Writers have to keep a certain amount of detachment from their work. There are a few good reasons for that. First, not everyone is going to like what one writes. That can be hard enough to deal with when one doesn’t feel a personal attachment to one’s work. Add to that too much attachment, and rejection and criticism cut even more deeply. And sometimes writers have to cut out scenes, characters, plot points and more simply to make the story better. A writer who is too attached may find it too hard to make the kinds of changes that sometimes need to be made to improve a story. So I’m saying that writers are best off not being attached to what they write, right?
Wrong. Have you ever read a novel where the plot had a solid structure, the characters were believable and so on, but the novel just didn’t do much for you? So have I. Part of that is of course personal taste, mood and other factors like that. But sometimes it’s because there’s not a lot of ‘spark’ to the story. How did that happen? One reason may be that the author was a little too detached. If the author doesn’t care about the characters and what happens to them, why should the reader? So there’s a lot to be said for caring – really caring – about what happens in the stories one writes. I don’t just mean caring in the sense of wanting to tell a good story in a professional way. I mean caring about the people in the story, and being invested in the outcome.
To give an example of what I mean, I had an email from a crime fiction author whose work I greatly admire. Among other things, she mentioned having very mixed feelings about the ending of one of her novels. She genuinely felt sympathy for the killer and found it difficult to let go of that. And you know what? That feeling came through in the novel and made it that much more effective. Yes, the reader cares very much for the victims and those left behind – I know that I did – but there’s also the sense that the killer is multi-dimensional too. Talk about your book with ‘spark!’
Of course, it’s one thing to say that a crime writer should balance caring about the characters and the outcome with enough detachment to improve the story as needed. It’s quite another to strike that balance. In one interview for instance, James Lee Burke said that for him, stories begin
‘…with a feeling of concern, of a dilemma of some kind.’
And in the same interview, Burke explains why he chooses to write his stories in the first person:
‘Using a first-person narrator is simply a matter of hearing the voice inside yourself. The character is already in the author, I think.’
Fans of Burke’s work will tell you that that personal investment in his stories comes through as we get to know the characters and follow the plots.
Ian Rankin has expressed a rather similar point of view. In one interview he explains why he likes the writing process.
‘I can’t think of anything better than that, and it keeps you well balanced because all the s*** inside your head goes on paper. I think we’d be troublesome individuals if we didn’t get all that s***t out our systems.’
I can’t say conclusively of course but my guess is that that personal connection between writer and work is part of what gives Rankin’s novels the level of interest that they have. The ‘spark’ that many people feel when they read Rankin’s work may be related to that connection.
Here’s how Ann Cleeves put it when she was asked about whether she personally identifies with the characters she created for Raven Black:
‘I identify with all my characters when I write them, even, or perhaps especially, the less attractive ones. Writing’s a bit like acting, I think. You have to believe you’re the person you’re writing, stand in their shoes and get inside their head.’
She’s got a well-taken point. And fans of Cleeves’ Shetland Quartet and Vera Stanhope series will tell you that those characters truly come alive in the series.
When Deborah Crombie was asked how she feels about her protagonists Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his partner Inspector Gemma James, here’s how she responded:
‘I miss them when I’m in between books doing research. I always want to be back with them, back in their lives.’
What’s even more interesting is her final comment in this interview:
‘About 95 percent of my e-mail is about Duncan and Gemma and what’s going to happen with them. Obviously something hits the reader about them as much as it does me.’
Crombie says it better than I could have.
Of course there is much to be said – and it’s very important – for a certain amount of detachment as a writer. One’s got to be open to revisions and edits, to others’ really good ideas and so on. And the quality of a story is closely related to the willingness of the author to work at making it better. But if the author doesn’t care about the characters and doesn’t get invested in the story at all, it shows. If you’ve ever read a ‘cookie cutter’ story you know precisely what I mean.
I find myself needing to strike that balance in my own writing and I’d love to hear what you think about it. Readers: can you sense it when a writer doesn’t seem to be invested in her or his work? Writers: how close do you get to your characters? How do you balance that need to invest yourself with the need to be detached enough to write a polished story?
Now if you’ll excuse me I need a drink and a good cry. Joel Williams just discovered the body of a very decent character in the latest chapter of what I’m writing and I am none too happy about that!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Anna Nalick’s Breathe (2 AM).