Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Learning from negative experiences

I am currently dealing with an extremely distressing and unhappy situation. It has consumed a good part of my daily life, is nearly unbearable to think about, and most importantly, completely unnecessary. These sorts of things happen to everyone at some point or other in their lives. They can be tough to live through and tougher to deal with. Eventually, it will all be resolved — hopefully without further grief, although I’m not expecting that sort of happy outcome.

Thing is, something like this can also be a good learning situation if you happen to write fiction. I’m trying to look at it from that viewpoint. It’s been a struggle to embrace what I’m feeling and let it flow over me, but I’m determined to see the process through. Out of something bad, maybe some good can come.

For any novel to be successful, something has to happen that causes change in the story’s characters’ lives and/or personalities. The real story is how these imaginary people deal with what they’re facing. In crime fiction, this usually means dealing with death or violence of some sort. If it’s a police procedural, the cop has to solve the crime. If the protagonist is an “amateur sleuth” then they have to rise to the occasion and solve the crime. (I know most of you understand this, but it helps to set out the parameters of the discussion.)

Thing is, the narrative of characters changing has to, above all, be believable. This is precisely what Frankie was talking about in her post last Friday, Stupid with an Excuse. Sometimes writers are fortunate when faced with this conundrum, other times not so much. How many of us have yelled at our TVs while watching something and a character does something so incredibly stupid that we fall right out of the story? Obviously, the writer failed miserably in making the situation believable.

The believability of a character’s actions is something we fiction writers have to face a lot — and we have to become good at it to enjoy any kind of success and ultimately satisfy our readers.

What many writers are not successful at is injecting negativity into characters’ lives. Yeah, you can superficially deal with it, nearly anyone can understand it on a basic level (the character has a drinking problem, or an unhappy home life or something of that nature), but to really have a character be ultimately believable, negativity of some sort needs to be injected at a very basic level into their psyche and allowed to grow and develop as we get to know them. Once it’s organic in a character, then it just needs to be teased out by the writer, glimpsed here and there, before it is needed for a big scene or perhaps the book’s climax.

Since negative things in people’s daily lives are something that we all shied away from as much as possible, we don’t give ourselves much of a chance to learn the nuances of these feelings. (“I just don’t want to dwell on this. I want to get it over and done with.”) As a writer, I’ve let many good opportunities to improve my writing in this way by shying away from uncomfortable/unpleasant situations — ie: dealing with negative issues as quickly as possible to get them over and done with — slip away without completely understanding my underlying feelings. We all write best when we’ve lived through something first, and quite frankly, I’ve blown it more times than I care to remember.

So as I deal with this unfortunate issue in my life, this time I’m trying to embrace the way I’m feeling, digging deeper even though it’s making me truly uncomfortable. Down the road I’ll be able to relive what I’m discovering and (hopefully) realistically inject it into a character’s DNA and then come up with some prose that will successfully make a situation more real and visceral for readers.

It was a favourite saying of a dear friend that “everything can provide a learning opportunity if you just look for it”. This is one of those occasions.


Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Of course, learning experiences can really suck, too. But it does seem that if we come take your approach, it would give us more to draw on when we set down to write.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

And it would help if I learned to proofread before hitting send.

Rick Blechta said...


Charlotte Hinger said...

I find that if I'm not careful I'll handle things by distraction. By that I mean simply grab a good book and read until the problem goes away. Distract myself from any pain. Coward's way out.

Eileen Goudge said...

To quote the late Nora Ephron, "It's all copy." Every experience can be spun from straw into gold in a novel. Negative ones, I always think, At least something good will come of this. That said, ordeals suck when you're going through them, so you have my sympathy.

Rick Blechta said...

Thanks, Eileen!

I understand completely where you're coming from, Charlotte, and reading a good book to forget my troubles is a very tempting thing. It helps, even if only for a few hours, to step away from troubles, sort of clear one's brain out, before stepping back into the ring.

So you're both right!