The Best Pieces of Writing Advice I've Heard - Part II

#6. Start with Character, Not with Traits

Every now and then there is a piece of writing advice I’ve found that applies universally to everyday life as it does to writing. This is one of those.

What it means to start with character, not with traits, is exactly how it sounds. And it is especially true when talking about the relevant issue of representation in art and media.

When coming up with a character, your first thought should never be “This character’s role in the story is to be the girl in the group,” or “This character’s role is to be trans,” or “This character is the one with a haunted past,” or anything of that sort. To do this is to define that character by that trait, to decide: This is what makes my character matter.

In my opinion, this is wrong both in writing and in life. For one, it’s going to make for bad characters whose dynamics stem from a single dimension. In real life, people are deep, complex, and multidimensional. Only in identity politics are people defined by single dimensions of their identities. And two, no character whose role is more than a passing side-character should be doomed to serve as a tool within a story. Although some will disagree, I believe characters should be treated as people in a story, with their own weaknesses, desires, flaws, and inner worlds. Just as people in life should be treated as people.

When it comes to representation in writing, it means simply this: Start with their character, their personality, and whatever comes after is simply whatever else makes them human. Their traits are pieces of a whole, not the things that define them.

On this issue, it’s another thing if, within the story, the other characters around them define them by those traits. That is realistic. But you, the writer with your own perspective, should be above that. Representation for the sake of representation is going to feel empty (ex: “This is the asexual character”). Representation for the sake of telling the story of human beings (ex: “This is a character who, for the longest time, wasn’t sure why she didn’t feel the same way as her friends when it came to romantic situations or talk of boyfriends and girlfriends. At some point she discovered what asexuality was, and despite many people around her thinking all she’d have to do is have sex to discover otherwise, she knows she’s asexual and has found contentment in that”) … that’s where good character writing comes in. It’s the same regardless, really. Putting any character in a story for the sake of putting a character in a story (ex: “This is the token comic relief character”) is going to feel empty. Putting a character in a story for the sake of telling the story of human beings (ex: “This is a character who was raised very differently from the people around him, so he makes jokes more frequently to feel included and because making people laugh is one of the only things he thinks he’s good at”) … you know the rest.

#7. Your Day Job (and other parts of your life) Are Not Interruptions to Your Art

I’m guessing everyone has heard the line “Don’t quit your day job,” typically used as a joke or even as a demeaning comment. And not that this phrase needs to be reclaimed, but this advice, which I’ve only encountered a few times (including in the excellent little book, The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell), is an intriguing and important variation of that idea, one I find empowering in how it embraces the virtue of everyday life.

Among those who are disenchanted, it’s easy to fall into the mindset that if only you didn’t have to go to work, you’d really get some good work done in your art. Or, if not exactly that, then it is a mindset of complaint and negativity, and things like work and the obligations of regular everyday life can become tedious or maddening or can feel like interruptions to the important things you otherwise want to be doing.

I have days like this. I’m sure everyone does. But, to me, the important thing is that these are just days. They come and they swiftly go because I do not invite them to stay; I don’t allow myself to think like that.

For any artist, and this is especially true of writers, the importance of something like work, like your day job, cannot be understated. I say this from personal experience, and I say this as a regurgitation of some of the best advice I’ve heard or read on this very subject.

It sounds cliché but it's no less true that a great deal of inspiration is going to come from the intricacies and encounters and experiences of simple everyday life. To work toward something, to sustain oneself or a lifestyle, it may feel as though that work is in the way of that lifestyle, but really it is a relationship between the work and the lifestyle, and it can be a beautiful relationship. Where is the true reward in something if it isn’t something you earn? But there is, of course, far more to it than that. For example, people are not something you have to put up with. People are… well, they’re people. And the artist that does not have a sense of empathy or compassion for others, or does not have some kind of deeper-than-surface connection to humanity… well, what is that artist doing making art in the first place? In the same way that people give symbols power, so do people give art power.

Plenty of writers, especially aspiring writers, don’t commit to a serious, disciplined writing practice even with their day jobs, but still think that if they could write full time, then they would find that discipline. For some it might be true, but I know it isn’t true for myself, at least not yet, nor for many others that I know. It’s a nice dream to have, something to imagine, but it isn’t the case. From a personal point of view, I think it’s more important to start where you are. Carry that discipline into the job you have now and into the work you do, and carry it equally into your writing regardless. Understand the relationship between having two jobs, and make sure those two jobs aren’t at war with each other. There can be a harmony between them so that one feeds the other. Carry that dedication everywhere you go and into everything you do. This connects to the first piece of advice I shared in the previous post, about how it really isn’t about being inspired, it’s about the constant choice you make, the discipline you give yourself. To do this is a choice, one you have to make every day. Not that it’s going to be easy every day, but I think it’s more than worthwhile.

Don’t take for granted the position you are in. You are exactly where you need to be, doing exactly what you need to be doing. Start where you are. Everything and every person you meet is not an interruption on your way to your art, it is a teaching, something that can feed you, something you can learn from, both as an artist and a person.

#8. Compete With No One but Your Past Self

Sometimes I come across a writer, or a book, that is so good in every aspect, I can only describe the feeling as being close to envy. It’s the “I will never write anything this good” feeling, and it’s fairly common when there are so many truly great writers out there, each in their own ways and in their own genres. It is also a perfectly valid feeling, because chances are: You’ll never write anything that good. Mostly because whatever it is, it isn’t your story. It’s theirs. I’m experiencing this very feeling right now, having just finished reading Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear. I know for a fact that I am never going to write anything that good, but rather than descending into resignation and envy, I’m trying to channel that feeling into a motivation, a willingness to strive for more, to tell my story the best way I can, because that’s what Rothfuss did, that’s what all the great writers did. They told their story the best they could.

That’s where this piece of advice comes in, and it is as applicable to everyday life as it is to the artistic and creative process. It is delightfully simple, if difficult to put into practice.

The only other writer/artist/person you should be in competition with is your past self.

To be in competition with someone else—anyone else, be it another author, a friend, a family member, a loved one—means that everything you do through the filter of that competitiveness will be in the shadow of the thing you are competing against. Your every action will be dictated by that competitiveness. What you imagine is an act of freedom and independence will instead stem from that mindset. This can be observed in real life, not merely art, in brokenhearted people seeking happiness in the wrong places, thinking themselves free when really they are running away from something, their actions dictated by needing to distance themselves from the one who broke their hearts; it can be seen in people trying so hard not to be like their parents, not realizing that the choices they’re making or the beliefs they’re forming are acts of rebellion or defiance.

In the same way, in your writing, if you are in competition with another writer, all the writing you do will be through the filter of that competitiveness. You will be creating a cage for your writing that constrains it, ties it to something else, and what may feel like originality will be mere subversion that exists in the shadow of what it is trying to subvert. And not that there’s anything wrong with subversion—in fact, subversion itself is a powerful tool—and satire can be an effective genre. But, at least in my opinion, it isn’t somewhere you want to live. To be in competition with no one else puts you outside of disappointment and inadequacy. It is freeing, and it is peaceful.

If you put yourself in competition with your past self, then you are doing something different. You are challenging yourself to grow. You are striving to be better than you were, and that is something no wise person would advise against. And it is more than worthwhile to decide to never stop growing, both as a person and as an artist.

#9. Remember the Power of Context

For these last few rules, I want to get a little more specific and a little more practical.

This is one of my favorite things to keep in mind. The power of context.

Another way of saying this: Do not let things happen in a vacuum.

Let’s make up an example.

Say you want to portray a character having a mental breakdown related to other people around him—some kind of agoraphobia nightmare or something. What do you think is the most effective way to do this?

You could lay out all of this character’s thoughts, a stream of consciousness that serves almost as a rant in text about how there are too many people and they’re all in a hurry and it’s maddening and it’s ruining the world and it’s driving this character crazy. That could work on its own. Done right, it could be something unique.

But if you’re aiming for effectiveness as a scene, wouldn’t it be better to put those thoughts into context? To put your character on a crowded street, to describe the whooshing of cars on all sides, the chattering sounds of dozens of voices, the footsteps and the cell-phones ringing or buzzing, the smells—some cologne and perfume, some putrid—and to interweave the same aforementioned thoughts into this scene and within the details. I think it spices it up a bit, grounds it, makes it more effective. The context makes it what it is.

You can also use context for seamless transitions into little segues. Say you want a character to start a conversation about marijuana. You could have it pop up randomly in conversation, because that happens all the time: sometimes there’s no telling where our thoughts go, or where a conversation flows. But for the sake of fluidity, it might spice things up if you have this character smell a whiff of marijuana while walking someplace, which then segues into a conversation about marijuana.

Context is a very simple, powerful thing. And reminding yourself of it can bring a scene to life in ways you never could’ve imagined before.

Sometimes context comes in the form of mere small details that flesh out the setting of a scene. Sometimes context will drive the entire scene.

And this is true, in my opinion, for poetry as well.

#10. Reveal Character Through Action and Image

This is an obvious one, very simple, but it’s never wrong to repeat it, because it is so important. It’s something I struggle with but am learning to recognize in my own writing so I can put it to use. Rather than go on about it, I’ll use a vague example from my own writing.

There are two characters—Wes and Alicia—who are newly together. They’ve been together for no more than a week or two even though they’ve been friends for much longer, so they are still getting comfortable with each other. In the early drafts, I introduce these characters in the way I just did to you. I basically explained, “They’ve been together blah blah blah,” in about a sentence or two, before moving closer to them and into the details of the scene.

In a more recent edit, I got rid of any of that stated exposition, and replaced it with this: “Wes is standing by the small iron fire pit that’s been set up in the middle of the deck.  There’s a red plastic cup in Wes’s hand and he’s talking with Alicia. They’re standing close together. When Wes makes a joke and Alicia leans forward with laughter, she puts a hand on his arm.”

This ties into context, but in my little writing journal, it’s its own separate reminder, so that I can always have it in mind: Reveal Character Through Action and Image.

#11. Conflict is a Driving Force

For the last piece of advice, something simple, fundamental, and endlessly practical.

You always want your characters to have weaknesses and desires—and yearnings, in a broader sense—simply because that’s how it is with real people. And it is immediately compelling even before any major plot points come in. Within scenes where nothing dramatic may be happening on the exterior, having some sort of conflict, some sort of unmet desire or yearning within your character(s) will compel the reader forward regardless. In fact, there are great books—truly great books—where the plot IS the character and their inner world. Done right, it’s all you really need. And it’s important to remember the importance of conflict in this way.

All the better is when you can meet the interior conflicts with the exterior. Always move the writing toward something, even if it must be the most minuscule of things.

That’s all I have for now on the best pieces of writing advice I’ve heard. I hope you find this helpful in some way, productive in others. And do feel free to let me know what you think! What you would add, what you would take away. And thank you for reading.