When it comes to writing, what are we really writing about? Is it really the thousand foot tall, sanity shredding monstrosity or haunted island? These may be entertaining and while I’d probably pick up a book advertised as being about a thousand foot tall, sanity shredding monster that lives on a haunted island, I think that the reason I would keep the book from plugging back into its niche in the bookshelf will be different from the obvious fun I’d garner from the book’s premise. So let’s say this fictional book existed. In it, a group of people get stranded or otherwise find themselves on this island. Let’s give them some names. John, Phoebe, Pete, and Nancy. As soon as they land on the island, John gets possessed by a ghost. Soon after, the monster makes his big appearance, frightening poor Nancy till she is reduced to a gibbering, near catatonic state. From here, the ghosts trick Peter into falling down a pit and poor Phoebe gets eaten. Wow, that was fast and like a fast food meal, I don’t feel particularly satisfied. Why? I thought the idea of a monster on a haunted island would be cool. Well, the idea is cool but the execution leaves a big chunk of unfulfilled expectation.
What if we knew that John and Nancy knew each other from childhood and had a lot of history together? And now what if Pete was an alcoholic with a mean-streak who was trying to get himself straight? And how about giving Phoebe a fear of commitment. Imagine all the fun we could have exploring these people and the way they interact. How did they all meet? How do their personalities help or hinder their situation on the island? In the end, maybe it’s not the monster or the ghosts that prove to be the biggest threat. Maybe the people are worse than any of the island’s dangers. The point is, when reading a story, all the action and violence is not going to compensate for lackluster characters who go nowhere and just serve as ciphers for us to live their vicarious adventures. I’m not saying escapist fantasy is useless here. I personally enjoy a crazy action romp or a schlocky gore fest. But I’m not going to think back on it and catch a fleeting ghost of the emotion it sparked in me. What I’m saying here is that for a striking story that is going to leave readers drained, exultant, horrified, or truly appalled, we need people.
Human beings, human experience, therefore, is what we write about when we write about anything. I can’t stress enough this point because it is at the heart of what we write and why we write. Seriously, why bother writing anything? Does the world need our words or our thoughts? Is it going to feed the poor and clothe the naked? Probably not, unless you’re writing a pamphlet for UNICEF. So why are we writing? In my opinion, we write because, strangely, we do not fully comprehend ourselves. It is truly staggering to think about how complicated we are. Each human being is an entire universe. Emotions, desires known and suppressed, thoughts, a history. All of these things interact to create something the world has never seen before and will never see again. Yet, at some level, we’re very similar. So how best to examine the big question, the question that asks who are we? We could turn to psychology and religion, even science but those offer systems of thoughts. When we write, we examine this Human Question with our hypothetical person whom we will subject to trauma, success, and disappointment. The world of the story becomes an equation and the characters the variables we’re solving for. The answer we’re looking for? Who are we? What are we? What is our nature? In the end, the writer is interested in human nature and the situations that reveal it. This is why a good story will try to reveal something about what it is to be human, what it is to be torn between two different extremes or crushed between opposing obligations.
If this is the case, then the writer can be said to be a student of humanity at heart and when we write, we are trying to convey to others our views of what we are. Does anyone care? Considering how we are still consuming books (or at least texts now that the Kindle and other e-readers are here though that will be the discussion for another post) I’d say a lot of people. Don’t forget that as a unique individual with a set of experiences no one but yourself may have had, you may see a nuance that others have missed.
The trick with writing comes down to knowing how to not break surface tension. We want a story about monsters, aliens, love, and meat-eating robots but we want to see how a person will react to these things. We want the story of how one person becomes another, changed person from these experiences. Maybe it reveals that the real monsters are in us, or that a love of jazz or some seemingly trivial thing can unify radically different species or peoples (or be the cause of intergalactic conflict), or any number of things. In other words, you don’t want the engine of your car in the passenger seat. You want to get somewhere. And when you start the car, you know the engine is going. As you drive, it is thrumming in the background and after a while, you forget about it altogether though on some subliminal level, you know it’s there, powering you along. But you are more interested in the scenery passing around you. Imagine if the engine were beside you, blaring in your ears! This is like writing. The plot and the exciting incidences are catching your eye, but the motor of the story is the character or characters. They push the story ahead, the pistons of their desires and motivations just on the outside of your awareness though you know there’s something going on. When writing a story, we want to create such an effect. And if you’re successful, it will be a story that transports the reader to someplace they may never have expected.