Saturday, September 26, 2009

It’s All About You

By John Ramsey Miller

No matter how subtly, we authors we can’t help but bring ourselves, or world view, our personalities, our loves and biases into our work, and open ourselves up to our readers. If someone criticizes our work, they might as well slap one of our children. But we wince, wonder what the hell’s wrong with the critic, and go on to do it one more time. It’s as much “write what you are” as what you know. You can learn subjects, research facts, imagine yourself into a scene, but as you write––just like trace evidence––you put some of yourself on the page.

Someone said to me recently that hunting was obsolete because of the availability of grocery stores. I bring this love of hunting and gathering by age-old means, rather than by gathering money so I can pay others to hunt and gather for me. The killing I, and most other hunters do, is humane. I take animals where they live, and up until they are felled as if by a bolt of lightning, they are content living a life they were designed to live. Game animals are not raised in pens, fed by machines or paid workers, and driven into slaughter rooms that reek of bleach. I don’t have to justify my gathering to anybody except myself. But it comes through in my writing. I do not enjoy killing, and I understand how it feels to do so. I write that into my characters and I like to think that the difference between doing and researching is there on the page. We can imagine what something is like, but unless we’ve been there, we can only go by what those who have been through it tell us, or what we can imagine. Some things we can’t do, and those we will have to imagine. Other things we will write more accurately or with feeling than can those who have never experienced that thing. Me, I’ll never write about having a baby from a mother’s perspective the way a mother can, but I can write what being the father who’s watching a birth is seeing and feeling. As I write that I will be drawing on what I saw and felt so I would infuse the story with a shot of me. There’s really no way around it.

When we write a scene, we put ourselves in it, and, no matter what we have the characters do, we’re consciously (or unconsciously) writing what we would or wouldn’t do, think, or feel. If we are identifying personally with the character, we do one thing, if not we do another, perhaps the opposite, and maybe what we wish we could do in the same situation, but couldn’t.

Most of the authors I know who write violence, are not at all violent people themselves. Jeffery Deaver is one of the most gentle men I know, but nobody writes pure evil like Jeffery. I think he writes it so well because it is the precise opposite of what he is, and therefore easy to imagine.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think a sociopath writes sociopaths as effectively because they don’t see or admit what they are to themselves, and they don’t feel empathy, so they can’t really write it convincingly. Of all of the writings of psychopaths that I’ve read, it was all about the acts of violence and the characters are cardboard, just moving around performing some heinous act in one dimension. Perhaps I’m not explaining it well, but if you read the fictional fantasies of psychopaths, you’ll see a definite lack of engagement, or understanding character. It shows a lack of self-reflection, just self-gratification and delusion. There’s nothing scientific about this, just my impression. Perhaps psychos can write in great emotional depth. So how many psychopathic authors do you know? I can think of several.


  1. Insightful post, John. I think you nailed it.

    Writers' seminars are filled with lawyers and technical writers who are trying to spread their wings to fiction and are so terribly frustrated. The last class I taught had a couuple of experienced print journalists who were in the same boat. I've come to believe that the root of their difficulty lies in just what your post says. It's about the infusion of personality into the writing.

    Good lawyers and technical writers and journalists spend coutless hours keeping their personalities OUT of their writing. Just the facts, ma'am. Once a writer's voice atrophies, I think it's a difficult thing to revive.

    John Gilstrap

  2. I am all of my characters to some regard, and they are me in bits and pieces. Lucky for the world the least socially acceptable of them remain supressed...for now.

    And sanity retains its tenuous grip


    Hey, stop talking in my head all at once guys! You're giving me a migraine.

    Basil Sands

  3. fascinating! i once had a critique partner who told me that it was a bad idea to write anything of myself or what i would think or do into a character. good to hear another side.

  4. Kim,
    Your critique partner was an idiot. Now you are free to write!! Make yourself famous, you deserve it!!!