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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Twisted Writer or Blocked Writer? Which One Do You Want to Be?


lightbulb dangerous writers block canstockphoto13538132 (2)T.R. realized she was resistant to writing because she was reluctant to hurt a character and “take him apart.”

The unwillingness to make characters suffer is a common source of writing resistance.

Unwillingness to make real people suffer in real life is what separates us from sociopaths. In memoir, personal essays and other creative nonfiction, writers are often resistant to write in specific detail about the suffering they and others endured. The resistance is to remembering and retelling.

In fiction, the resistance is to causing the suffering.

We can’t skip the pain. Conflict and unmet desires are the very heart of fiction. This is not a story:

Once there was a hobbit who lived in a hole in the ground. He was not visited by wizards and dwarves, he did not go on any adventures or have his whole life turned upside down in other ways. He lived a long, happy and prosperous life filled with good fortune. (yawn)

No one cares about characters who have everything they need and want. We care about characters who struggle, who want something badly – and often need something else entirely even more – and can’t have what they want and need until they overcome obstacles and change themselves.

So fictional characters must hurt and strive and fail, and hurt more and strive more. Once they get what they want or need, the story is pretty much over except for tying up the loose ends.

You care about your characters. You like them, admire them, root for them. You love them and all their foibles. So what kind of person makes characters she or he loves suffer so much?

Evil Genius... Is there any other kind?

Evil Genius… Is there any other kind?

What kind of mind can imagine the terrible things that happen to characters?

Years ago, I did a reading from a work in process where the main character, a soldier, was drugged and psychologically tortured. I thought I did skillful work in showing how his consciousness shifted and his perceptions warped as the drug took hold of him. I showed his pain in specific detail.

One of my friends was shocked by what I read. How could I imagine that kind of torture? What kind of twisted mind do I have anyway?

Wondering how you can imagine the kind of suffering a character needs to endure can create resistance. Hearing that one of your friends is appalled (even just temporarily, we’re still friends) by what your imagination is capable of can create major resistance.

Do you question yourself about your ability to create pain? Do you, like T.R. and like me for a while, resist writing the scenes where people are going to get hurt?

Do you stop short of where the story needs to go because you’re afraid of what others will think of you? How do you know when you’ve gone far enough? Too far?

I’ll explore these questions in my next post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your reactions. How do you do that bad thing you do?

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7 Comments on “Twisted Writer or Blocked Writer? Which One Do You Want to Be?”

  1. Joel D Canfield August 8, 2015 at 10:51 am #

    Huge issue for me.

    Thing is, I can’t, ever, put my art first in my life. I skipped a magnificent concert (close and cheap) by a monumental songwriter last week because I had an event that meant more to me and couldn’t be moved.

    I don’t go to the dark places I know I could write because I have dear friends who read my books and love them, and who wouldn’t, couldn’t, if I wrote that dark. And sharing with those friends means more to me than pulling out all the stops to write what someone I don’t know might want to read.

    I’ll never be Dylan or Tarantino or Connelly, but I knew that a long time ago.

    Like

    • rosannebane August 13, 2015 at 9:48 am #

      Thanks for your perspective Joel. For some writers, their art is their top and sole priority. I like you, am not that kind of writer. I think there’s room for both types.
      My art doesn’t come first; it comes in among the firsts. That is, my role as a writer is no less important nor more important than my other primary roles, e.g. family/pack member, friend, teacher, coach, etc. So my writing has the same priority as spending time with my friends. The challenge is to structure and plan so that I give time to all the things that are important to me.
      And, while I don’t intend to write material that will offend my friends, I know that is a possibility. As a friend, I wish I’d given my friend a heads-up on what my reading would include, so she could have made an informed decision about whether to attend the reading. As a writer, I write what serves the story and meets the expectations of my audience. I know many of my friends and family members will not be my audience for my novel. And that’s okay. Not everyone has to appreciate science fiction.

      Like

  2. Lucy August 8, 2015 at 2:13 am #

    Another great question, Rosanne. Oh yes, I have friends who are dismayed by what I write, but they are not among the target audience so we just don’t talk about it.

    I ghostwrite men’s action novels, and the question of how far to go with physical suffering has proven difficult. While researching the genre, I came across horrific military torture and rape scenes written by a popular, prolific author. His descriptions made me put the book down.

    When I questioned my co-author about his recommendation, he assured me those scenarios would have played out much harsher in reality. However, he was equally repelled by the hack writer’s gratuitous violence. So my task became to write authentically, make the reader wince or cringe, but never to the point where they stopped eating lunch or put the book down permanently.

    I had a favorite character, (not the lead), that I slyly protected by keeping him in an administrative position. Only fellow writers would understand this. The co-author caught on, and one day told me “It’s his turn. Show the readers his integrity and loyalty to his friends.” Argh. I could only bring myself to write the abduction, then skipped to the aftermath, but it put the character on a whole new level in the series and he refuses to go back to a desk.

    Like

    • rosannebane August 13, 2015 at 9:58 am #

      Thanks Lucy for sharing your experience and perspective. I, too, have come to terms with the fact that not all my friends and family are my audience. And I agree with you about how challenging it can be to know how far is too far and when are we not going far enough because we want to protect a character. Make the reader cringe but not stop eating is what I’m shooting for too.
      A key principle that guides me when I’m writing violence or sex is that the mechanics are pretty much the same and that what really matters is the effect of the experience on the character. So I don’t need to provide a literal blow-by-blow description of violence for the sake of thoroughly describing the violence, I focus on my characters responses to the experience.

      Like

  3. Judy Westergard August 6, 2015 at 3:18 pm #

    You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “First of all, kill your darlings.” Well, my “darlings” are my readers; imaginary yes, but very real to me. Once that I’ve “killed” them, I find I’m free to write what needs to be written. It may not ever be published, but I knew it would not be published if I continued to kowtow to those “darlings.”

    Like

    • rosannebane August 13, 2015 at 9:59 am #

      Thanks Judy. I hadn’t thought of my readers as my darlings. I suspect my darlings are more my ego attachments to what my readers think of me…

      Liked by 1 person

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  1. Twisted Writer or Blocked Writer: How Much Is Enough? | Bane of Your Resistance - August 13, 2015

    […] previous post raised questions about hurting fictional […]

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