Writing Tip #40

You don’t have to know everything. I often hear from writers that they have to know everything there is to know about their book — why their characters look the way they do and do what they do, their backstories, family ancestries and more, in order to be a successful author. Whether they know all these things before they write a single word, or whether they’re like me and like to learn about and develop their characters as they go along, by the end of their book there is no question they can’t answer.

Not me.

Although I feel firmly in control while I write, I never feel like I know everything, or if I’d want to know everything. In fact, one of my favorite things is when I’m asked a question about my book and I don’t have a ready answer. I love when the question has me thinking, Hmmm… why DID he do that? — not because I don’t know my characters well (all authors should, of course), but because perhaps I’d never thought about that aspect of his or her behavior or personality before, and it’s like discovering a new facet of an old family story you’ve heard time and time again. I believe that, in the end, these kinds of questions help us to know our characters even better.

I just finished reading Darin Strauss’ Half a Life, a memoir that leads off with the author accidentally killing a classmate with his car when her bicycle swerved into his lane and then details how his life is understandably changed forever. At the beginning of On Writing, Stephen King writes that his recollection of his childhood is like “a fogged-out landscape from which occasional memories appear like isolated trees.” That’s the feeling I got with Half a Life, but these “trees” were more like snapshots filling a very personal photo album, dedicated to a very specific incident in Strauss’ life, and as I flipped through them he was sitting here next to me, explaining why the photo looked the way it did and who was in it and why.  But the cool part was Strauss didn’t always know why he did the things he did, and throughout the book, he tried to make sense of his actions at the scene of the accident and the days and weeks that followed, and of the meaning of it all — if, in fact, there is any. Strauss continually asked questions, delving deeper and deeper into himself to try and uncover a truth.

Even if Strauss’ journey ends in an epiphany at the end of Half a Life, for me the page-by-page exploration of “why?” and “why me?” and “what now?” was where the heart of the memoir lay. That digging. That trying to understand. As Strauss shows, there are things that we, ourselves, do that surprise us and stymie us, that we try to make sense of. Our characters, who are really just extensions of ourselves, are no different, if they have been drawn human enough.

So can we ever know everything? I don’t think so. Nor why we would want to.


9 thoughts on “Writing Tip #40

  1. You, my dear, have topped yourself with this post–at least, in my estimation…

    I’ve done a series of posts on my blog that became what’s called “pillar content”–information that helps form the “spine” of a space…

    I explored words as metaphysical entities and plot as the interaction of unconscious psychological energy patterns…

    I’m preparing to write a “companion volume” to my recently published book and I’ve found marvelous depth in the dimensions of the Universe of the first book that I can dive into, explore, and create on the pages of the second book…

    I still need to write a blog post about that “space” in a book’s universe that the author and reader could profitably plumb…..

  2. When I write, I feel like I have to plan out the plot and all of my characters’ personalities and motivations before I actually start writing the story. After I do all this, I get bored with my characters and the situations that they’re in. Maybe I should try your way and write as I go. Thanks for the tip! :)


    • The same thing used to happen to me, Allison. I also found that when I tried to create all these backstories before I wrote even a single word that some of the character decisions I made were so arbitrary. But when I craft my characters as I write, those decisions feel more natural, less like “decisions” at all. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Funny you should be writing about how back stories sometimes hold up the flow of a book. The same thing happened to me last week — but in creating a book cover design, not writing the book. The manuscript was not finished (I usually read the entire ms before creating a cover) so I winged it the best I could. Well, waddya know–the cover turned out quite provocative, which has gotten excellent feedback. But if I’d read the entire book first I would have toned it down, not selected such a gory typeface and color scheme. And the impact would have been subdued. Dark tunnels are fun without the headlights on.

  4. Great tip Dina. I allow characters to evolve as I write. I love the power fiction offers in creating a character to be who you want them to be. I wish I had the power to change my non-fiction characters:)

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