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  • jrblackburnsmith

What Do You Mean 'He didn't want to'?

I once had a conversation with a gifted writer that I admire who was asking me how I plot a narrative arc for a novel. I replied that I didn't, instead I started from an image or a scene and a general concept and then let my characters do what they wanted. I gave an example from a book he had read about a character that I was going to have die from suicide, but I had to change my mind because the character in question didn't want to.


"What do you mean he didn't want to?" my reader asked. "You act like he's alive." I had never considered my approach quite that far removed from reality, but then I realized he was right. I did treat my characters as living beings, with minds and motivations of their own. I realized that my characters had to be that real to me in order to come off as real to the people who read my novels. I also understood that because I don't spend a lot of time building back stories for characters; I let them unfold as I move the plot forward. My friend had been convinced that I spent months outlining the plot, but that isn't the truth at all. I spend months searching for the narrative arc, following the lead of these characters I've created, and once I find it, I have to go back and do the work necessary to make that narrative arc feel seamless and integrated from beginning to end.


It's not the most efficient way to write. There are times I abandon a work because the characters and I can't get on the same page about what the hell we are doing. It also means that sometimes I need to set a piece down and work on something else, until I understand what the characters need to be authentic, breathing (unless already dead!) people.


The other thing I realized is how I react to other writers. I despise writers who don't care about their characters. I despise writers who inflict unlimited trauma and violence upon characters with no recognition of the trauma they may be inflicting on their readers. I'm not against stories with violence (just read Forgiveness or Retribution) but I believe I'm responsible, in some way, for the violence and trauma that I have wrought upon my characters. Trauma should never titillate. Unfortunately, in too many of our cultural mediums, trauma is only about titillation.

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