f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Who Are You Writing For?

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Who Are You Writing For?

During my first upper-level writing seminar at Penn State I remember my professor asking us to spend a moment and write down who we were writing for. The question confounded me a bit because at the time I wrote as much for my own amusement as for any specific audience but it seemed entirely too self-absorbed to admit so I answered that I wrote for a good friend at a different college. (This friend once won the award for Best Backhanded Compliment by saying: "You're way funnier in writing than in person" after reading something I'd written.)

Going back to the self-absorption theme for a moment, I can't remember what other people wrote for their audience. Most probably said friends. A few might have said "humanity" or "the universal soul" since we were overly serious, writerly college undergrads. My professor read our answers aloud anonymously and didn't seem real pleased with anything we'd turned in.

Settling himself on his desk and adjusting his glasses, he looked out over us and said: "You should be writing for your characters."

We in turn looked back and, as one, gave a collective: "Huh?"

It's a truly memorable moment. I was expecting great insight and instead I was left with something that, on the surface, seemed to make no sense whatsoever. Mostly because I was looking at it from the wrong perspective.

Who do you write for? Asked that question and all I saw was the finished product. The book or the story or the pithy email that made my friend at Bucknell laugh. Professor Downs, however, was talking about the actual writing.

How do you TELL the story in a novel? How do you get from page 1 to page 350? For whom do you make the choice to kill off Ivan or send Harriet into Clive's bed? (I'm just picking names out of the air here, play along.) And the answer is that those choices shouldn't be influenced by what we think readers will like or what will play with the LOLs in Peoria but what makes sense for the sake of our characters.

One of the most common criticisms you see is: "That didn't feel true to that character." Or, "That decision felt false or contrived." Those are moments where the author may not be writing with her character's sake but for the sake of the story.

Which brings us to a strange question? Who's story is it in the end? Is it ours or theirs? I think you'll find that (and this is dependent on POV) for the most part, the great stories are owned by their characters. The marionette strings aren't visible. No hand up the Muppet's arse. But it's not necessarily easy turning our story over to them. We have places we want to go. Scenes we want to write. Sometimes we have the whole confambulation in outline form before we even write the first sentence. And sometimes that works. For lots of writers it does. But if it doesn't, if people are complaining that our stories are contrived, our plots predictable, then perhaps we need to just let our characters loose a little more and see what comes of it.

One lesson learned. And it only took a decade.