Writing the Character-Driven Story: Chapter 2, Part 1

In today’s Journal

* Quote of the Day
* Writing the Character-Driven Story: Chapter 2
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Quote of the Day

“Be honest about the words and actions of your characters, and they will not lead your story astray.” Stephen King

Chapter 2, Part 1: Determining Your Role in the Story

This is a difficult concept for many writers to grasp.

Why? because of the myths of fiction writing that have been drummed into us during our entire life.

The big myth here is that writing fiction is some sort of high calling. It isn’t.

I’ll tell you up front, as a writer, I don’t answer to some mysterious, ethereal Calling. I’m the other kind of writer.

As Stephen King famously wrote, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

I’m part of the rest of us.

If you grasp this concept, it will start you along the path to Freedom as a writer and more fun than you’ve ever had at a keyboard.

And you CAN grasp this concept. You are the writer. You are the boss of you.

You may choose between two roles as you write fiction. You can be either

  • The Almighty Writer on High, or
  • The person who writes the story your characters are living.

Most long-term, prolific fiction writers are in the second category, although they might call it something else.

  • I call myself the Recorder of my characters’ stories.
  • Stephen King calls himself his characters’ Stenographer.
  • Mark Twain referred to himself as an Amaneunsis, defined as “a literary assistant, in particular one who takes dictation.”

Even the great Ray Bradbury, when asked how he wrote Dandelion Wine, said he wrote it the same way he wrote everything else. He got up in the morning and poured a cup of coffee. Then he sat down, put his fingers on the keyboard, and wrote whatever came.

But what do any of us know about writing fiction?

Let me explain both roles. Then you may choose.

The Almighty Writer on High

Hear the angelic chorus?

The Almighty Writer on High (aka “Author”) has a Calling to write. He figuratively ascends into an impregnable ivory tower. He wears flowing white robes, takes his metaphorical “pen” in hand, and peers down on the lowly characters assembling in the trenches of the story far below.

He has an idea. It is a wonderful, glistening, earth-shaking idea, and despite the agonizing labor he knows awaits (everyone says so), he MUST answer his Calling and write it.

So with his metaphorical pen, his world-building notes and character sketches and plot points and 3×5 cards at his side, he carefully constructs an outline.

Completing the outline might take days or weeks or longer. (Decades ago, I took almost three YEARS to finish an outline. I never wrote the story.)

But when the Almighty Writer on High has finished the outline, he knows where and how the story will begin. He also knows every major event, turning point and twist in the story and when and where and to whom in the story they will occur. He even knows the ending.

He is the all-powerful One-God of the characters and their world.

Goodness. Having foolishly been in that ivory tower myself at one time, I’m bored just writing about this.

Let’s talk sense.

If a trusted friend tells you about an excellent new book in your favorite genre, you might want to buy it and read it, right?

But what if he tells you every major plot point, every conflict, the climax and then how the book ends? Still want to buy it?

Not me. I don’t even buy novels in which the cover blurb or sales copy gives away the plot. Or even part of the plot. If I already know what’s going to happen, why buy the book?

So why would I spoil the fun and exhilaration of writing fiction by outlining it to death first? Ever wonder why so many would-be writers consider writing drudgery?

A few side notes:

If you see your role as the Almighty Writer on High, probably you also make certain not to repeat the same sentence structure too many times in a row. You also probably make no allowances for, or are even aware of, the value of the intentional use of repetition. (Yes, the characters convey the story to you, but you put it on the page.)

You probably also count the number of times you use “that” and “which.” If you do not understand the difference between them, you might even consider alternating them as you progress through your manuscript. Um, no.

If you’ve listened to people who have no clue what they’re talking about (i.e., they haven’t published a LOT of novels and-or stories) you probably also check for the number of times you use “had” and the state-of-being verbs and the “ing words” (gerunds) because you’re laboring under the false assumption that those words create passive voice.

Of course, as you can tell from my tone, they do not.

I could go on. And on. And on.

But the point here is that as the Almighty Writer on High you control every aspect of the book. You are the General Manager of your characters’ universe, and they can say or do NOTHING without your approval.

That’s one way to do it, and if that’s what you want to do, go for it. As I wrote earlier, you are the boss of you.

But remember, what you can “figure out” in your outline, the reader can figure out too. And if you’re bored with your story as you’re writing it from an outline, the reader will be bored too.

No good creative writing EVER came from the conscious, critical mind. If you don’t surprise yourself, how can you ever hope to surprise the reader?

Okay, so how do you surprise yourself when you’re the writer?

After all, you have to know the story in order to write it, right?

The short answer is No. The long answer is also No.

In fact, if I already know a story, I refuse to write it. Writing a story I already know would be zero fun, and I write first and foremost to let my characters entertain me.

The Recorder (or Friend with a Keyboard)

When anyone asks me about my writing process, I tell them the truth.

  1. I run through the story with the characters as it unfolds in real time around us.
  2. As we run through the story, I write down what happens, what the characters say and do in reaction to that, and what happens next.

In other words, the characters tell the story they want to tell. After all, they know it much better than I do. They’re actually living it.

As Recorder or the Note Taker or Stenographer or the Friend with a Keyboard, you control nothing. You are only the conduit. You are only the fingers on the keyboard.

  • You don’t worry about where the characters or story are going or what will happen next.
  • You don’t worry about what your character will say next.
  • You don’t worry about who the character used to be and who he will grow into.
  • You don’t worry about 99% of the things writers’ groups and amateurs say you “must” do.

Just as with situations and people you encounter in “real” life, the situations and characters in the story reveal themselves as the story unfolds. Your creative subconscious (the characters themselves) will plug in the stuff in the bullet points above this paragraph at the appropriate time and in the appropriate location.

The Recorder doesn’t control anything.

As the Recorder, you resign your position as General Manager of the Universe, descend from the ivory tower, and discard the glistening robes for sneakers, jeans and a t-shirt. Or whatever.

Then you roll off the parapet of the trenches and run through the story WITH the characters. You have no clue as to what will happen next until it happens.

How could anything be more exhilarating and fun than that?

And you never again have to suffer the unbearable drudgery of constructing a story. You trust your characters and yourself and You Just Write.

Up next, Chapter 2, Part 2. I’ll talk with you again then.

Of Interest

A LivingWriter Guide to Writing Like Stephen King

The Las Vegas Uber Conspiracy

The Numbers

The Journal……………………………… 1390

Writing of Blackwell Ops 20: Soleada Garcia: Into the Future (tentative title)

Day 1…… 3681 words. To date…… 3681
Day 2…… 3044 words. To date…… 6725

Fiction for February……………………. 10411
Fiction for 2024…………………………. 128015
Fiction since October 1……………… 431072
Nonfiction for February……………… 6990
Nonfiction for 2024…………………… 38950
2024 consumable words…………… 166965

2024 Novels to Date……………………… 3
2024 Novellas to Date…………………… 0
2024 Short Stories to Date……………… 1
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………… 85
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)…………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)…… 239
Short story collections…………………… 31

Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark and adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. Unreasoning fear and the myths of writing will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.

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