Last week I gave a presentation on creative writing at a conference on emerging perspectives in graduate research titled – The Writer’s Journey: Creating Believable Characters in an Unbelievable World. This is a shortened version of the presentation focusing on the issues between academic and creative writing, the importance of research, and the emotional effects which writing can (and often does) have over a writer.
I am a both a student of literature and a writer of speculative fiction. Upon hearing this statement, question that I am frequently asked is why I decided to study literature as opposed to creative writing. The answer involves the conflict that seems to exist between these two branches of English within the realm of the academic.
I decided to major in English when I was a junior in college. However, once this fact was established, my university asked me to answer a particular question: Are you a reader or a writer?
To me, this question was a rather surprising one. After all, the best writers are often the best readers, are they not? Now, what the university actually meant was that they offered two different paths to an English degree, one focusing on literature and one on creative writing. Excited by this writing option, I looked forward to attending my first creative writing course as an upper-level student. However, once I actually arrived for my first day of the programme, I found myself extremely disappointed.
Sitting down in the classroom full of other potential students, I was issued two items. The first was a copy of Stephen King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. The second was a list of restrictions as to what would be deemed ‘unacceptable’ or at least, ‘highly discouraged’ topics. I was very surprised when I read through the list and instead found that the restrictions included: ‘science-fiction, horror, fantasy, paranormal,’ and a number of other genres which can most accurately be described under the term ‘Speculative Fiction.’ The university preferred and encouraged topics of a more ‘literary’ nature despite using King’s text as a basis for the course. Biographies, travel, nature and a relatively new genre coined under the term ‘creative non-fiction’ were among the favourites of those encouraged.
It was because of these constraints that I made the decision, despite my love of writing, to study literature, as it posed none of the restrictions on topic choices which were found in the ‘creative’ writing programme. In literature I was able to pursue topics for which I found a passion that has carried me into later studies.
A few years later, when deciding to choose a graduate programme, I again discovered much conflict between the literature and creative writing realms. Literature was seen by many as the higher of the two fields of study. I was even asked if, given my love of writing, I would not prefer to obtain my degree in a quote: ‘easier’ creative writing field.
This implication that the field of studying literature is somehow more rigorous than the writing of fiction is, in my personal view, a misrepresentation, attributed mostly to a lack of understanding of the amount of both work and research which writers of fiction struggle to place within their creative pieces.
I pride myself on creating independent characters who have their own interests, backstories, and personalities. Long before a story is completed, and occasionally from their first conception, characters take on a life of their own. In order to create these characters to the best of one’s ability, an author must do two things. The first, is to force themselves both mentally and emotionally into the role of the character being written. After all, if I cannot feel the emotional impact of a given scene, then I cannot reasonably expect my readers to be affected by their plight either. Only by fully exposing myself to the same emotional journeys experienced by my protagonists can I understand how the character in question should react. This is also, perhaps, one of the reasons why one of the most common pieces of writing advice offered to young writers by professionals is simply to “write what you know.” It is advice that I agree with wholeheartedly, but would also add an addendum to the statement: ‘Write what you know, and learn what you don’t.’
Literary critic Georg Lukács, not to be confused with the famous director, states that characters “once conceived in the vision of their creator, live an independent life of their own; their comings and goings, their development, their destiny is dictated by the inner dialectic of their social and individual existence.” He believed that characters “try to live their own lives,” independent of the author who created them. This strive for independence, in turn, frequently forces an author to research places, activities, and fields in which he or she has never before had an interest.
Now, it should be noted that Lukás was in fact, a realist and the majority of his theories were applied specifically to works which could be classified as realism. However, the same principles are easily applied to works of fiction. Even among a fantastical setting, characters must be human in their mental and emotional capacities in order for the reader to relate to them. The more relatable, the easier it is cause readers to form an emotional attachment which is essential to maintaining an audience, especially within Speculative Fiction where the lands created are often foreign to the reader’s notion of the world.
Research is an important and vital part of the creation of a novel, no matter what the genre. While it is true that authors of speculative fiction might be able to take more liberties than those of non-fiction or realism, research still remains a vital part of the writing process.
Types of research vary from issues such as description, which International Bestselling Author Dan Brow (Da Vinci Code) argues is an important part of any novel. Detailed description of scenes can prove a vital element towards bringing a story to life. If the setting of a story is in the woods, authors should consider taking a walk in the forest. Note the sounds they hear, the smells in the air, the way sunlight and shadows filter through the trees. The same goes for a scene on the beach. Walk along the waves, taste the salty air, feel the texture of the sand between your fingers.
Alternative methods to actually going to the place being described, is to read the works of those who have. Extensive reading often proves to be one of a writer’s best resources. Read descriptions of the places you plan to write about. If you are writing about a real location, research its history, its layout, any other aspect which you may deem interesting or helpful within the research process. Meanwhile, if the location is fictional, consider finding ways to familiarize oneself with the land being created. Authors will frequently write side-stories, histories, draw maps, and create charts, none of which will ever see the outside of their personal collection, in order to help support the setting of their stories.
Other important elements of research brings us back to the previously quoted statement by Lucas. Lucas points out the characters often “life a life of their own,” after their conception. What this means is that these characters can and often do have backgrounds, hobbies, skills, and interests which often vary from the writer’s own. This means that in order to support these characters, a writer must often learn about these various topics, in order to support these said interests.
To draw an example from my own work, the Rise of the Temple Gods series, revolves around a world of martial arts and medieval swordplay. When I first informed my writing mentor, of my initial ideas for the novel, her response was something akin to this: “Sounds great! However…one quick question. What do you know about martial arts and swordplay?”
The answer, to quote George R.R. Martin, was something akin to: “Stick them with the pointy end?”
So began my journey into researching various forms of combat. I did this by first, reading lots of books on various forms of martial arts, reading fiction which featured elaborate fight scenes, and even watching a few old kung-fu movies. Then, I attended classes at local karate and jiu-jitsu dojos. Though I did not partake of the actual courses, I conducted multiple interviews with instructors and observed students for hours on end, having specific movements demonstrated for me by students while I took extensive notes on the technique, instruction, and history of both disciplines. This research was conducted over countless months, locations, and discussions with various experts. When I had eventually written and completed these scenes to the best of my ability, one of these instructors was kind enough to read through and critique my action sequences.
Now as one can probably guess, this is not a quick process. It is slow, often time-consuming and different authors will approach it with various levels of both time and dedication. However, most find that in the end, such measures are well worth the work involved and are a vital part of the process needed to create a believable, rich tales; even in a land filled with ancient Gods, pink trees and talking puppies.