What happens if you’re a plain old ordinary person trying to write a novel with characters who are anything but plain, old, or ordinary? Can you write great fiction if your own life is boring?
Tammy posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Just a quick question and one that’s been bugging me a lot since I finally decided to stop dreaming and start writing.
What if you think your life is boring?
I understand it’s a necessity to draw on experiences you’ve had in your own life to enrich your novel, but I honestly think my life has been dull, run-of-the-mill everyday toast with butter boring. I have a vivid imagination and I’ve been relying on that to get me where I want to go with my writing but I’m starting to find that characterisation is the bane of my existence. Is it because I’m a ‘never bungee jumping’, ‘won’t smoke or drink’, ‘can’t bear the thought of short-changing someone’, kind of plain Jane?
I’ve tried some psychology books about different habits in different personalities but I still can’t turn my character from a stick figure into a fleshy Mona Lisa!
How do you take mundane and make it something magnificent?
Randy sez: Join the club, Tammy. I know a lot of writers. The vast majority of them live tofu lives and still manage to write hot curry fiction.
I know a sweet and gracious Southern lady who regular murders people in her novels. I know a guy who preaches in his church every Sunday and writes novels with alcoholics and pimps and . . . lawyers. I know a mild-mannered mom who writes werewolf erotica.
Your characters are not you and they don’t have to be like you. They can do all the bizarro things you’d never do. That’s probably why most writers write — so they can vicariously do all those things that they’d never do.
Tammy, I’ve never bungee-jumped either. I don’t smoke or drink. And I do my best not to short-change people. Are you telling me I’m . . . boring? Not possible. I’m a geek, and geeks are the new cool.
I haven’t seen your writing and I’ve never met you, but my bet is that the problem isn’t with you. If you’re like most writers, the problem is with your writing.
Which is good news, because you can make improvements to your writing a lot easier than you can make changes in yourself.
In fact, the real problem appears to be pretty simple: Your characters are underdeveloped. There’s a cure for that, and it comes in three parts:
- Read up. There are plenty of good books on characters. I recommend Brandilyn Collins’ book GETTING INTO CHARACTER. Also, Margie Lawson’s course on EMPOWERING CHARACTER EMOTIONS. And while I’m passing out recommendations, chapters 7 and 12 of my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES are pretty decent too.
- Write on. There is no substitute for getting words on paper. Every day. You get good at brain surgery by doing brain surgery. You get good at writing by writing.
- Get critiqued. Every writer is her own worst critic, so you have no business critiquing your own work. You need a second opinion — preferably from somebody who is one part nice, two parts honest, and three parts well-trained in the art of fiction. A professional novelist can see problems that you’d never find on your own, if you’re willing to listen and not argue.
So Tammy, don’t worry about being a Plain Old Ordinary Person. You’ll probably live longer not smoking or drinking or jumping off bridges or whatever it is you think would make you more exciting. If you want to write about something you’ve never done before, the information on what it’s like is only a Google away, and you can probably interview online twenty people who’ve done exactly the thing your character wants to do.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.