comment about this to a friend, fantasy author J.T. Welch, and he reported having had a similar experience.  I wonder now if this experience is common to writers, common to all artists, or in fact, common to all humans. Do we spend a lot of time needlessly stressed about what we cannot handle with our conscious minds? If so, what does it mean for us to trust the subconscious?

I might actually write a book.

Just some information for those of you who care. The bad news is I did not finish the book by Christmas as I promised. But the good news is I have written ten whole chapters, which is about 40,000 words. I’ll admit that I really didn’t think I could do this, but apparently I have! My test readers have even told me they like the book so far. Yay!

My goal now is to write approximately one chapter a week until the book is done. I have sixteen chapters to go, which should put me somewhere into May. Hopefully I can stay on schedule. Tosier is uncertain about things ending happily, so we have made an agreement. If he keeps making heroic choices, I promise not to kill him.

See you at the end of chapter 11.




Idealism is a human thing.

The first chapter of Dune, by Frank Herbert, contains a fascinating passage in which the Reverend Mother administers a test to the young protagonist, Paul, to determine if he is or is not human. She commands him to put his hand into a box that creates, by “nerve induction” a searing pain. At the same time, she holds a needle to his throat, which is touched with a deadly poison. If he pulls his hand from the box before she gives the word, she will inject him with the poison.

She says that only an animal will pull its hand from the box. A human will keep his hand in the box, because a human can think and choose. Because he is committed to a higher ideal, he will endure momentary pain.

We are never more fully human than when we choose not to be ruled by our baser instincts. When we simply run from pain, or toward pleasure, with no regard for things more precious, we are animals.

It is very important that our heroes be human. At some point, every protagonist will have to pass that test.


I make the rules.

Learning something new, and achieving mastery over a subject, takes the memorization of a bunch of facts. Which is boring. But you reach a point where you can start working with those facts to understand related concepts, and it gets a lot more fun. What’s weird about fiction writing, especially when it involves world-construction, is that the writer not only has to learn all the facts, but he has to decide what they are. “Is there one sun or two? Why? What sort of sense of humor does my protagonist have? Why?”

Once decisions are made, the temptation is to change them, which puts your entire world into a state of continual flux. Elements can be fluid for a time, but once they are solid, they should stay solid, or your mind will literally explode. There are rules, and I have to obey them… even if I made them up myself.

These self-imposed rules cause problems sometimes. Sometimes things don’t seem to fit together. But I find that if I keep at it, the puzzle gets solved.

“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost–and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.” –T.S. Eliot

Monty Python already did that.

I’ve been reading articles about avoiding cliches. Some are helpful. Some are not. For example, an article titled 754 Cliches That Writers Should Avoid is not helpful. Just shoot me, why don’t you?

The fact is, this world is full of repetition. Stories usually have a hero, and a bad guy. Pink bunny rabbits are usually innocent, and dragons are usually mean and greedy. You could try to eliminate from your story every possible mention of an archetype. You could write a story about a beautiful actress who leaves New York and moves to Kansas City to fulfill her lifelong dream of working at a Wal-Mart. But I don’t know how great that story would really be.

I think the key to defeating cliches is more about the unique presentation of worn themes, rather than their eradication.  Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is about love, and is a brilliant and funny look at the heart. The movie Love Actually is also about love, and is basically two hours of mind-numbing treacle. (Sorry.) In Jazz, they say, there are no wrong notes, only poor choices. And I think that applies to story-telling as well.

I guess the point is to know the difference between harmless archetypes and repetitive cliches. It’s okay for the pink bunny rabbit to be cute and sweet. It’s even better to make the pink bunny rabbit scorch you with its bionic blue eye. Just don’t give it fangs.