4 Steps to Writing Organically, Part II – Viewpoints, Mimicry and Imagination « Official Author Website of Melissa McPhail

4 Steps to Writing Organically, Part II – Viewpoints, Mimicry and Imagination

Lonely road

“[Creativity is] like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
~E.L. Doctorow

Think of writing like sailing a massive ship. There are an enormous number of mechanical actions that synergistically combine to keep the ship plowing forward through the waves. It behooves you, as the captain of the vessel, to have an understanding of all of those mechanical workings. Yet if a ship’s captain spent all of his time below decks listening to the engine turbines for knocks, or examining the bilge pumps, or adjusting the steam gauges, he wouldn’t be where he is most needed—on the bridge, guiding the ship.

You need to be on the bridge of your story, standing at its helm, charting its course, guiding its objective, and keeping the story plowing forward. When you leave the bridge to spend your time developing characters that may or may not need to exist, or trying to chart the story’s course far in advance of your current position—without any reference points or knowledge of weather and currents—you’re no longer manning the helm of your story. You’re down below buried among the mechanical operations of the boat, and you have no real view towards your objective.

Organic writing produces storylines and characters that feel alive and real. Mechanical writing can feel formulaic, and characters created through formulas often feel like cardboard cutouts, stiff and unrealistic.

Last week I talked about two ways to help you write organically. Point #1 covered using milestones. Point #2 talked about the importance of capturing scenes as you think of them, but not writing the scene until you’ve reached its place in the story.

This week I'm covering the last two of the four ideas to help you write organically (plus a bonus idea):

3. Assume viewpoints.

Some writers struggle to invent characters who feel vibrant and unique. They turn to lists of traits and descriptions to help them fill in those character details. This is like the captain leaving the helm of the ship to fiddle with the engine's mechanics.

Character creation is easy or difficult in direction relation to how well you are able to assume a viewpoint.

Assuming a viewpoint isn’t the same thing as seeing someone else’s point of view. Doubtless you’ve been in a discussion with someone where you were able to “see their viewpoint,” but in such instances, we’re still sitting in our own shoes, behind the window of our own view, looking across the road and through the other's window from the outside in.

Assuming a viewpoint means being that person or character. Actors do this all the time. The really talented actors seem to become their character; you can’t see where the character ends and the actor begins. It’s a seamless transition.

Like anything else, truly assuming a viewpoint takes practice. It means standing in that person’s (or character’s) shoes and taking a good look around at how the world looks from their perspective—based on their education, their experience, their upbringing. If you don’t know these things for a character when you step into their shoes, you invent them then and there in order to frame their perspective. Assuming a viewpoint means imagining what the character would be feeling in each moment, and speaking and acting from those feelings. You have to understand why characters think the way they do in order to express their feelings realistically to the reader.

Until you put a character in a situation where they have to react and respond, you really can’t know much about them—no more than you know about the guy standing in line next to you waiting for his coffee. Even when you invent a character to fill a need (such as the pirate in my first week’s post on avoiding clichés and writing organically) you still can’t know much about him until you start thinking and acting from his point of view.

I’ve found that the characters I end up keeping the most notes on (in relation to their motivations or plans) are the ones I’ve spent the least time with as viewpoint characters. It’s rare that I need to record the motivations of my main characters. I know them too well; I understand them completely. I trust that when I’m writing in their viewpoint, I’ll decide in that moment what to do—and I'll be capable of being true to their views.

If you invent and write your characters as the story calls for them, and if you let their personalities develop as the story develops, the characters will not only feel alive to the reader, they’ll also feel alive to you. They’ll take on their own personalities, and oftentimes they’ll surprise you with the choices they make and the things they say and do.

There is a great and wondrous magic that is created in this organic process. Don’t miss your chance to experience it by staying below decks messing with the mechanics.

4. Observe and mimic.

To become a good writer, it’s necessary to be a keen observer—not merely of the environment but also of the interrelationships of human beings.

Part of gaining success in conveying a character’s viewpoint is an understanding of human nature. The better you understand your character’s motivations and how his experience influences his ideas, the better you can show his rationale to the reader.

We gain an understanding of human nature through reading great works of fiction (both old and new), through a study of history and the humanities, and through our own experience and observation.

We can learn much from history, but there is no substitute for going out into the world and seeing what you see. Susha Guppy said, “It is very important not to become hard. The artist must always have one skin too few in comparison with other people, so you feel the slightest wind.”

Let life inspire you. The more you open your eyes and observe the world, the more inspiration you’ll find in it.

As part of mindfully observing life, make a practice of looking at both sides of an argument and really trying—not to “see” another’s point of view, but to truly assume their point of view. You’ll find over time that there is quite a difference in these two perspectives. Then take your observations and apply them to your characters and story.

Life mimics art, but art well done mimics life.

5. Cultivate your imagination.

“Great imaginations are apt to work from hints and suggestions, and a single moment of emotion is sometimes sufficient to create a masterpiece.” ~Margaret Sackville

Imagination is what connects us to divinity. It’s the thread linking creativity and the muse, the true source of inspiration.

If you’re one of the ones who struggles to imagine new things, cultivate this skill. Turn every cloud into an animal. Think of ways that what is, isn’t. Practice thinking up stories based on vignettes of observation. Let a sound or a brief comment spur a story idea. Watch the world and think of ways to describe it to others. Find whimsy in the mundane.

Some of us leave childhood with our imaginations unfettered. Others find that we’ve left imagination somewhere far behind us like a treasured toy, once loved and then abandoned. We may feel a deep desire to create, yet for all of this desire, we cannot seem to find that creative spark.

Imagination can become buried beneath layers of loss and experience, criticism, or too many “it’s time to get serious about your life” lessons–especially from those who've closed a door on their own spirit of play. Unburden yourself of the “now we must do’s” and “work is hard” attitudes, and you’ll find the buds of imagination making their way back to the surface.

When a man loses his imagination, when he loses the ability to wave a magic wand and make his world beautiful, he’s lost everything that’s truly important in this life.

Unburden your imagination, and the rest will follow.

* * *

Did you find any of these ideas helpful or similar to your own creative style? Do you have a completely different way of writing? Share your thoughts below.


11 Responses to “4 Steps to Writing Organically, Part II – Viewpoints, Mimicry and Imagination”

  1. Ed Godwin says:

    Melissa,

    Thanks so much for these very encouraging and inspirational articles about organic writing. You’ve taken the abstract concept of creativity and translated it to the practical.

    By the way, I love that quote: “The artist must always have one skin too few in comparison with other people, so you feel the slightest wind.”

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Thanks, Ed. I’m glad you found these posts helpful. I love the quote also. It’s become part of how I view the world.

  2. Rachel Karl says:

    This is exactly what I need to get my story going! I’ve been messing around in my head with trying to plot out every twist and turn and character detail — and haven’t really begun much of the actual steering of the ship! I felt like I should have it all mapped out in my head before starting. Thank you for sharing this advice because it makes me relax and enjoy the ride as opposed to spinning my wheels forever!

    Also, I love how you talk about viewpoint and assuming viewpoint. Not only is it great advice but it’s also key to the mythology of your own books!

    Write on!
    Rachel

  3. British Boy says:

    Interesting observations. At the heart of this message is a beautiful truth and important lesson. It is okay to copy. You heart may have just skipped a beat… what? copy? me? NEVER! Every story has characters and a plot. Every story that came before had these also. The writer, the artist, the creator often get lost in a sea searching for the one thing that is new or unique. What I take from this post is that is okay to copy things that work or that you observe. If someone has an interchange and it is funny, then copy it and incorporate it into something funny within your story. The best inspiration may come from things that happen around you every day – not from the dark corners of your mind.

    In many ways you’ve just freed so many writers whose largest barrier is that ‘need’ to do it first or different.

    I also love the idea that this connects your story to your audience in a much better way; it is more real and less fabricated.

    Great observations and advice. Thanks!

  4. Andy Southam says:

    First of all, thank you. I have just finished Paths Of Alir. I had to force myself to put it down, enjoyed every minute. The balance you struck between all the various characters and plots kept it interesting and fresh.
    Second, I would like to thank you for these posts. I’ve been wnating to write a story for a few years now, and I can come up with ideas and concepts but they never seem to get past the “wouldn’t this be cool” stage. Your posts have opened my eyes and inspired me to get my head down and just write. Hopefully somr this will come of it.

    I do have a question : Did you write the Glossery as you went along? as in you came across a new idea/character/place did you ad it to the Glossery as a what to help keep track of them?

    Again thank you for Alorin!

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      I’m thrilled you’re enjoying A Pattern of Shadow & Light thus far, Andy. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me.

      I’m very glad my posts have proven helpful to you. That’s wonderful to hear. “A writer writes.” This above all else.

      I wish I’d had the foresight to add to the glossary as I went. Instead, as I was putting together the extras for Cephrael’s Hand, I had to make a sweep back through the book looking for all the special words. I’m sure I still missed some. The nomenclature of Alorin, as with everything else, comes to me as I need it for the story.

  5. Imam says:

    Nice.though when you said assume a viewpoint then is it necessary to know your character’s past or is knowing their motivation and feeling enough to assume their viewpoint?

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      I hesitate to use the word necessary because what might be needed by one writer isn’t by another. In my experience, Imam, when you practice assuming viewpoints (even just in everyday living) it helps you assume a character’s viewpoint more easily. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, searching for their motivation, their reasoning behind a choice or comment…the more we do this the better we become at fashioning characters with real viewpoints and motivations. Do you need to know their past? A hint of it perhaps – some concept that they’ve had a hard go of it, or lived a life of privilege and all of the hazards that accompany such – sure. I’ve found this helpful. But I’ve written many chapters with characters whose backstory I only had glimpses of, and it developed – they developed – as I went along. I freely admit this style of writing is not for everyone – LOL!

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