Friday, April 26, 2013

Don't Be In Love

One of the most basic tips on writing a story that you will always hear is, "Don't be in love with it." Don't fall in love with your characters, or you'll be overprotective. Don't write about a place or a culture you're in love with, or you won't be able to see the bad to it and portray it accurately.

A story is about things happening to people, and people reacting, coming to head with each other at times, and figuring out how to sort it out. It's about people unraveling life. That's what a story should be, and that's why stories are so helpful. That's why the Bible is a story: it's life, lived out by real, messy people with their times of glory and times of shame, showing how they got it right, how they messed up, and how all of that affected others or was affected by others--and how God and people interact throughout the story.

Telling stories gives you the lessons of life without isolating them from context. 

If you're going to write stories, you have to be okay with bad things happening and your characters doing things you don't like. You want your readers to love the protagonist because they're real, not because they're perfect. The perfect just doesn't amuse as much; and it doesn't engage us as deeply.

You want a messy, human protagonist. When your protagonist falls, the audience wants him to find grace. It helps us in turn to accept, experience, and offer grace in our own lives.

If you want to write a book, pick something you have mixed feelings about. That's the best place to start. Skilled authors have written about times or people they've loved or hated without turning it into an opinion piece; but when you're learning to be a skilled author in the first place, start somewhere easy.

For my first full-length novel, I chose the 1950s. I don't know much about the 1950s. If I could go somewhere in time, like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris I would choose the 1920s. Or a totally different world. But my first creative writing teacher told me to write about the real world, because it's harder than writing sci-fi/fantasy and because it will make you a better writer. Start with the real world: notice things, have to think about the details. Then when you start creating worlds of your own, no detail will slip by unnoticed: the world will have the same feel and flow as if it were real.

So I'm writing about reality. In the 1950s, because, hey, why not? It's given me a chance to do a lot of research about the era and find out how interesting it was. I'm still not in love with it, though. There were good things and bad things. Gender roles were pretty rocky and confusing; I'd be okay living in pre-feminist era, but the 1950s is the decade that paved the way for modern feminists to arise because of the confusing mix of more jobs taken by women and yet women having jobs still strongly looked down upon.  The culture is intriguing but has no particular hook for me. I can talk animatedly about some parts and sourly about others and, I think, consequently represent it as it was, with goods and bads mixed together.

Don't write about the perfect person you want to be, or want to be with. The writer's job is to not be too in love with his characters to give them flaws and problems, so that readers can love them and see ourselves in the story.

Ngaio Marsh said she was never in love with her character, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, but, she says, Dorothy L. Sayers was definitely in love with Lord Peter Wimsey, and you can tell. You can see in the writing the author's hand reaching out invisibly to protect him from too much of any pain or too much of any flaw. He's just believable enough; perhaps she fell in love with him after she had already begun to create him.

Don't be in love. Write about what you hate, if you have to, but don't be in love.

And having said that, I'm going to go work on my book and write about my characters who I am slowly falling in love with. I keep trying to persuade myself not to, and I already have bad things planned in store for them, but the feeling that they are old beloved friends is creeping up on me. Maybe I can finish the book before it pounces.


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Post-Script

I wrote this note and then was searching for a title. I rolled a few around in my head and finally settled on, "Don't Be In Love With Your Creations." And then it hit me. Wow. That's what God did. He is totally in love with his creations, since before he even created us all. While we were still just thoughts in his head! And look what it cost him. His son, dying a very painful death. That's the thing, when you're in love with your creations: you'd do anything to save them from troubles and make their lives perfect and okay. But a story is a story, and that means you're going to have to make a sacrifice somewhere. Stories always have an antagonist, bent on doing evil, and for it to be a story, someone has to suffer at his hands. That's how it works. So our author wrote himself into the story as a character so that he could be the one to make that sacrifice. Because he loved his creations so much.

So maybe it's a divine-image thing that causes us to fall in love with what we create. We do it because we were made by, and alike to, a God who does. Parents love the children they create. And as they raise their children, they love them more, not less. The more effort and toil you put into making something or making something beautiful, the more you treasure it. And maybe that's how it's supposed to be.