3 Things I’ve Learned from Writing Fiction

I’ve written fiction since I was twelve.

My first novel, lacking a plot, went nowhere. The second, which I finished in my teens, was a fast-moving action-adventure space opera partly inspired by Harry Harrison – I was a big Harrison fan at the time. (Forgive me, I was young.)

The third started out as a science fiction novel in which the characters played a virtual-reality fantasy game, but I ended up making the fantasy part the whole story. It was standard derivative genre fantasy, though probably no worse than a lot of what makes it into the bookstores.

Then there were several long periods when I didn’t write fiction at all.

This gave me time to figure out a bit more about the world, so that when I did start writing again, there was a bit more to it than unchanging characters shooting at each other. The fiction was starting to include some personal development ideas.

So I’m going to talk today about three of those ideas, and how writing fiction has helped me understand them, because lately I’ve been writing fiction again and really enjoying it.

1. Identity emerges in and from action

The first novel that I actually published was City of Masks. Even that had a gap of years between when I wrote the two or three chapters of initial setup and when I figured out what happened next.

What finally got it finished was sitting down and doing a diagram of the characters and their connections to each other. That gave me enough clarity to start writing again.

City of Masks is largely told through the journals of Gregorius Bass, a simple-hearted man who, because of family connections, is sent as a diplomat to a city loosely based on Shakespeare’s version of Italy. Everyone there wears a mask, and must act in character with their mask at all times or face civil and religious sanctions. There’s a political struggle between the rebel Personalists, who believe that the person is more important than, and separate from, the mask they wear, and the dominant Characterists, who hold that the mask is the true identity.

Bass gets caught up in this struggle, and in a serial-killer mystery, because of the involvement of his servant. (There’s both a Holmes and Watson and a Jeeves and Wooster dynamic at work between the servant and the master.)

Plenty happens in City of Masks. It’s short – a little under 50,000 words – but I manage to fit in a rooftop chase, a sword fight, multiple murders, a revolution and a romance. A youthful swashbuckler being scared straight by his psychotic girlfriend, at the cost of his sight, is merely a subplot.

At the same time, it’s a reflection on identity and character.

Because in the City of Masks, if you do something amazing, something that gives you the status of a Character, you get to wear a mask of your own face - and other people may also mask as you and act like you, because you’re somebody.

In other words, identity emerges in action. Just as I don’t really know what my characters are like until I write them, so we don’t really know – don’t even really become – who we are until we live remarkable lives.

At the same time, action emerges from identity. Remember how I said that I couldn’t get the plot moving until I worked out who everyone was and how they were connected?

Characters don’t come alive until they’re meeting challenges, and how they meet those challenges both develops and reveals who they are. Same with us.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: m.eckelberg

2. I don’t know the inside of my own head

I said a moment ago that I don’t know who my characters are until I write them. I’m making these people up (based on my own understanding of how people work, which is based in turn on my understanding of myself as well as my observations of other people I’ve known). And yet, they keep surprising me.

Case in point: my current fiction project, The Gryphon Clerks. The main characters are elite civil servants setting out to solve the problems of a steampunk-fantasy realm. I wanted to assemble a group of unlikely heroes, outsiders who had become strong through challenge and struggle, so I start out by telling their stories.

One of the characters, Rain Sandybeach, is a teacher/social worker in the docklands. My initial concept of her was a kind of fluffy hippie do-gooder with a bit of a chip on her shoulder about authority. But when I actually wrote her story, it turned out she was an ex-gang member who had been put on trial for killing 14 people with a broken bottle. (She hadn’t killed them - that’s not a spoiler, because it’s always clear to the reader that she hadn’t – but, wow, nothing ineffectual or fluffy about her now.)

To link this to the previous point, you never know, until you take action, what you’re really capable of, because you don’t know the potential that lives in your own head.

3. Things only matter if they change us

In between City of Masks and The Gryphon Clerks comes Gu, a science fiction novella about the human impact of a disruptive technology. The “Gu” of the title is cheap programmable matter, a kind of silver ooze that can take any form you like.

I tell the story as a documentary being made 15 years after Gu is invented. The documentary maker, Susan Halwaz, interviews experts and people-on-the-street, military veterans and academics, rich people and poor people, youngsters, game-makers and intellectual-property rebels about the impact of Gu on their lives.

Because no technology matters unless it changes how we live, how we behave, how we think, and what we can do.

And of all the things we do and use in our daily lives, the ones that matter are the ones that help us become more fully ourselves, to take action that reveals and develops our character.

Questions for reflection

So, what challenges are you meeting – either ones that you set yourself or ones that just come along uninvited?

How are they revealing and developing who you are?

What are they bringing out of you that you didn’t know was there?

And what technologies – in the very broadest sense, things and methods that enable you to do what you otherwise couldn’t – are you making use of, consciously and deliberately, to become more the person you want to be?

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