What is Our Role as Fiction Writers?
I used to ponder the utility of fiction. My view was partly predicated on my training as a political scientist, but it was also because I found non-fiction much more interesting than any made-up story. A majority of my reading for the past several years has been non-fiction, and I often prefer documentaries to movies and true-life crime shows to murder mysteries.
But I write fiction now, and so unless I concede that what I write is useless, which I can’t or won’t do, then it must be the case that made-up stories have some real-world significance. The question becomes just what form that takes.
But before attempting to answer the question of just what the role of a writer is, two points are in order. First, I’m only considering writing that is meant for public consumption. Second, the categories discussed below are not presented in any particular order, nor are they meant to be mutually exclusive.
In order to figure out our role as writers, we should first try to understand why people read fiction in the first place. One reason, perhaps the most popular, is entertainment. Another reason is to better understand the thoughts, experiences, beliefs, and psychology of others. Some might find that reading fiction also increases their creativity. Finally, people might turn to fiction as a way of learning about different things. This is especially true of historical fiction, as some folks find reading straight, non-fiction history a veritable snooze-fest.
There are countless other reasons why a person might pick up a novel, but these will suffice for now. So getting back to our original question, what is our role as fiction writers?
First and directly related to the above, we are storytellers and providers of entertainment. The value people place on escaping from reality is enormous, as evidenced by the astronomical incomes of the top entertainers in our society. While this is particularly true of actors and sports figures, authors like Stephen King, James Patterson, and J.K. Rowling have incomes that would make Midas blush. Consequently, some argue that our role as writers is to entertain the most people we can, as measured particularly by book sales and incomes.
This is perhaps the most popular role of the fiction writer, but there are others. Some writers consider increasing awareness and understanding of a particular character/viewpoint crucial. I attempt to do this in Conversations Among Ruins, where the male protagonist is dual diagnosed (i.e., suffers from a mood disorder and chemical dependency), a perspective/illness not often portrayed in novels. Presenting the viewpoints of underrepresented voices in fiction can help increase understanding of marginalized peoples. Understanding can promote empathy and empathy is one thing I believe can help ameliorate our increasingly atomized society.
This leads to my last point. I think that one of our most important, and currently neglected, roles as fiction writers is to take part in the societal debates that shape our times. In the past, great novels often had sociopolitical implications—think Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, 1984 by George Orwell, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and, more recently, Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
If we look at popular books in recent years we see that most of them have little to do with reality: The Harry Potter books, The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones. I’m not saying that all books should take on important issues, but I think the fact that so few do is an abdication of an important role of the writer. This is especially true in these divided times, where, regardless of your beliefs or political stance, being a well-informed citizen is crucial.
Fiction has a way of reaching people in a way that non-fiction doesn’t and can be an important tool in raising awareness and promoting discussion of critical topics. I think we as writers almost have an obligation to do so.
What do you think?
I am interested in the different approaches different writers take to their work. Some make extensive outlines before they write, while others are more seat-of-their-pants types. Some do extensive character work prior to writing, while others let their characters develop over the course of the first and subsequent drafts.
I want to raise the issue of writing process and share a little bit about mine. I am a former academic, a political scientist by training, and so academic, non-fiction writing is almost second nature. What I didn’t realize when I started writing fiction is that writing fiction and writing non-fiction are two very different animals. Seldom do you worry about things like character arcs, plot points, and dénouements when writing academically (though in creative non-fiction such things can be just as important). Yes, the two are very different. I spent a lot of time unlearning the academic stiffness and the formal way of writing characteristic of journal articles and academic books.
But, and this is what I really want to share, I’ve been careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are skills I picked up in academia that I seek to carry over into my writing of fiction. The primary one is that ole’ r-word: research. It took me a long time to realize that detail and accuracy is not only important in writing effective fiction, but often depends on it.
When I was in college, friends joked about how I was a flash-card nerd. I always wrote things down on index cards and studied that way, usually to good effect. Only relatively recently I discovered that index cards can be just as useful, if not more so, in writing fiction. Now I do extensive research on my novels before writing a word—thrillers often lend themselves well to the outline approach. And let me just say that I have never used index cards to the extent I do now. I take all kinds of notes on possible plot points, important topics, and ideas for future novels. I rely on these notes when developing the story and writing the first few drafts.
In addition to the index cards relevant to a particular book, I keep another constantly running collection that I add to while reading. When I come across a particularly apt phrase, a simile, metaphor, or word that strikes me, I write it down on an index card. I have categories like overall physical description, eyes, furnishings, gestures, dialogue, and vocabulary.
The point is that good research skills can be applied to writing fiction just as much as non-fiction. I wanted to bring that to people’s attention because it took me a while to figure out. If I can save anyone some time on developing his or her skills as a writer, then I’m all for it.