The Eyes of a Writer

Where is the Story?

Every work of fiction was built on the foundation of something real. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was a partial response to what he witnessed as a soldier in the Great War. Severus Snape from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series was based upon an old chemistry teacher. Two Years Before the Mast, a nautical tale by Richard Henry Dana Jr., was  inspired by his time as a sailor. In some ways, we as writers have no choice but to draw from our own experiences or relationships — they’re all we really know. It’s not a realization to battle against, but rather one to make use of.

It’s an industry joke that the first story anyone writes features him or herself as the main character. This is because the profile for that character is the most easily accessible. Eventually, we all move on to other characters, drawing bits and pieces from people we know, whether we realize it or not. Character traits, quirks, physical features — all readily available in those we know or meet. It’s a skill to know how to process those character pieces, collecting them and sewing them together to create the Frankenstein within your story. Most writers do this instinctually, but as with everything, practice outweighs talent.

How then, do you practice identity excision? People watching is a great method. Take a notebook to the park, find a bench, and look for anything that catches your eye. The old man with a limp. The dog wandering through the field. The blind girl tapping her cane along the gravel path. Then, fill in a character around each of those traits. Give them a backstory, then use that backstory to extrapolate a personality. Did the blind girl lose her sight in a car accident? Is she bitter? Jealous? At peace? It’s important to draw the line between the fiction and reality. You’re imagining characters, not making assumptions about the people you create those characters from.

Do this at a couple of places. The airport, the mall, a baseball field. Try combining traits. The lanky teenager with a older brother complex also has a talent for musical theory. Remember, people are not one dimensional, so neither should your characters be. You’ll find yourself filling in the gaps in your character without thinking, but try to get in front of that process. Why do you want to give a rebellious attitude to the girl with the ACDC jacket? How are those things connected?

Causality is key. If you can dissect your characters to find backstory behind their traits, you have a real identity. Every aspect of a personality is the product of a cause. The lanky teen with an older brother complex is only so because his parents are rarely home and he grew up taking care of his younger sister. The blind girl is bitter because she blames herself for the accident that took her sight. Cause and effect — you can’t have one without the other.

Of course, characters are not the only aspects of a story we take from reality. Though only in non-fiction does life try to be perfectly reflected in literature, aspects of plot — relationships, revelations, theme, setting — are often retold within the realm of fiction. In fact, I argue that this retelling is a fundamental aspect of writing as a craft; through stories like those of Joseph Conrad or George Eliot we’re able to study a refined glimpse of how those authors interpreted human nature.

In these cases too, it takes practice to dissect and reassemble life into plot or setting. Fantasy writing is a good example of this process. Fantasy worlds are defined by their dissimilarity to reality, and yet the individual aspects of these works directly reflect practices, societies, and settings throughout history. The caste system of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series is based off feudal manorialism common in the middle ages, the concept of the Undying Lands in The Lord of the Rings is analogous to the promised land of Canaan spoken of in Jewish histories, and many of the battle tactics referenced in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series are reflective of tactics used by actual medieval cavalry. In many ways, it takes a firm understanding of our world to create another.

What of the actual narrative? The plot arcs of many stories parallels aspects of the real world — things like philosophy, psychology, or even theology. Have you ever felt as though you had something dark within you? That’s the premise of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Have you ever indulged in sensual vice? The Picture of Dorian Gray. Desired something dangerous? Faust. Fiction is a reflection of reality, and the closer you examine the world around you, the more exquisite your stories will become.

So take some time to break apart the things you see or learn, and then try to imagine them within a fictional setting. What would school look like if people could download information like a computer? How would government and politics change if artificial intelligence ran the White House? Could style and fashion survive a generation of people that never needed to leave the house? Keep observing, keep imagining, and keep writing.

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