In my Introduction to Fiction Writing class, I tell undergraduates that if they learn nothing else in our time together, I’d like them to absorb the idea that creative writing is about making choices. That means selecting everything from plot to characters to setting to POV to theme.
It doesn’t mean picking and choosing at random, although—as writer Lillian Li pointed out in a craft article for Glimmer Train—small choices like a character’s name or eye color might be arbitrary. Bigger decisions, affecting a character’s identity or culture, must be thought out.
This is especially important when a writer doesn’t have the same cultural experiences as the characters they write about—a more and more frequent occurrence. Most of us consider “write what (or who) you know” pretty limiting advice, and we want to include a broad cast in our writing. We want to be free to express our creativity.
Examining your intent doesn’t curb your creative powers, though; it can deepen them. Try asking yourself probing questions such as: As a white writer, why did I include this Black character in my story? What purpose does this gay character serve in a plot that centers on a straight couple? As an able-bodied person, can I tell the story of someone with a disability with depth, not pity?
When writers forget to examine the “why” behind these decisions—their intentions—mistakes often follow and the writing rings false. Now, “mistake” is an unforgiving term: “an action that is wrong,” according to one definition. Like most writers, I can get hung up on being “wrong.” If I give that enough space, it hovers over my writing desk and makes me feel like a failure.
In contrast, my wife recently pointed out that “error” comes from the Latin for “to wander,” and the idea intrigued me. When I think about wandering, I see myself getting lost and fumbling, maybe finding my way for a while but probably getting lost again. Next time, I’ll consult Google Maps or stop and ask for directions. The process sounds less final, less condemning.
To bring this metaphor home: If we as writers spent more time examining our intentions upfront, that could lead us to taking better paths, making conscious choices that humanize and flesh out all our characters, not just the ones who most resemble us. Our writing will still contain errors, that’s a given; but what we learn along the way may lead to stronger, more complex work.
STUDY CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT WITH PAULA: Paula Martinac leads the four-week studio “Creating Characters That Reflect Our World” — a mostly-asynchronous, at-your-own-pace experience in writing fiction or nonfiction that includes characters different from you in race, gender, sexuality, or other ways. Begins Sunday, October 18. More info
ABOUT PAULA: Paula Martinac has published five novels and a book of short stories. In 2019, she received a Literary Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council and a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts and Science Council. She teaches fiction writing at UNC Charlotte.