In the last post, I talked a little about how characters come into existence, walking the line between an instinctive process and an intentional one.
Working this way can create some issues. The first is that sometimes when I talk about my process, this part of it ends up getting presented as a lot more… deliberate than it really is. I spend a lot of time trying to help new writers, and I worry that in presenting all of these outlines, exercises, and techniques, we miss emphasizing just how little we really understand about the process.
In some ways, writing a story is like hitting a baseball. You can talk all you want about the physics involved in how a baseball is pitched, then hit with the bat. But the truth is, neither pitcher nor batter are thinking about any of this in the moment.
This makes the process feel overwhelming to some new writers, who think they need to have all of this in hand before they can write a story. Truth is, I’m generally explaining things I did by instinct early in my career, then figured out ways to talk about as I proceeded to study what I’d already done.
You don’t need to feel some mystical connection to characters to start writing—and if you focus too much on the idea that your characters should “feel” right and “do what they want,” you can end up frustrated, as you don’t have the practice writing yet to get them to do what needs to be done to actually create an interesting story.
Another problem with the voices in my head is the worry that I’ll repeat myself. Working by instinct, as so many authors (including outliners like me) do, can lead to repetition. Something can “feel” right because you’ve seen that thing done so many times, you think it is the “right” way—even when it makes for a worse story.
This sort of writing, even when you’re doing something interesting and new to you, can get repetitive as you only write in one way or style. In fact, I see a lot of writers talking about the “right” way to do something, as if it’s a hard and fast rule—but it’s not really that, it’s simply the way they’ve trained their instincts to respond. Something that goes against this feels off to them, but only because of a kind of tunnel vision.
You can also start to regurgitate stereotypes and other weak or harmful tropes because they’re part of your historical experience with genre—and you take them for granted. I did this in the original Mistborn novels, where I spent a lot of time working on Vin as a character, wanting an interesting and dynamic female lead for the stories. But then I wrote the rest of the team as men—not because I consciously decided it, but because stories like Ocean’s Eleven, The Sting, and Sneakers (which were part of my inspiration) contained primarily male casts.
It isn’t that you can’t make a story that does this, or couldn’t have reasons for writing a primarily male cast in a story. But I didn’t have any of those reasons in mind; I did it because I was mimicking, without conscious thought, things I’d seen before. It felt “right” to me, but during examination later, I felt the story would have been stronger if I hadn’t just run with the default that way.
Overall, I think that repeating myself is my biggest worry as a writer. Specifically, I worry that I’ll end up writing the same characters over and over, or look at themes the same way time and time again, without even realizing that I’m doing it. That’s one of the reasons I force myself to approach stories like the Legion ones—where I have to get out of my comfort zone, write in a different kind of setting with different kinds of storytelling expectations, and see where that takes me.
And so, the third part of this series will look at the Legion stories specifically, and where the voices in my head came from in that regard.