What I Write

Diana Pharaoh FrancisDiana Pharaoh Francis
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After the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones (which I did not watch), I posted a blog about character killing. I was responding, in part, to an interview GRRM had done on what he writes and why. I had a lot of fascinating responses to it. But then on the heels of that, I saw a tweet by Saladin Ahmed about how he writes escapist fiction to give his readers a chance to escape the real world. Now, what does that have to do with today’s post? I know I like to tell a good story. I like a captivating story that holds me tight. But when I read, I like a happy ending. Or at least not a terrible ending. I could never really read the Oprah book picks because they were inevitably depressing. Maybe they were realistic and gritty, but they were also lacking hope, or so it seemed to me. jude

That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy grit and blood and darkness. I do, for instance, read Faith’s books which have a bit of reality grit to them (just a small hint I’d say) and my own books are slightly on the violent, gritty side, or so I’m told. But what I like to read about are characters who struggle against terrible odds and succeed, or at least have hope. I don’t think that means that characters shouldn’t die. But I do think that for me, I need a sense of purpose to the fight. I don’t want a book that simply tortures characters because that’s what happens in real life. I’m reminded of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. It’s one book that I find very difficult to read. It’s so very bleak and hopeless. When I read it, I feel like I want to spend time in a dark room weeping for awhile.

This is not what I want from my reading. It is certainly not what I want to write.

I haven’t really spent a lot of time thinking about what I want to write. The stories come out in the shape that they do, but I do realize that I like romance because it’s real in people’s lives. So are one night stands and I’m okay with that. I like action and magic and emotion and real world situations. But I have to have characters that no matter how bad their flaws are, somehow find a way to overcome. At least some of them. In my book, The Cipher, Marten is one of my favorite characters. He’s got a gambling problem and he betrays people. More than once, even though he claims to learn his lesson. That’s because real addicts don’t straighten up quickly. It takes rock bottom and it’s a struggle with setbacks. But he’s a good person and eventually he chooses honor and love and good. Flawed as he is, he finds some good.

I don’t really like writing characters who are pure evil for the same reason. The closest one is in Blood Winter, and he’s a psychopath. I did a lot of studying on psychopaths (sociopaths really). That’s the closest to pure evil that there is. But he’s not the true villain of the piece. The true villain is someone else and he’s a lot more gray. 

One of the things about A Song of Ice and Fire is that there are many characters and many events, so readers can handle losing a few people because the cast is truly broad and so all their attention isn’t tied up in one or two and you’re knocked over when one dies. I have a book like that that I’m working on now, and I admit that characters will die. I don’t know who yet, and I don’t know when. I do know that I’m planning some hard choices for characters. I’m planning for them to have to do things that they absolutely don’t want to do and that will lead them into in horrible situations. I do like character torture–physical and emotional.

In the end, I want to write hopeful fiction. I’d say I want to write more Sense of Wonder fiction. Julie Czerneda’s A Turn of Light is totally sense of wonder and I’d love to write  a book with that sense of joy and possibility.  Yes, I want people to escape and to be entertained. I want them to be put through and emotional wringer and yet I don’t want them to walk away feeling horrible and bleak and unhappy.

When you write, what do you want to do?

And I have to apologize. I’m in the middle of a fast road trip to take stuff to the new house and I’m unlikely to be able to respond until maybe Sunday. But rest assured, I will!

 

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19 comments to What I Write

  • This brings to mind one of my favorite writing quotes: “Good science fiction is fun to read. Great science fiction says something. Fantastic science fiction changes the way you think.” I want write something fantastic.

  • I write because I want to share the sense of wonder I feel when thinking about the stories in my head. So basically, I write to entertain. For me, if I kill a character, it’s a pretty big thing, and not because it’s against expectations. It should feel necessary. I want readers to have fun and enjoy the story the way I do.

  • I write fantasy, sci-fi, and romance, in varying degrees of crossover and I guess I can say I also write hopeful fiction. Even at its darkest, I like to have that eventual light at the end of the tunnel, that happy, or at least satisfying ending. I also think I write more to character. It’s probably why I’ve been told that I write believable and fleshed out characters. I don’t tend to intentionally throw messages or deeper meanings in my works, but I’m sure my views probably sneak their way in here and there (except for the sci-fi romance novella that was picked up recently, which was written from a place of trepidation over current events…well…current year before last). If someone finds a deeper meaning, that’s cool, but it’s not my goal or priority. I write to entertain and tell the stories banging around in my gray matter container.

    I will kill characters, but that death has to serve the plot in some way. It has to be meaningful to either the characters or the advancement of the story. As far as villains go, I do tend to write pretty nasty villains, even a few that are completely irredeemable, but for the most part, I will add some bits that humanize them, things a reader can at least relate to even if they have no sympathy for them.

    Deadboy, I think, is the darkest thing I’ve done so far and in the end, the light at the end of his tunnel is really the friends he has around him. I don’t think I’d kill those characters, at least not for quite a while (though torture and capture are quite fine and dandy ;) ), because the MC would spiral right out of control into the dark well of insanity that he’s constantly standing on the edge of. And if that happens, he might not ever fully make it back.

    As far as my sci-fi, I’m a huge fan of space opera (Star Wars, Battlestar, Firefly, Robotech, etc.) and that’s what I love to write. I could never get into hard sci-fi. I found it too dry for my tastes. I like some military sci-fi, but it’s a narrow area that I like, closer to military space opera.

  • Characters need trials and travails to overcome, but there needs to be some redemption, some payback for their suffering, or it’s all too damned depressing. I gave up on Game of Thrones when Eddard was betrayed by Littlefinger. (I didn’t even get to beheading part.) I don’t read to experience “unrelenting ill-fortune”, as some wise author aptly phrased it. ;) When the ancient Greeks performed a tragedy, they felt obligated to follow it up with a short comedy, otherwise they feared the members of the audience would go home and hang themselves. Alternating fast and slow scenes is a given in fiction; one also needs to alternate despair and hope. It cannot be all downhill.

    “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means!” —Oscar Wilde

  • I also prefer fiction that retains some element of hope. When I read something really dark, I sometimes admire the skill of the author, but I rarely go back for more. There’s enough violence and despair in the real world. I want my fictional worlds to offer up at least glimmer of joy or hope or peace, both the worlds I read and the ones I write.

  • So far I haven’t had too much of a problem with the deaths in the Game of Thrones books. They have certainly been surprising and unexpected, to the point that it’s almost scary to start caring too much about any of the characters because I don’t know if they will survive. That is a unique experience, at least for me, and as such I don’t mind it, even though it hurts and has the potential of hurting more if certain characters don’t make it – maybe even enough to stop reading. GRRM is walking a fine line.

    I would not want most of my reading to take this route, however. Death in fiction should have meaning beyond the author’s desire to be unpredictable, and like SiSi said, there should always be a thread of hope.

  • I want to write so that the voices in my head will shut up. And I don’t mean characters. I mean that crazy-as-sin voice that is the harbinger of true depression in me. When I start hearing it, telling me I’m horrible and deserve to die, (yes, it is a very dark voice) I know it’s time to go back to writing. Fast.

    Somehow focusing my brain on telling a story takes me out of myself and out of the pre-depression funk and makes my head clear. I am sure it is related to dopamine production and electric/magnetic pathways in the brain, but however it works, writing is the way I can hit a reset button and send the depression away.

    And then there are the stories that result. Which are sorta dark and violent and fun. And where the good guys win, eventually, even if they lose a lot on the way.

  • ajp88

    As undoubtedly the biggest, most studious Martin fan here, I’m naturally commenting with some bias, but this post could be read as not quite a fair representation of the A Song of Ice & Fire series. Not that you explicitly wrote here that it’s just an exercise in doom and gloom or simply a depressing story (as so many dismissive sources have) but I’d still like to argue against that sentiment.

    I noticed on the other linked blog post, in the comments, you asked, “What is GRRM capturing that is so appealing?” I think for the truly hardcore fans, it’s not the what he’s capturing but the how. What I mean is that I’m not a huge throat-cutting, flesh-eating, roasting-alive fan, as a rule. I’m constantly in awe of how well the events are foreshadowed, tied together, drawn out over the long dives into a character’s psyche. It isn’t that he’s unafraid to kill off characters that our narrative DNA tells us should be golden heroes, it’s that he does it so much better than most of his competitors.

    SPOILERS!!!

    Take The Red Wedding, for instance. It happens around the 60% mark of the third book, so between 2000-2500 pages of the narrative. The slow buildup to the moment is simply astounding: there’s the child’s game called Lord of the Crossing (similar to Mother-May-I in execution, where the keyword that allows you to go back on your word is “Mayhaps;” just so happens that when Catelyn makes Robb insist on guest right, partaking of Walder’s bread and salt, the feeble, ninety-something Frey says, “Bread, salt, mayhaps a sausage.”); there’s the Rains of Castamere song, whose roots will learn about slowly over the course of those first 2500 pages (moreover, as an added detail we learn how every major house has its lesser vassals that now and then try to overthrow their liege lords; the Starks in the North have always had an uneasy time with the Boltons, Tullys and the Freys, Gardeners and the Tyrells, etc.); there’s the significant number of blunders that Robb makes as a politician, bedding then wedding a maid from a lesser Westerling house being one of the more significant ones (that pesky song works to sow fear in his new wife’s mother, who helps orchestrate The Red Wedding, and insures that her daughter does not conceive a child with The King in the North, in exchange for amnesty from Lord Tywin); Grey Wind’s “attack,” of the Frey welcoming party; the multiple prophetic figures that deliver premonitions to a number of characters which foreshadow the betrayal; how the prose switches into horror at the start of the chapter, with the dread of the loud, awful music (a clue to the real identities of the musicians); how all of the best, friendliest Freys are absent from the nuptials; how Edmure’s wife cries (and Catelyn assumes it’s out of anxiety from the coming first night); how Tywin always seems to be up to something in King’s Landing. There’s more to it than all that. But at least for me, whenever I get to the moment where Catelyn slaps Edwyn Frey (damn the show and its changes) my mind explodes. It’s such a master stroke of suspense, foreshadowing, atmosphere combining to make one incredible, game-changing moment of storytelling. Sure, brutal and dark and depressing but highly logical and well planned.

    I also like the gritty “realism” of his world. Perhaps that’s the devout atheist in me. But it also makes the highs (and there are plenty) that much higher. And…actually I’ve waved my nerd flag pretty sufficiently. Obviously I’m sort of passionate about his work. I just find it irksome when people dismiss it as simply killing off characters to be contrary (again, not to say that you said this).

  • I won’t go into the analysis of SoIaF like ajp88 did, but I will say I have really enjoyed the books, in large part due to how well they are written. I can only hope that someday I can weave half as many threads into a coherent whole!

    I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out what it is I want to write. I can’t say there’s any one reason or emotion that drives me to the chair and keyboard. I write because a story wants to be told. Sometimes that story is dark, ugly, frightning, sad. Sometimes the story is filled with wonder, or laughter. And everything else between. Mostly I write to explore some aspect of the human condition. I love to dissect ethical questions, hot topics, taboo subjects, and I try to give both sides of the issue fair voice without letting my own personal views get in the way. I’ve written about euthanasia, incest, racism, child abuse, religious zealotry and persecution of those who are different. I’ve explored slavery and rebellion. I write because some thing, some question, will ignite a spark that grows into an idea that becomes a story that has to be written.

  • Razziecat

    I write because it’s too depressing not to. Not so much in the way Faith talks about, but because the world is flat & grey without stories, and I’ve lived with many of my characters for so many years that I can’t even imagine life without them.

    Like Daniel, I like space opera, and that’s at least half of what I write. It’s very character-driven. I’ve always thought these characters come out of some deep dark well inside of me, which is a little bit scary. I have several characters who go through some very dark times, to the point of wanting to die, only to find they’re too damn stubborn to give up. I don’t mind this kind of thing in fiction as long as the character finds the strength inside of him/herself to eventually win the day. That doesn’t mean they don’t lose something, but they must find, or create, a reason to be glad they’re still alive.

    Re: Villains, I have no interest in the 100% evil kind. I like them to have well-developed, intricate and twisty reasons for their actions, and to be capable of more than one emotion. I want a bad guy with personality and conflicting desires, not an automaton.

  • This quote from C.S. Lewis is one of my writing mottos. “Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

    I think it’s essential to look the dragons in the face – to admit the reality and scope of evil in the human heart in order that we don’t forget the distinction between good and nice. I want to write books that celebrate hope and justice and mercy and compassion, but those things just fade into insipid niceness if they don’t shine against the reality of cruelty, injustice, etc.

  • Sarah, you said it!

  • kwlee

    My wife and I talk a lot about GRRM and the Song of Fire and Ice. She loves the books (and TV show) even though it is sometimes difficult to read and watch because of the violence and tension. Me, I usually haven’t got the time and prefer my reading to be a bit lighter. You know… be able to pick up a book and read it a little while, and then put it down and maybe come back to it in a few days when I’ve got a spare minute. With that in mind, beginning and trying to finish GRRM is a bit daunting.

    I think Ray Bradbury said “Write what you love, love what you write.” Do what you like, even if it is horrible and gritty and wants people to tear their own beating hearts from their chest and throw it across the room at the television. If you like it, likely someone else will too.

    I just want to tell a good story. Whether it ends well, or bittersweetly, in the end I want to be able to put it down and sigh and say… that was well worth my time.

    How I get to that point I haven’t quite figured out yet, but its getting there.

  • sagablessed

    To kill, or not to kill? That is the question. I am not sure how I feel about GRRM killing pretty much everyone.
    Sarah….KUDOS! Hammer, nail, head. Yet killing a character should also both serve plot and make the reader have a reaction. Good, bad: a reaction no matter what.
    It means the reader connected to the character, and that is always good.

  • Ken

    When I write, I want to entertain folks. I want people feel something. I want to convey to my readers the same sense of “Oh…” that I feel when facing the images in my head. I’m a big fan of stories where the Good Guys/Gals come out on top by the skin of their teeth and the Bad Guys/Gals go out in a big (and very satisfying) Boom. That’s what I want to write.

  • David: Yes!

    Laura: me too. That sense of wonder is so key to me.

    Daniel: I like the hopeful also. But the thing is, reality is often tragic and not hopeful (Back to Jude, The Obscure). That’s why I just can’t read that sort of writing. Or rather, I can read it, but I can’t engage in it fully because I can’t let my heart and soul hurt that way. Which is why, like you, I write a more hopeful fiction.

  • Wolf: I’m with you. As I told Daniel above, I just can’t allow myself to deeply engage in fiction where it’s tragedy after tragedy. It’s too unrelenting. The other thing about plays is that they are definitely shorter, and the Greeks believed that the catharsis of that tragic emotional roller coaster was healthy. But I do notice in all the plays that the characters are pretty shallow. I think to allow distancing.

    Sisi: yes. Absolutely.

    Dave: That’s my thing. I’m afraid to engage and that’s an unpleasant reading experience.

  • Faith: that voice sucks! And I agree on the story writing mood, though I hadn’t thought why before.

    ajp88: I totally agree that it isn’t fair, because I haven’t read far enough and haven’t seen The Red Wedding. Which is why I was using it as a jump off point. But I want to thank you for your insights because you absolutely answered questions I had and the fact that you are such a fan and so passionate about it make me excited to get caught up on the reading. (I haven’t because I am selling the house and packed all my books to declutter TWO years ago and so I haven’t had a chance to get caught up at all). I love what you said about the wedding. I know in his interview, GRRM said he wrote that scene last, which I doubt I could do as a writer, but he knew it was going to be an emotional, difficult scene to write.

    Lyn: The writing is pretty fabulous and managing all those plotlines is phenomenal. I think the question of what I want to write v. what actually is my approach are quite different. Because you’re right–it comes down to the story that wants to be told, whatever it is.

  • Razziecat: well said all around.

    Sarah: I love that quote and I agree. My books tend to have pretty horrible darkness against pretty amazing heroism and self sacrifice. For exactly the reasons you state.

    Kwlee: that’s exactly it. If you don’t love what you’re writing, then that will come through to the reader. And why would you spend months or years on a story you don’t like?

    Ken, I like those stories too.