“I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get the food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tales that rang true. I quite believe it was my tramp-apprenticeship that made a realist out of me. Realism constitutes the only goods one can exchange at the kitchen door for grub.” Jack London
(This reminded me of my post “Do You Have What It Takes To Be A Good Liar?“)
There’s always worthwhile reading over at K.M. Weiland’s writing blog, but her latest post is a real find. In it, she argues that the key to creating and describing believable characters is to understand what makes real people tick. And the first step in understanding others is to understand oneself.
That path begins by coming to grips with what Weiland calls recognizing and examining the “four corners” of one’s personality, the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual components that define us. I agree that the physical should come first. Writing can be a cerebral activity, but language, the medium of writing, is grounded in the body. In fact, the science of Embodied Cognition tells us that all language is metaphor, and the building blocks of metaphor are physical sensations. Magnetic resonance imaging scanners reveal that when we read about a physical action, we activate the same areas of our brains as when we actually perform those actions.
Awareness and sensitivity enable us to detect vital details, and physical activity, especially activity spiced with a little danger, sharpens our powers of perception.
Weiland also outlines a lifelong path of study that includes literature, drama, history, and philosophy as a program for enhancing our understanding of human motivation. But she also argues that the very act of writing offers the best means of learning about ourselves, which in turn opens us to better comprehending others. Yes — writing and learning create a continuous feedback loop. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
In other words, are you a good writer? *
Now, don’t feel insulted. Fact is, both accomplished writers and liars have the ability to recognize and accommodate other people’s point of view. If you aren’t sensitive to how others perceive your message, you can’t tell a believable story.
The above video illustrates how to determine a person’s lying ability in just a few seconds. (Hint: Have someone you trust watch the video and give YOU the test.)
And of course, there are the finer points of storytelling and lying to consider as well, such as knowing how to stimulate your audience’s imagination with just the right details that give your tale the appearance of reality. Achieving verisimilitude, like any other skill, takes practice.
There’s also a psychological element at work here. Both liars and writers enjoy being the center of attention. (Although you could argue that writers, who are introverts wrestling with extroverted cravings, really want an admiring audience kept at a safe distance.)
After all, the ability to lie is at the heart of what we do. Writers strive to craft an attractive and entertaining untruth. Isn’t that the definition of fiction? As Stephen King put it, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” The goal of fiction is to lure and enchant your audience so you can impart the larger meanings and deeper truths that originally inspired you to take up the challenge.
* Full disclosure: My wife gave me this test. Yeah, I passed.
“As a fiction writer, the act had an immediate, recognizable weight to it; the imagined reality Jay had created in the act felt like the embodiment of good fiction writing. I began to consider the connections between the two crafts of magic and fiction writing, wondering what might be gleaned about the process of creating living fictions. The suspension of disbelief required by both reader and audience member. The inherent tension between believability and deception. The materialization of something where there once was nothing.” – Gabriel Urza
At her Helping Writers Become Authors blog, K.M. Weiland has shared some marvelous insights for both writers and readers. It’s her latest in a series of posts analyzing the success of Marvel comics and movies, and as a long-time fan of both, I must agree with all of her major points. (Hint: The secret is not the special effects, not the marketing, not the acting, though those elements are outstanding. It’s the writing.)
Bottom line: You’re cheating yourself if you don’t read Weiland’s post. It’s well worth your time as a reader and writer.
I was especially impressed by her second point, that the most engaging, emotionally satisfying stories arise not from pandering to the audience, but from remaining true to one’s vision as author. As Weiland puts it:
Sometimes you’ll hear fans talking about getting the story “we deserve.” To this, I say phooey. The only thing audiences deserve is a good story well-told. They don’t deserve to have all their personal theories or wishes validated.
While there’s no formula for crafting a good story, there is a fundamental principle you can’t ignore, and that comes down to the author being in control of a story they find compelling. In Weiland’s words, the author “must be the story’s single greatest fan.” Yes! Write stories you want to read. And the strange thing is that the most personal works achieve the greatest public appeal.
Of course, there are those other little details in learning and perfecting the craft, such as reading a lot and writing a lot. But without the author’s emotional investment, a work lacks life, lacks purpose. Our job is to make the story real.
I’m guest-blogging today at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo web site. Check it out!
The best fiction and writing blog posts from around the ‘net, all guaranteed to make you a beloved literary legend. Compiled by Mark.
G. Edward Smith – Busting Myths About Writing & Writers
Jim Harrington – What Do Editors Want?
M. L. Davis – Writer Worries and How to Beat Them
Jack Cunningham – Too Many Characters?
Ash Reed – The importance of writing short stories
K. L. Wagoner – Writing Character Emotions Just Got Easier
Mickey Mason – How to Read Like a Writer
Mark Twain – 12 Timeless Writing Tips