Holly Lisle's Workshop
Issue # 3: 04/01/01
A Theory of Alternate History
Your main goal as a fiction writer should be to create emotional truth, not literal truth, in an interesting and exciting way. If that means changing real-life events until they're nearly unrecognizable, go right ahead. Make life serve your plot.
Writer's Digest Books
A lot of fiction by beginning writers, and unfortunately a
significant amount of fiction by published writers, is plagued by paper
people characters who never really come to life on the page.
The published writers who still get away with this do so because
theyve learned to tell a story so compelling that editors will buy from
them anyway. Beginners really
dont have that luxury, and paper people will kill a sale as fast as
Paper people fall into categories and that is much of
their problem. You have Evil
Villains, Oppressed Virginal Heroines, Na´ve-But-Stalwart Heroes, and
Smart-Ass Sidekicks, among other common types.
(Depending on genre, youll meet Hookers-With-Hearts-of-Gold,
Brilliant-But-Distracted Scientists, Ever-Dedicated Cops, and the
inescapable Fearless Soldiers.) You
recognize them as I list them, and can probably name as many novels where
they feature prominently as I can.
Theyre recognizable at types, but they arent
recognizable as people. Real
people have interests both broad and deep, friends and enemies from as far
back as when they were two years old, hobbies that have absolutely nothing
to do with their current Quest for the Silver Nematode, and the occasional
pet, favorite book, and favorite song.
More than anything else, living characters have passions, hungers
and desires, and they arent all related to the story of the moment.
Flat characters begin and end with whatever theyre doing
in the story.
Heres how to test your character to see if you have any
hope of breathing some life into him as he stands. Write down the characteristics he has to have to successfully
complete the story youve plotted out for him.
Youll probably have things in there like Intelligence, Deep
knowledge of spaceship construction and navigation, and The ability to
fire weapons accurately even while hanging upside-down by the ankles and
with hands bound.
Hey, my characters can do some nifty things, too.
Part of the fun of writing is writing people who are better at cool
things than you are.
But if your character starts and ends with the things that
will help him get through his mission, you have created Yet Another Paper
Person. YAPP. Bad. YAPPs
dont sell books.
Im going to show you the method I use to make my people
real. It gets a bit personal
when I occasionally complain about writing being like dancing naked on
your rooftop, this is the part of writing that most closely fits that
description. This takes some
courage. But it works.
Youre going to put yourself into your characters.
Not just the public things that youre proud of, like having won
the fifth-grade statewide spelling bee, or being president of your
graduating class and the person voted Most Likely To but the things
you wish you never had to admit to anyone, like the fact that you screwed
up four marriages and three of the four were almost entirely your own
fault. Or that fact that you
had a teenage pregnancy, and a teenage abortion.
Or adoption. The fact
that you had an affair you never told anyone about.
The stupid stuff, too, like the fact that you couldnt carry a
tune on a stretcher with two paramedics helping you.
The fact that you whistle La Bamba in the shower. Like the fact that you absolutely, positively refuse to look
at your butt in a mirror, clothed or unclothed, because you just hate it.
The fact that you wear glasses, or are balding, or have dimples on
your thighs and stretch marks from four pregnancies in which you
frequently mistook yourself for the Hindenburg.
This workshop is private.
There isnt any place on the board to do it, because in this
voyage of discovery, youre going to have to be brutally honest and
youll do that better with no one looking over your shoulder.
Dont panic. Once
youve been honest, Ill show you how to lie to disguise the truth and
still have it be true to the story. First
though, you have to be honest.
Here we go.
A. Write ten things about yourself that you think are fantastic things that you dont think other people really appreciate fully about you, or that they havent noticed, or that they simply dont know about. Ten. Really.
B. Write ten things about yourself that would embarrass you terribly if anyone else knew about them. These can be things you have done, things you have wanted, things you have thought, fantasies you have entertained, or secrets you have been keeping. Doesnt matter. The only thing that matters is that you tell the truth. If it doesnt hurt and make you uncomfortable to write each of these, you arent digging deep enough.
C. Describe your body as honestly as you can what you like about it, what you hate about it, and what you hope no one has noticed.
D. Describe five of the most wonderful moments of your life things you still look back on with pleasure and joy.
E. Describe five of the most painful moments of your life mistakes youve made, people youve hurt, things that you will probably regret until you die.
F. Write the ten things you are most passionate about. These can be religious, political, philosophical, personal, romantic these are your causes. You can be in favor of them, or against them, but they have to matter to you. They dont have to be big; they just have to be yours.
soul-searching. Youll have
to do this from time to time, but if youve done the exercise honestly
this time, you now have enough goodies to give a whole novel or three full
of characters some resonance and depth.
Obviously, you are not going to transfer any of this stuff
directly into your novel. Youre
going to change it, transform it, invert it, spread it out around a whole
bunch of people who are not like you.
Yes, to do good work, you have to put yourself into your writing,
but no, you dont have to put yourself in recognizably.
Lets say that one of the really tough-to-deal-with moments
in your life came when you caught your girlfriend of five years cheating
on you with her girlfriend. Ouch.
You arent going to get over that one any time soon.
Youve spent time wondering what was wrong with you, how many
other people knew what was going on, if you were a laughingstock, if
shed ever done this before, with whom . . . and those questions
arent going to go away.
So give them to one character. Give them to a character who is otherwise unlike you
different gender, or different sexual orientation, or different
interests. Make the situation
in which he or she finds out about the cheating entirely different.
If youre writing a novel about a female vampire-hunting space
captain, and shes carrying around these feelings of yours, they
arent going to be your feelings anymore.
Theyll be hers. Give
her relationship with the cheater some backstory, make it as closely or
distantly related to the plot as you wish, but get it in there.
She has a life outside of chasing vampires through space, and
sometimes her anger at what this person has done to her is going to find
itself displace onto innocent people who for one reason or another will
remind her of the cheater. This will affect, to greater or lesser degree, her movement
through the story. And it
will, because it is personal and true even if disguised resonate
with your readers.
For you to be able to use the events from your own life
effectively in fiction, you must, then, do the following things:
1. Search out those events in your life that have meaning to you;
2. Honestly explore how each of those events affected you;
3. Disguise the events and your reactions to them while still maintaining their essential, emotional truth;
4. And give these altered events to your characters, both good and bad, as part of their personal histories.
And a final, essential point. If this isnt hard for you to do, you arent digging deep
enough. The things that
matter are never easy. Including
the things that matter in your fiction, though, will help you get sales,
reach your readers, and write something that isnt just the next Paper
Hero Goes on A Quest doorstop novel.
Say goodbye to Evil Villains, Oppressed Virginal Heroines, Na´ve-But-Stalwart
Heroes, and Smart-Ass Sidekicks forever.
Because once you put yourself into your characters, they become
Deeper People. They become