Be Positive about Negative Capability

As part of our shared journey through the realm of fiction writing, let’s explore a few rooms within a stately mansion belonging to the English romantic poet, John Keats. In particular, what did he mean by the term negative capability, and how does it relate to creative writing?

photo By William Hilton – National Portrait Gallery: NPG 194

Nearly two centuries ago, on December 21, 1817, Keats wrote a letter to his brothers where he mentioned negative capability:

“…at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

That may be confusing, but here’s what I think he means—If you want to be a great writer, be willing to:

  • delve into the essence of your characters (or objects, like a Grecian Urn),
  • shed your preconceived world-view,
  • abandon any search for meaning or the urge to fit things into a logical structure, and
  • accept any mysteries and ambiguities you find without trying to resolve them.

Keats praises Shakespeare for the Bard’s ability to show us his characters, through their speech and actions, as they would be, without the author’s heavy hand fitting everything into a coherent whole. Keats criticizes Samuel Coleridge for starting with a philosophical vision and fashioning poetic characters to illustrate that vision.

Why did Keats call this approach ‘negative capability?’ The Wikipedia entry offers an electrical explanation. However, I believe Keats was saying that a true poet should negate her own capability (to make judgements; detect patterns; deduce from, or induce to, general principles) and instead immerse herself in the object of study and absorb all that is there, with all its contradictions and inconsistencies.

For those of you still stuck on the word ‘Penetralium’ in Keats’ letter, let me digress a moment. The word refers to a building’s innermost part, like a temple’s sanctuary. By extension, it can mean the secret inner essence of a person—the soul. Keats thought in terms of rooms of the mind, as illustrated by a letter he wrote, which is cited in the Wikipedia article: “I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments…”

For another description of negative capability, see this video with author Julie Burstein, especially from 1:00 to 1:25. Also, check out this post at Keats’ Kingdom, and this one by Dr. Philip Irving Mitchell of Dallas Baptist University.

As for me, I take a nuanced view of negative capability, as it regards creative writing. I agree writers should empathize with their characters, to know them as directly as possible. That keeps all the characters from seeming to be slight variations of the author. I also concur writers should embrace “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.” The worldview of any character and even the universe of the story itself don’t have to fit neatly together in every detail. The writer should approach the characters and story with an open mind, allowing things to develop as they would in their world, not necessarily in step with the worldview of the writer.

But where Keats asserts “the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration,” I suggest this applies to the story as a whole, not just one character. Characters are not works of art for a writer to portray, however empathetically, in isolation. They are part of a greater whole, the story, and that whole—with its plot, themes, style, setting, and characters—is the thing the writer must strive to optimize for reader enjoyment.

I hope you liked our visit to this mansion of John Keats’ mind. It’s time to continue with the rest of the tour, led by your literary tour guide—

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Characters at the Edge

Are your story’s characters living out at the edge? If not, maybe you should push them further out there.

What does that mean? In this post by author Steven Pressfield, he mentions a friend of his who considers fictional characters far more interesting, more worth reading about, if they operate at some extreme, if they’re desperate enough to act outside normal boundaries.

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Only then is the drama enticing enough, the character fascinating enough, to make the tale worth the reader’s time.

Pressfield’s post cites examples including several movie characters played by Matthew McConaughey, as well as characters on cable TV shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men.

Two thoughts I’d add to Pressfield’s post. First, he claims it should be as if a character is telling the reader, “Don’t take your eyes off me because I am capable of doing anything.” By “anything” I believe Pressfield means anything consistent with the character’s personality and motivations. The character should be at the edge, yes, but at the edge of a space bordered by that character’s nature and inner dreams.

Second, as one of the commenters pointed out, being at the edge doesn’t only mean rough-and-tumble actions such as picking fights, killing people, or driving 100 miles per hour.

For example, say you’re Arthur Conan Doyle and you want to write about a fictional detective. Taking that character to the edge means making him capable of deductive reasoning and powers of observations that are at the outer limits of human capability. Then, of course, compensate by giving that character weaknesses and flaws; you don’t get superhuman abilities in one facet without suffering in some others.

Say you’re Jules Verne and you want to write about a character desperate to complete a journey around the world before a deadline. Taking that character to the edge means making him fixated on time, exacting and precise, decisive and unemotional. Compensate by giving him faults as well, such as being uncaring and oblivious to the emotions of others.

Before writing your story, create a written description of your main characters, including each one’s physical appearance, motivation, personality type, goals, and dreams, etc. Then ask yourself if you can make those characters more extreme. Don’t worry about realism or authenticity too much. See how close to the edge you can push them.

If you succeed in doing this, your story’s action and dialogue will be fascinating and dramatic, your characters vivid and unforgettable.

Go ahead and push them out toward the edge…further…further… Out on that precipice stands your finest character, a big part of your best story. Now write that story.

One more thing. When your story succeeds, tell me about it by leaving an edgy comment for—

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Getting Inside Their Heads

How do you write a story about a character who’s completely unlike you? How do you get inside his or her head enough to make your story credible? Don’t we all admire authors who can do this well? Conversely, isn’t it boring (and confusing) when every character in a story thinks and speaks the same way?

I’ve blogged before about creating convincing characters who are the opposite gender from you. But there are many ways besides gender to be different—age, race, time period, nationality, home location, economic status, intelligence, species, planet, etc.

A few years ago, I read Next, by the late Michael Crichton. In that novel, one of the characters, Brad Gordon, is abnormally attracted to very young girls. If I remember correctly, I read about Brad attending a high school girls soccer game. The scene is in Brad’s point of view, and I read about watching the game through a sexual deviant’s eyes. Not only was the scene disturbing, but I was convinced Michael Crichton knew his character well enough to capture his mindset.

It’s a difficult thing, writing from the POV of a character so unlike you, one who thinks differently, who has different goals and motivations. That character doesn’t share your (the writer’s) basic assumptions about how the world works. The character reacts to events with different emotions than you would. Your job is to make that character realistic.

This character might be very different from your targeted readership. The character might be an extraterrestrial, a British colonialist explorer from the 1880s, a serial killer, or a Tibetan monk. Your readers won’t know if you “got it right,” but you still need to make it convincing. None of those characters should think or act like you do.

Of course, it’s worse when your targeted readers do match your character and you don’t. If you’re an elderly male author writing romance, your depictions of young women had better be very close to the mark, because your readers will spot any unrealistic actions, thoughts, clothing, dialogue, etc. If you’ve never been in the military and you’re writing a war story, your readership expects you to get in the mind of your POV characters and convey accurate feelings and actions.

In this blog post, Monica M. Clark discusses some helpful advice she learned from author Terry McMillan on this subject. Her three recommendations follow, paraphrased by me:

  • Empathize. Spend time getting in the mind of that character, feeling the passions, seeing the world through those different filters.
  • Listen. If possible, find real people who are like your character. Go to where they live, if you can. Then watch and listen. Pick up the speech patterns, the clothing, the gestures.
  • Apply for a job. No, the job’s not for you, it’s for your character. Fill out a job application as your character would. That will build the bio for your character.

All great advice. Regarding that last item, there are some things you need to know about your character that would not appear on a typical job application, like physical attributes and personality. Write those down, too. As you write your story, refer back to the job application every now and then to check if you have things right.

The better you can convey different characters, the better your stories will be. For example, I do my best to depict characters who are completely different from—

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My Stories and the Bechdel-Wallace Test

Here’s a touchy topic. Do my stories past the Bechdel-Wallace Test? How about other similar tests? How important are these tests?

What is the Bechdel-Wallace Test? It purports to measure the degree to which a work of fiction features female characters in their own right, and not just as characters who are there to react to males. A story passes the Bechdel-Wallace Test if (1) there are at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something besides a man.

dykes_to_watch_out_for_bechdel_test_originThe test got its name from Alison Bechdel, who writes the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Bechdel credits her friend Liz Wallace for the idea, too.

Other, related measures include the percentage of female speaking roles, the percentage of named characters who are women, the percentage of female characters overall, whether the protagonist is a woman, whether 2 out of the top 3 speaking roles are for women, and whether the character with the most dialogue is a woman. Then there’s the Smurfette Principle Test—whether there is only one female in an otherwise all-male group or ensemble of characters. And we shouldn’t forget the Mako Mori Test—whether a female character has a narrative arc that is not about supporting a man’s story.

With some trepidation, I’ll show you how my published stories faired in these tests. Note: I’m counting the two versions of “Alexander’s Odyssey” as different stories, because I substantially revised it for its second publication. I’m counting “Vessel” and “Last Vessel of Atlantis” as a single story because I did not revise it much for its second publication. That makes the number of stories 28.


Not great scores, I’ll grant you, given that women are 50% of the population. For the record, I have nothing against women. In partial defense of my low scores on these tests:

  1. I write a lot of alternate history fiction involving technology, and historically women have not figured as prominently as men in dealing with technology,
  2. Very little of the fiction I grew up and loved reading would pass these tests, and
  3. As a male writer, it is more difficult for me to craft a believable and relatable female character.

There is also some dispute about the tests themselves. A poorly written story could score higher than a well-written one. A writer bent on passing the tests could do so without necessarily representing female characters in a good light. I mention this not to denigrate the tests, but to point out the difficulty of accurate metrics in the social sciences. If you articulate what you truly want to measure, then any metric you come up with will be unwieldy and possibly subjective. If you strive to get an easy-to-calculate, objective metric, then it may only be a rough gauge of the truth you’re after.

Those are only excuses, though. I can do better, and I will. Not for the purpose of becoming a feminist writer, but to have my writing more closely align with the human condition. In short, I should be Amphitrite’s Scribe in addition to being—

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October 30, 2016Permalink

How Women and Men Yak

Do women and men talk differently? Do they use different types of words and phrases, or speak about different topics? More importantly to you fiction writers, should you have your characters speaking differently depending on their gender?

women-and-men-yakkingThis blog post comes with a giant disclaimer. I’ll be discussing general tendencies, not rules. Rather than concentrating on having a female character “talk like a woman,” focus instead on having her talk consistently with her personality, age, nationality, time period, upbringing, geographical location, and gender. In other words, the way your characters talk depends on a lot more than gender.

Let’s examine those tendencies:

Women characters tend to:

  1. Commiserate, sympathize, and seek to understand the emotions, when speaking about another person’s problem, to help the person not feel alone in suffering;
  2. Establish, when speaking to another woman, the degree of closeness (horizontally), to seek areas of agreement, perhaps by revealing a secret about herself, or a personal story, demonstrating her willingness to be vulnerable;
  3. Interrupt, when the other person tells a story, to ask questions to push the story forward, or even co-author the story;
  4. Ask more questions;
  5. Explain or justify their actions and decisions;
  6. Describe things and scenes by emphasizing appearance and other senses, using a full palette of color words;
  7. Look or ask for validation, approval, or agreement periodically as they speak; and
  8. Look directly at the face of the person they’re talking to, or listening to, alert for nonverbal emotion cues.

Men Characters:

  1. Offer a solution when discussing another person’s problem;
  2. Seek to establish the relationship, when speaking to another man, in a (vertical) hierarchy, through mild insults, jokes, and one-upmanship;
  3. Interrupt to tell his own story, when the other person tells a story;
  4. Make more suggestions and assertions rather than asking questions, but when men do ask questions, they’re specific and focused, not rhetorical;
  5. Talk about what they did or decided, without offering explanations or justifications;
  6. Describe things and scenes according to functions, directions, and numerical distances and quantities;
  7. State their facts directly without seeking approval or agreement, without significant concern about the other person’s reaction; and
  8. Gaze elsewhere when speaking or listening, rather than looking at the other person’s face.

Which gender talks more? Apparently, studies are inconclusive. Therefore, it makes sense to let a character be talkative if it fits that character, whether male or female. You can have interesting combinations of chatty characters paired with silent ones, or two loquacious ones, or two quiet ones.

For further information, there are some great blogs and articles out there, like this one by Kimberly Turner, this one by Rachel Scheller, and this article in Salon by Thomas Rogers.

Let me reiterate the disclaimer. Everything I’ve noted above is a general tendency, not a strict rule. Use the information sparingly and for guidance so your fictional characters sound realistic. If you carry this too far, you’ll end up with stereotyped characters. Let their speech style flow from who they are, rather than just their gender. It’s easy to find examples today of people who speak with the tendencies of the opposite gender without anyone else noticing, let alone caring.

I know this is a touchy subject. Still, if I’m to bring you the best guidance possible to aid you in your writing, I can’t shy away from controversy. I must boldly provide this information without worrying about charges of sexism. I cannot do or be otherwise; I must be—

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Do You Know the MacGuffin Man?

What is a MacGuffin, do you want one in your story, and if so, how do you incorporate one? Read on to find out about this literary term.

MacGuffinSimply put, a MacGuffin is the protagonist’s goal. It can also be the goal of the antagonist as well. Perhaps they’re both pursuing it, or seeking to prevent the other from having it. It can be a tangible object, or an abstract idea.

Examples of MacGuffins in literature and film include the falcon figurine in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the witch’s broomstick in the film “The Wizard of Oz,” and the Golden Fleece in Apollonius Rhodius’ epic poem “Argonautica.”

Some stories have more than one MacGuffin, and characters seek them in sequence, one after the other. This is common in fantasy stories and fantasy games. Multiple MacGuffins are termed plot coupons.

A character’s goal (the MacGuffin) is different from a character’s motivation. As author Starla Criser explains, a goal is what you want. A motivation is why you want it. We’re mostly talking about the goal here, but it’s important that you convey to the reader that your character has a good reason to pursue that MacGuffin.

There remains some confusion over the term MacGuffin. In the Wikipedia article, director Alfred Hitchcock seems to dismiss it as unimportant—“The audience don’t care.” Director George Lucas disagrees, saying viewers should care about the MacGuffin as much as they do the main characters.

Author Michael Kurland resolves this confusion well in his article about MacGuffins. He says it’s important for the writer to establish why the MacGuffin is vital to the character early in the story. Regardless of the reader’s actual feelings about the MacGuffin, it’s vital that the reader understand its importance to the character. After that point, writers should emphasize the plot and the characters to give life and vitality to the story, and the MacGuffin can fade in significance.

The Wikipedia article states that the protagonist’s pursuit of the MacGuffin often has little or no explanation. I can understand little explanation, but none? The reader has to know the reason for the character’s hunt; otherwise, why should the reader care about the character at all?

Now you know the answer to the question I posed in the title of this blog post. Yes, you do know the MacGuffin Man. He lives in Literury Lane, of course! Address all complaints about bad puns to—

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September 4, 2016Permalink

When Characters Wrest Control

Sometimes, while playing God, writers get surprised. Occasionally, while we’re creating our little worlds and our little people to inhabit them, one of those people doesn’t stay in the intended space.

Wresting ControlToday I’ll consider the topic of characters getting too big for their britches, and assuming a bigger (or different) role than the one planned for them. When this happens in your writing, should you take it as a good thing or a bad thing?

This has happened to me a few times. In my story “After the Martians,” the character Frank Robinson is a war AftertheMartians72dphotographer. He’s meant to be a secondary character, pursuing a parallel plot line that intersects the protagonist’s life near the end in a meaningful way. However, Frank became a little more compelling than intended and darn near overshadowed the protagonist. I kept most of his exploits in, so the reader cares what happens to him and follows his plot line with interest.

RippersRing72dpiIn “Ripper’s Ring,” Diogenes is a Bassett hound owned by a Scotland Yard detective. You know how some movie actors dread performing with animals because the animal might steal the scene? That nearly happened with droopy old Diogenes, whose seeming lack of interest in following a scent made him an endearing comic character in an otherwise dark and philosophical story. I kept him that way.

ATaleMoreTrue72dpiThere’s a French servant named Fidèle in my story “A Tale More True” who almost ended up having a more compelling personality than that of his master, the protagonist. Once again, he was a secondary character meant to provide comic relief and to showcase the protagonist. However, he tended to get the best lines, and to be the one suggesting the right course of action. I kept him as I’d written him, since the story is a voyage of learning and discovery for his master, and Fidèle is a necessary part of that.

WithinVictorianMists9Another servant, this time a plump Irish one named Daegan MacSwyny, nearly took over my story “Within Victorian Mists.” I’d meant this secondary character to be funny and unintelligent, but he ended up being secretly wise in almost magical ways. As with Fidèle, he gently prodded his master, the protagonist, toward the right answer at every step, though it’s never clear whether that’s by intention or accident. MacSwyny and all the Victorian Mists characters appeared again in “A Steampunk Carol” but there the servant kept to his secondary status.

In each case, a secondary character threatened to take over the story by force of personality and by being more endearing than the protagonist. That’s just the way my muse rolls.

But not only mine. Other writers have blogged about this phenomenon. Mae Clair lets it happen, for the most part, and later writes separate stories featuring such characters.

Melanie Spiller had written such a good scene about the death of a character whom she hadn’t meant to kill off, that she kept the scene in. She’d once been told a character wresting control of the story is a sign you’ve created a believable character.

When a character takes on a bigger role, you have choices. You can:

  1. Let that character go in this new direction, at least to some extent.
  2. Rewrite the story to keep the character as intended.
  3. Delete the character.

So far, I’ve always chosen option 1. Other writers choose either 1 or 2. It would be gut wrenching to opt for 3, so I suspect that’s rarely done.

When you play God by writing fiction, do you have characters wresting control every now and then? If so, what do you do? Or do you just like that word ‘wrest?’ Rise above your role as a blog post reader, and leave a comment for—

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After the Martians – the Cast of Characters

Today I’ll introduce you to the four major characters in my new book, “After the Martians.” The alternate World War I of my story has brought them together in and near the Black Forest of Western Germany in 1917, some 16 years after the Martians’ failed attempt to conquer the Earth.


In order of their introduction in the story, let’s meet them.

  • Private Johnny Branch is seventeen, an American from Wyoming. The hero of my story, he’s enthusiastic about getting to fight in the war, and thrilled to be driving a Martian fighting machine, a tripod. He grew up listening to, and reading about, the Martian War. Like boys across the nation, he built rudimentary models of the fighting machines and waged little battles with toy tin soldiers, pretending to be Teddy Roosevelt in the Battle for Washington, D.C.
  • Second Lieutenant Henry Wagner is about twenty-three, and commands the fighting machine driven by Johnny. Their machine is part of Crazyhorse Troop, Tiger Squadron, Third Armored Cavalry Regiment. He’s from Norristown, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. He’s been in the war since the beginning and is now seasoned by battle, and quite skeptical about the war. He looks forward to the end of the war, when people can develop peaceful uses for Martian technology.
  • Frank Robertson is a photographer for “The American Magazine,” initially assigned to send back pictures to give the public a sense of the life of a doughboy. As the war has gone on and casualties have mounted, his editor tells him to snap some shots of American heroism and gallantry in battle, to keep up the patriotic spirit. However, it’s hard to get close to the action in a modern war, with Martian heat rays and poisonous black smoke.
  • Hilde Gottschall is an old German woman living in a wooden cabin on Feldberg Mountain. She lost her husband in the Martian War and her son in the Great War. After the death of her daughter-in-law, she lives alone with her infant grandson, Andreas Gottschall, whom she calls her Schätzchen (darling). She is cynical and angry about all wars.

In addition, there are a couple of minor characters with bit parts, but those four are the major ones. Each of the latter three influence Johnny in various ways as he matures toward full adulthood.

On a separate note, I’m hoping to speak on a panel or two at BALTICONBALTICON50_banner_1, the science fiction convention in Baltimore, next weekend. At a minimum, I’ll be signing my books on Saturday from 1:30 to 2:30, and I’ll be reading from one of my books on Sunday from 7:00 pm to 7:50.

I’ll post my complete schedule when it’s approved. If you’ll be in the area, you can meet, in person—

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Using the 15 Fiction-Writing Virtues

In a previous blog post, I explored how Benjamin Franklin, an early champion of self-help, might advise us on how to improve our writing. To recall, Ben identified weaknesses in his own character and flipped around those negative weaknesses into their corresponding, positive virtues, toward which he strived.

In that earlier post, I made a list of fifteen fiction-writing virtues, encouraged you to make a similar list, and then left you on your own. Today, I’m picking up where I left you stranded, and providing a structured approach for applying those virtues as you write.

benjamin-franklinBen Franklin took his list of thirteen virtues and focused on applying one per week. He kept a log of his success rate, noting when he succeeded and failed. That simple and easy method might not work for the fiction writing virtues, since the one you’ve selected might not apply to what you’re doing that week. Your virtue list, if it’s anything like mine, might be more event-based.

What you need is a mechanism for (1) remembering, (2) applying, (3) recording, and (4) reassessing your virtues:

  • Remembering means that the applicable event-based virtue will appear before you when that given event starts, so it’s a reminder to exercise that virtue.
  • Applying means that, in the moment of decision, you choose to act upon your virtue and do the virtuous thing.
  • Recording means that you’ll keep some sort of log or journal of your success and failure.
  • Reassessing means that once one or more of the initial virtues have become an ingrained habit, you strike it from the list, consider other weaknesses in your writing that require improvement, and add new virtues to work on.

From my earlier blog post, here again are the 15 fiction-writing virtues I came up with. Reminder—yours will likely be different.

15 Virtues

I had split the virtues into five Process virtues and ten Product virtues. Here are a couple of tables showing to which parts of the story-writing procedure each process virtue applies, and to which story elements each product virtue applies.

First draft Self-Edit Critique Submit Rejections
Process Virtues 1. Productivity X X X X X
2. Focus X
3. Humility X
4. Excellence X
5. Doggedness X


Character Plot Setting Theme Style
Product Virtues 6. Relevance X X
7. Appeal X X X
8. Engagement X X
9. Empathy X
10. Action X
11. Placement X
12. Meaning X
13. Style X
14. Communication X X
15. Skill X

Remembering. The best solution is to print the list of virtues and keep it near your computer or tablet when writing, and refer to it often. Over time you’ll remember to refer to the “Excellence” virtue before submitting a manuscript, for example.

Applying. This is the most difficult part. In any given writing situation, you must do your best to live up to the virtue that applies to that situation. You’ll likely fail at first, then get better with time, practice, and patience.

Recording. If you keep a log, journal, or writing diary, that is a good place to grade yourself each day on how well you achieved each virtue that applied that day. You may learn more from failures than successes, in recognizing the causes for the failures. In time, you will strive harder to achieve each virtue simply because you won’t want to record another failure in your logbook.

Reassessing. Your list of virtues should be dynamic. Whenever you believe you’ve got a virtuous habit down pat, you can delete it from the list. Whenever you find another weakness in your writing, you can add the corresponding virtue to the list. Perhaps you’ll find that a virtue is poorly phrased, or is vague, or doesn’t really address the root cause of the weakness; you can re-word it to be more precise.

If you faithfully apply a technique similar to this, and you find your writing improving, and you gain the success you always desired, don’t forget to send (1) a silent thank-you to the spirit of Benjamin Franklin, and (2) a favorable and grateful comment to this blog post by—

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They Don’t See What You See

If you aim to be an author, you must observe the world as a writer does. You’ll write better stories if you do.

When I use the word ‘observe’ I mean it in the general sense of perceiving by one or more of the five senses (or beyond those five, even). I’ve blogged before about conveying the five senses in your stories, but here I’m referring not to your characters, but to you perceiving the real world.

Writer ObservationBefore we get to writers, let’s discuss observation in general. While acknowledging there are other epistemological theories, I’ll assume there is a single, physical world out there, and each person observes it differently. Those differences are due to observations taken from different physical locations, accuracy of senses, mood, previous experiences, and many other things.

Observation, then, is a combination of a signal from one or more senses, and the mental activity resulting from the signal. We perceive with our senses and our brains.

Early in life, we discover the universe is too big and filled with too much stuff for us to see every little detail, so we learn to filter some things out. We focus on the parts we find most useful.

We recognize patterns, and form mental models of how the world is. That way we can tell at a glance if something doesn’t fit, and we can fill in the details we can’t sense but assume are there. Some people hone their senses to a fine degree of accuracy through practice, and some do not.

What does it mean to observe the world as a writer does? A good writer:

  • Considers the world as a source of story ideas, details, and descriptions;
  • Sees places as potential story scenes;
  • Notices people and incorporates aspects of them in story characters;
  • Hears all talking as potential dialogue;
  • Watches people when they’re experiencing intense emotions, so as to pick out appropriate appearance, expressions, and gestures for story characters;
  • Tastes food with the intent to describe it as a meal in a story;
  • Picks out the most telling details in real places or people, so as to better describe scenes and characters;
  • Goes ‘people-watching’ and imagines background stories for the observed people; and
  • Practices observing with all senses to improve both sensing accuracy and the ability to describe in words what is sensed.

You might doubt this advice will help in your particular case. Maybe the scenes in your stories look nothing like the world you live in, and your novel’s characters are completely unlike anyone you know or see. That’s common when writing fantasy or science fiction.

Even in such cases, it benefits you to practice and improve your powers of observation. That ability to pick out and convey the right details, in a manner that transports the reader to your fictional world, will help you no matter how unusual your scenes and characters are.

For further study, I recommend you read this WikiHow article and also this post by Maria Popova.

If you practice perceiving the world and people around you, really strive to develop that skill, one day you might achieve the acute observational prowess of—

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February 28, 2016Permalink