What my Characters Taught Me about Writing

Admittedly, I am an amateur writer. Currently I am finishing the first draft of my third attempt at a novel (Upon Stilted Cities). The first time I attempted to write a novel I was 16, the second time I was 25. Both ended in miserable failure and returning to the several hundred pages I had written between the two now, I scoff in disgust. You always hear famous writers saying it takes a long time to develop your skill; looking at those old works, I have definitely made some progress.

My third attempt at a novel really began almost five years ago now. I woke up from a strange dream, wrote down a few paragraphs and then went back to sleep. For a few days after I played around with the idea and then figured I would get back to it some time. I was in the middle of a graduate program for Anthropology at the time and most of my writing hours were devoted to academic styled papers, so there was little time for fiction.

What was the dream about? Oh, it was about a man staring out a window overlooking a giant walking city. It seemed like a silly idea even when I wrote it down initially. I thought to myself, the science of something like this has got to be completely unrealistic. I never thought much of the idea and mostly forgot in the midst of my thesis research and yearlong filmmaking project.

But something happened.

Over the course of the next few years, the dream would occasionally pop up. Whenever it did I wrote a little bit more about this strange man overlooking this city. It turned out that he was the head of security, he had been alive over a thousand years (thanks to some nifty science) and the city walked through a barren desert (the result of human created climate change).

Then about 10 months ago in the summer of 2015 I became overwhelmingly curious. I had to get to know this character, had to see what in the world he was about and what was happening in his world. So, I sat down in front of my computer with no idea or thoughts about what I was going to write. I tried to plan him out, to outline the chapter and nothing came forward.

I thought I was going to give up and say forget it. Then in the back of my mind I heard him beginning to tell me his story. He was old and tired, even though he didn’t look a day over 50. His wife had died of cancer right before some scientists had figured out a cure to disease and aging. He went on and on about himself and I just went on and on writing it down.

Then, when I was finished I didn’t know what else to do. Again, I thought the book was done. Until another character started tapping me on the shoulder. His name was Runner 17 and he had his own interesting and unique story to tell in this world. Then more came: a Senator who lived among the richest of the walking city; a sanitation worker who cleaned up the city’s mess. Then, one more appeared (others came later). He was a man who had decided he would like to see all the walking cities destroyed. Through him I saw what was happening, that this story was forming and now, after about 10 months of fairly solid writing I am wrapping up the last few chapters.

The difference for me was striking. When I had attempted to write my two previous novels I had sat down with an outline. I tried to tell the characters what they were going to do, to control every facet of their world. I found myself making hollow and cliché obstacle for them to overcome. All characters were the same, they were lost individuals who would ultimately find some sort of enlightenment and thus be model pictures what humanity could be. Most of all though, they were boring.

The characters in my current novel are vastly different. More importantly they themselves have taught me more about writing then any workshop, college creative writing class, or book on writing. I think if you let your characters breathe, live, experience, feel then they will teach you their story.

There is something else I have gained from this experience too. Sure, I am not some pro-writer making big bucks turning out novels (we can all dream right?), and yes I do want people to read my work. But I have learned so much about myself in the process of letting characters do their thing that even if no one reads a word of my work, I have a sense of satisfaction of both personal growth and a sense that I have spent time among some intimate friends for a while swapping stories.

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