He doesn’t know it, but crime novelist Andrew Klavan is a mentor of mine.
Klavan grew up as a secular Jew on Long Island. After his bar mitzvah, he threw away hundreds of dollars of expensive gifts because he realized that neither he nor his parents believed the Hebrew Scriptures that he had just professed. He proceeded to do some time as a journalist and to write a bunch of hard-boiled crime novels. He liked noir because it takes an unflinching look at life in all its grittiness … a perspective that he thought was the opposite of that taken by religion.
Becoming a Christian always solves some problems but causes others. As he realized that he was about to become a Christian, one of Klavan’s fears was that he would no longer be able to write hard-boiled fiction. He remembers pleading, “Please, God, don’t let me become a ‘Christian novelist’!”
Of course, by ‘Christian novelist’ he did not mean the likes of G.K. Chesterton, George McDonald, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or Flannery O’Connor. He meant someone who writes novels (or movies) in which nothing seriously bad ever happens.
Klavan does a great job of articulating a philosophy of fiction that has also become my own. No, the sex and violence in my novels isn’t as explicit as in his. (We all have to find our own ‘ew’ threshold.) But I do believe that, if you are going to have real characters, they should be flawed. And if you are going to have a real plot, then – you can’t get away from it – at some point ‘the worst’ has to happen.
Klavan explains how a Christian can even dream of writing about sex, violence, and cussing in the five-minute video below.
Of course you doubt yourself. All grown people do. In fact, I don’t entirely trust you if you don’t.
Here is the latest thing that made me doubt myself. It starts out with Jordan Peterson classroom footage, but ignore that. At 9:30, Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson start discussing archetypes in movies. At about 13:15, Peterson says, “The artist shouldn’t be able exactly to say what it is he’s doing.”
That gave me pause. Sure, I’m a pantser, but this isn’t about pantsing versus plotting. It’s about whether you are primarily telling a story, or primarily illustrating an idea. And anyone, plotter or pantser, can do either. This made me ask myself, I am too heavy on theme? Are any of my characters behaving less like people and more like embodiments of an idea that I love or hate? Good questions to ask.
What have you doubted lately and how are you dealing with it?
Most books have a gross or horrifying part. When I was a kid, I disliked these parts. (I was an impressionable child. I had nightmares for what seemed like months after someone told me the story of how Odysseus used a heated log to poke out the cyclops’s eye.)
The ew! moments in books are sometimes all that people remember about them. I can remember a few occasions when someone would see me reading a book and say, “Ew, that’s the book where _________ happens.” And in the blank was always the most disgusting incident, which usually was just an aside and wasn’t even a major part of the plot. I guess you could say that grossness is salient.
Why Authors Include Ew! Moments
I never thought I’d include ew! moments in my own novels, but lo and behold, they have quite a few of them. It’s a matter of simple realism. My plots deal with sometimes desperate survival situations. They include death and birth (a lot of births). One of the characters is paraplegic, which comes with its own indignities. I try to handle any necessary grossness tastefully, but I don’t skip it entirely, because I don’t want to romanticize anything … not parenthood, not paralysis, not the nomadic lifestyle. Also, it is through these horrifying and humbling incidents that the characters grow. If I skipped all that, I’d be skipping the whole story.
It turns out that grossness is a part of life. We might not want to dwell on it, but we can’t completely avoid it either. And this is true for any book that aspires to being realistic.
Fantasy author Neil Gaiman titled his 2015 short story collection Trigger Warning for the following reason:
We take words, and we give them power, and we look out through other eyes, and we see, and experience, what others see. I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered, because I was not ready for them and they upset me: stories which contained helplessness, in which people were embarrassed, or mutilated, in which adults were made vulnerable and parents could be of no assistance. They troubled me … but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could. (page xiii)
Ew! Levels Are Culturally Determined
How much ew! to include in fiction is a convention that has changed over the years. One hundred fifty years ago, the standard was basically … none. Take The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I adore this book. It paints a perfect picture of the horror that results when we are enslaved to sin … whether through addiction to a substance or to some aspect of our own sin nature. (In Dr. Jekyll’s case, it’s literally both.) The horror in this book does not come from any gross-out scenes. It comes from the progressive loss of self-control and the dawning realization that you are the monster. However, I can think of one part of the story where Robert Louis Stevenson’s discretion causes some confusion. Dr. Jekyll mentions that his “pleasures” were “undignified” and that he created Hyde as a way to allow himself to indulge his pleasures without Dr. Jekyll suffering any “indignity.” As a modern reader, it’s not immediately obvious to me what this means. My guess is that Dr. Jekyll had started out frequenting music halls and had progressed to brothels. But I don’t know, because he is too dignified to tell us. Perhaps Victorian readers would immediately have known what was meant by “undignified pleasures.”
Nowadays, obviously, there are entire genres dedicated to ew!. Of course this is just as misguided as the Victorian standard. Grossness is a part of life and so must be included. But it’s not the main story.
It’s Good for Ew!
How much ew! to include in your reading is a personal decision. I can tolerate more of it now than when I was younger, and that’s as it should be. For example, it was just within the last few years that I read Stephen King’s Misery. I deliberately avoided it before because I didn’t think I could handle the horror at the time. I still think that was a good decision. The story is most famous for the scene where the rabid fan, Annie, amputates the author’s leg at the ankle. But as you might expect, the real horror in the story does not come from that scene alone, but from the increasingly complete picture we get of Annie’s mind. And the story is not only about horror. It’s about literary snobbery (really!), the creative process, the relationships readers have with books and that authors have with readers. But I doubt I could have appreciated all of those themes (or even the glimpses of Annie’s mind) if I had read it as a younger person.
Having said that, there was one scene in Misery, worse even than the amputation scene, which I skipped as soon as I realized what was coming. You gotta know your limits. You do not have any obligation to read every horrifying scene that is out there.
Yet despite that know your limits is a good rule, it has sometimes been the cringiest scenes in books that have done me the most good. Yes, even moral good. They bring home to the reader the details of what some people have to live through (such as sexual assault in Pillars of the Earth or leprosy in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever), thereby increasing empathy. For those of us fortunate enough not to have grown up suffering war, crime, or abuse, our first encounter with the reality of these things was probably through books.
Of course, some horrors are entirely fictional (vampires, zombies, aliens, portals to hell). Yet even these are telling us something that is in some sense true about the world. There really are evil spiritual powers, and they really do seek to affect human history, and sometimes it can get very bad. In the case of these fictional or metaphorical horrors, reading about them inoculates the reader against the shock of that particular thing. Hopefully we will never encounter it in exactly that form, but we are going to come up against the concept – and the power – again.
It is a wonderful thing to be able to encounter a particular horror for the first time in the context of solitary reading, where you have some space and time on your own to be shocked by it, go back and re-read it, meditate on it, and ultimately, to face that this is part of reality. And maybe to go for help.
Here is Jordan Peterson making a similar point about why you should invite Maleficent to your child’s christening:
Now, read the comments section at your own risk. It could really get away from us if people start telling their own ew! stories.
OK, that might be an exaggeration. The “endorsed” part, I mean. Not the “great.”
Andrew Klavan writes hard-boiled crime novels. Sometimes they have supernatural elements in them too. I recently discovered Klavan and have started reading through his work. Within the last week, I read Damnation Street. And it is pretty hard-boiled, let me tell you. Lots of violence, lots of language. A keen sense of human sin nature and human limitations.
The hero detective in Damnation Street, however, has a deeply buried romantic heart. And he is very intuitive in his approach to detective work. Here is a passage that describes how he operates:
[The detective, Weiss] wasn’t even sure he was trailing the right guy. It was just one of his Weissian hunches that had brought him here. And while his hunches were almost always right, he almost never trusted them. They were too vague, too unscientific. He wished he could write out the facts on a whiteboard or something and look them over and tap the pen against his chin and reach his conclusions through logic and deduction. But he never could. He just knew what he knew, so he never felt certain he knew it. (pp 77 – 78)
In fact, Weiss is trailing the right guy. And later, on page 91, we get this line:
The truth came to him in that flashing way the truth had.
That’s when he realizes he’s been wrong in certain of his assumptions about the man he was trailing.
OK, so maybe this is not endorsement of pantsing, but it’s certainly a great description of it.
Damnation Street, by Andrew Klavan, published 2006. Harcourt, Inc.
If you hang around writerly sorts, you will hear them talking about plotting and pantsing. Plotting means you plan out your entire novel before starting to write it. You make an outline. You decide what’s going to happen chapter by chapter. Obviously, you do any necessary research before starting to write. The term pantsing comes from the phrase “fly by the seat of your pants.” With pantsing, you might have done some research and you might have a general idea where the story is going to go. But you don’t outline. You just dive in, let the story and characters take over, and record what you see happening. You are just along for the ride, like the lovely lady above on the right side of the picture.
Both methods have their advocates. Both methods even have a book which will tell you how to do the method. I have read neither of these books, but have heard them recommended by other authors. For pantsing, there is Writing Into the Dark, by Dean Wesley Smith; and for plotting, there is Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker. (How can you not love that title?)
There’s No Right Way, but This Is the Right Way
Perhaps anyone can learn to plot … or to pants. Nevertheless, I think that a strong preference for one or the other is a consequence of the way a person’s brain is wired. This explains why people’s reaction when they hear about the other method (whichever the other method is), tends to be something like, “You mean there are people who live this way?”
Pantsers, for example, tend to sound as if they think pantsing is inherently spiritual. It’s about sensitivity to your characters; it’s about trusting your subconscious and the story itself. It’s about listening to reality, for crying out loud! Writers are people who listen! They don’t impose!
I am thinking here of two of my favorite writers: Anne Lamott and Stephen King. I love Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, and King’s On Writing. Bird by Bird does contain some passages that make it sound (unintentionally, I am sure) as if writers are more mystical or wise or something than the general population. King, meanwhile, believes strongly that you have to let your characters lead. He never plots; he thinks of an intriguing or difficult situation, puts his character in it, and then sits back and lets it play out. Because he doesn’t plan a rescue for his characters, horror usually follows.
I haven’t read as much writing advice by plotters, so I’m not as familiar with their besetting misconceptions. It seems to me, based on little comments that I have seen here and there based on a “how to write a novel” book, written by an editor, that I read many years ago, that plotters have the impression that if you don’t outline, you won’t have a good plot. Nothing will happen in your story. As one person put it, no amount of revision can make a book good if it was a weak story to begin with.
In short, and to make a huge generalization that I will no doubt regret later, diehard pantsers tend to feel that plotting is immoral, whereas diehard plotters tend to feel that pantsing is incompetent.
But Is There Such a Thing as “Pure” Plotting or “Pure” Pantsing?
I can only speak from the pantsing side (in case you haven’t guessed). I am an incurable pantser. But this doesn’t mean I never do any research or plan anything out. When at the writing desk, I tend to look more like the gal on the left. I don’t outline, but to keep things consistent I am forced to make timelines, name and age charts, and so on. I keep research notes and maps handy. It’s just that these things are following the story, not preceding it.
In the same way, I imagine that even those who thoroughly plot spend time listening to their characters so that the emotions ring true. Who knows, perhaps they even change their outline from time to time in response to a character’s wishes or the changing currents of the story.
So the supposed down side of each of these methods is mitigated by the fact that writing is an iterative process and that writers mix in elements from each.
Why Am I A Pantser?
I just am. I am constitutionally unable to make a book outline first and then have that outline actually be the way the story goes.
I might have a general idea of what I think is going to happen (and sometimes it does). But half the time, by the time we get there, things don’t go down that way. The characters have been changed by their experiences and they don’t react the way I expected. Or, they react much more strongly than I expected and do some fool thing that the story then has to accommodate.
This doesn’t make me more spiritual or, God forbid, smarter than the plotters. If anything, it might be the reverse. When my story surprises me, it’s because my subconscious is working out plot points that my better organized fellows are able to do intentionally, with their conscious brains. It may be true that plotting results in twistier, more intricate plots. I’d do it if I could, but I can’t.
In fact, I’m not even able to write a non-fiction piece from an outline. If an outline is required, I do some discovery drafts, let the structure emerge, and then outline it afterward. That’s how pantsy I am.
Luckily, Stephen King is there to remind me that it is possible to be a competent and prolific writer by pantsing.
Now, how about you? Even if you don’t write novels, I’ll bet you plot or pants your way through life. And I’ll bet that whichever you do, the other way seems just wrong.
Also, when you are reading a book can you tell which kind of writer the author is?
No, authors don’t kill off your favorite character just for kicks. It’s usually because the story demands it. But why? Why should any story demand such a thing? Unfortunately, it has to do with the spiritual structure of reality.
Jessica McAdams explains why in this recent article at Tor.com. “The defining feature of fantasy is the reality of the supernatural within the narrative …” If, like me, you think that’s a super compelling first line, then follow the link and read the rest.
I say this without any snark. This line – “I like to write about misfits” – has been used by some writers I really respect. They are not stupid. They are good writers. But I don’t think it’s a helpful way to describe your work, because it tells me so little.
Common “Misfit” Tropes in Fiction:
the girl who is plain or fat
the boy who is small, weak, or nerdy
the orphan or stepchild
the sensitive, misunderstood artist
the misunderstood villain (or werewolf or vampire)
the unremarkable teenager who discovers s/he has secret powers
the person who stands out because of their race
the gifted cop/soldier/agent who is forced to go rogue
the courageous person who goes against received wisdom (whether that is political, scientific, religious, artistic, or whatever)
the drag queen
That’s just off the top of my head.
When you tell me that your writing is unusual because you write about about misfits, my mind immediately goes to these tropes. There’s nothing wrong with these tropes (I like them), but stories featuring a “misfit” are not unique.
Using the word could even mask the uniqueness of your writing. For example, my eyes glazed over when a fellow writer described his novels as having misfit main characters. I was not expecting what he said next … that one of his books has a dragon as a main character, and another has a teddy bear. (These are books for adults.) The word “misfit” actually alienated me, for reasons I will describe below. The phrase “teddy bear main character” got my attention.
We Are All Misfits
Listen up, fellow writers: Everyone feels like a misfit!
It is rare to meet someone who has always felt comfortable in their own skin. That goes double for writer types.
In fact, that’s the reason that misfit characters are so appealing. Because the vast majority of people don’t feel as if they belong, misfit characters make them feel understood. But this isn’t just about people’s inner feelings: misfits feature in many stories because belonging and exclusion are major, enduring problems in this fallen world.
So, telling me that you are a misfit – as if this is unique to you – can be unintentionally, subtly insulting. The implication seems to be that you are pretty that sure I, your interlocutor, have never struggled with this. It’s similar to when people say they have a special concern for “justice,” as if this is something that most people don’t care about.
To be fair, I don’t think anyone who says this means to be insulting. They may honestly feel as if they are uniquely excluded. That’s the nature of feeling like you don’t belong. But trust me, if I am a fellow writer, then no matter how I may appear on the outside, I do know what it’s like not to fit in.
Characters Who Are Comfortable in Their Own Skin
In thinking about this, it occurred to me to wonder whether there are any novels that feature a main character who is comfortable in his or her own skin. And if there are, does this destroy the dramatic tension?
The first one I thought of was Where the Red Fern Grows. Then I started to realize that there are, in fact, many more. While there are many, many books for for both adults and children that explore themes of exclusion and belonging, there are also many that don’t. Often, a simple adventure story doesn’t need this dynamic.
Talking of characters who are comfortable in their own skin, I was reminded one of my own main characters, Nimri. Outwardly, he is certainly in a “misfit” situation: he paraplegic, and is being cared for by a group of people with whom he can’t at first communicate. Nevertheless, though he might bemoan his situation, Nimri is still happy to be Nimri. He is comfortable in his own skin. He is just not the personality type to experience much angst.
Outward vs. Inward Misfittedness
This brings up the distinction between being in an outcast or disadvantaged position, and feeling like we don’t belong. Which of these makes a character a “misfit”?
Of course, most people and characters have feelings that match their position. But not always. This can be a function of personality. Bilbo Baggins, for example, is a character who is small, weak, and has trouble getting the dwarves to take him seriously. Yet he is spunky and comfortable in his own skin. On the other hand, we can think of characters (often teenagers in coming-of-age-stories) who “never felt like they belonged,” even though outwardly there might not be much visible reason for this. This second option mirrors the experience of many authors.
I am not taking sides here, by the way. I like both kinds of story. I am fine with adventure stories where the hero or heroine never seems to experience any doubt (as long as the rest of the story is good), and I can identify with characters who don’t feel as if they fit. In my opinion, the really brilliant novels combine the two, and the main character’s inner turmoil becomes important to the outward plot. A really great novel of this kind is ‘Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.
So what about you? Is being comfortable in your own skin something you once struggled with, or is it an ongoing issue? On a scale of 1 to 10, how much patience do you have with fictional characters who experience identity crises, exclusion, and angst? (10 = I won’t read a book unless the main character struggles with belonging; 1 = I have no time for that touchy-feely stuff in my adventure stories)