When people talk about writers, or writing, the phrase or idea of “having a novel inside” often comes up. The talk carries overtones of compulsion, like the onset of contractions. Writing must come out, it seems . . . the writer has no choice but to deliver the opus. A work is pre-formed, revealed through the chipping off of extraneous bits of detail, dialogue, description. Michelangelo said his statues already existed in the marble and he just removed what hid them. Not every novel is a work of art, however. Do novels even really come about this way? Maybe for some people, but I doubt for most. I’m not sure how it could be anything but a process for most people. Do I have a novel in me? I doubt it. My question for those who say they do is this: how did it get there? Of course they’re not born with it, a novel encoded in their DNA by the mix-and-match blending of genes from parents. If there is a novel in someone, living is what put it there. Heredity may give the skills, the receptivity to a brewing fiction, but experience provides all the ingredients.
I’m practicing my writing. I’m practicing my discipline. I’m practicing my skill. I’m practicing my wordcraft. Discipline, skill, craft.
One of my weakest points is discipline. Since I was a teenager (or even before) I’ve had fits of writing, periods when I’ve felt the need to keep a diary or write a story, a thought, a fragment. Always, in time, the impulse passes. What is left over from these writing phases has value, but little structure. I have no real stories, no real characters that are left behind me. I want to write something with a plot, a point; subtle allusions and wordplay, hidden meaning and purposeful structure, driving the reader to emotions and conclusions. All this takes work. Work to develop the habit of writing, to build people on paper and a world for them to live in. It takes practice and dedication. It takes a commitment to doing it, regularly. If you can’t write well, write often and filter mercilessly. Discipline in application of oneself to writing must produce a benefit in skill.
Skill does depend on talent, but in itself is the development of that talent by application; the transition from rawness to sophistication through self-construction; experience. There is, however, the question: “How will I know I’m advancing?” I suppose there is no way to know but in the comparing of old to new. It seems to me that I will know, or at least I will find myself growing more and more pleased, more and more satisfied with what I write. Of course I want other people to judge too. My writing is about doing what I want, for myself, but it is also for other people to read. I crave analysis, commentary, but maybe attention and praise most over all. It is important for me to expose people to what I write. That way they can help me see its flaws and virtues, whether I agree with what they say or not. I want to write things people will care about, and that I will care about. I want to make people feel and think. Dialectic will help me construct the characters and life that do that.
What is the process of construction? I’m not sure that I really know, or that it can be plotted out in some schematic form. I guess that characters can only really be built by giving them events to react to or participate in. At first it must be mostly guesswork, depending on how much background has been created for the character. Then there is the question of how much of that background to create from scratch. Barebones, complicated backstory or nothing at all?
The barebones approach, I suppose, would be to set age, gender, place, time. This would depend more or less on taste, or on whether or not you have some specific goal in mind that requires some set of details. The idea though is to keep character detail skeletal, and allow sinew and flesh to accrue piece-by-piece. The character grows through decisions of the author which at first might be close to arbitrary, but should, as the character develops, be based more and more on precedent. The more filled out a character is, the easier it is to decide how to build on that foundation, and what a character will do or say in any given circumstance.
A character with a pre-determined backstory comes ready-made. To decide what this person will think, say, or do one need only consult the backstory. A simple backstory could be a great resource. It could give focus and direction to a character, and maybe a whole story if that story revolves around the character. Creating an overly-detailed backstory on the other hand would be burdensome, both in the process of creating that backstory before any real writing has occurred, and by the fact that one might feel pressured to regurgitate it all in an over-long explanatory passage. I have a feeling that a detailed backstory will feel more natural, more right if it is developed gradually within a narrative rather than dropped in from outside.
The "nothing at all" approach would simply be the barebones method taken to the extreme. One starts with only the fact of a person; a minimal being. This person has no age, gender, location, life story, no detail of any kind, only his or her humanity. The personality of the character comes out as the character speaks, as the author makes decisions. The details of the character’s fictional life are built up in the stream of the story. Decisions pile upon decisions and the character goes from being a stripped down one-dimensional identity to three-dimensional paper person. The summation of this style would be that no decisions are made about the character beforehand. All decisions are made on paper.
If these are the ways to construct characters, how does one construct a world? Most fiction writers borrow heavily from reality, and just change minor details, or perhaps add details: the details of their characters’ lives. Although fiction-worlds can vary wildly from reality as we know it (e.g.: Most science fiction), all fiction shares the infrastructure of the "laws" of interpersonal relation and interaction, societal functions, dynamics. Even if an author tries to reinvent or distort these things, he must still rely on what is. He cannot start from scratch.
What can an author do then? I think worlds are built in basically the same way as characters. What has already been said about characters applies to worlds. In fact, one might even say that a world is a character, always in the background but unavoidably flavouring and directing events. Worlds have personalities. They are corporate beings that speak with millions of voices and events at once. As much as a story is about its characters, it is about the world of those characters.
I’ve got a lot of words ahead of me . . .