Method writers write what they know while classical writers draw entirely from their imaginations. I’m not here to tell you which style is best, I’m here to tell you how to walk the line between the two without staggering.
Writers struggle to keep our memoirs out of our fiction, to keep our rage journals out of character narrations, to put some distance between our diaries and the worlds we’re building.
Our personal lives have a way of demanding roles in our stories. We’re lured into taking ideas from them with the promise of added realism. A smattering of truth can add authenticity to fantasy, but there’s a risk in mixing fiction and nonfiction. If a story is rooted too deeply in reality it resists changes it may ultimately need. The trick is to warp life events to serve your story, not to bend it to report those events more accurately.
I use a waiting period when it comes to drawing from trauma. Fresh wounds bleed into my imagination. When I have a falling out I have to fight the urge to pick up my pen. When I get dumped I have to resist the compulsion to bring the break up into my story. When I get downsized I have to resist setting the same pink slip on my hero’s desk.
When something bad happens, I usually have another story going. I don’t want to shoehorn my journal into events I already have in motion. I might feel a need to share a personal revelation, but if I put it into the wrong forum it will seem jarring.
That’s why I wait until my statute of limitations has passed. My immediate reactions are inarticulate. They come out too soon for me to settle on an allegory. My metaphors refuse to mix, like a sloppy cocktail, they leave a bad aftertaste in the readers’ mouths. If I feel something too intensely I overuse hyperbole. My poetic exaggerations color my prose in the deepest shade of purple. I get so abstract that when it comes time to edit, I fail to see what I meant.
Why Emotions Suck at Plotting Stories
If I invite emotional reactions into what I’m working on, they make themselves at home. They move things around. They demand that I convert my third person story into a first person one. My emotions don’t have time to show evidence to the audience, they want to talk directly to them. They insert monologues into scenes that would benefit from quiet tension. They’re too negative to let my characters go through positive changes.
When there’s a death in the family, sometimes it’s better to hold onto that grief before putting it on paper. Writers naturally develop fresh phrases to describe their emotions. It takes time for the right language to come. Wade into your stream of consciousness too soon and it will flood out onto page.
It’s only when I’m numb to tragedy that I can examine it with clarity. Time allows me to see which details add credibility to my story and which ones weigh it down. I want the audience to relate to my characters, but I don’t want to share too much information. Not because I run the risk of exposing myself, but because I run the risk of slowing my pacing.
The Dangers of Casting Characters with Real Life Players
Real world personalities can add spice to your story, but don’t just cast your evil ex because you’re jilted. Do it because the story needed a character who was at once disloyal and prided themselves on their honesty. The “You’re so vain, I bet you think this book is about you defense” won’t hold up with your family and friends.
When drawing character traits from real life focus on behaviors more than physical features. Borrow tells, looks, strange habits and peculiar mannerisms.
Get the expression on your subject’s face right. Don’t bother giving us a composite. If you draw from subtleties, your coworkers might not recognize themselves. They’ll continue to give passive aggressive criticism of your performance, without realizing their smile is in stark contrast with their eyes.
If your boss sees themselves on the page, what are you going to say? If a friend sees themselves in your character lineup, do you want to deal with the fallout? Will you look forward to Christmas dinner after demonizing your mother?
If all your characters need to come from a real place, mix and match the parts. Make a Frankenstein monster, an unrecognizable amalgamation. If the character is complex enough, you won’t get sued for likeness rights.
Why You Shouldn’t Tell Anyone a Character is Based on Them
When you tell friends they have a part in your story, you’re less likely to take creative liberties. When they know a character is based on them you’re less inclined to make them do something embarrassing. Humiliation humanizes characters, but now you feel compelled to give them a cool composure. Their stand-in becomes a flawless forgery that’s no fun to read.
For characters to be relatable they need to be vulnerable. Dignity is a luxury. Before anyone can rise above a challenge, we need to see them at their lowest. Stories shouldn’t respect their character’s privacy. We need to talk about their unmentionables, sort through their dirty laundry, and autopsy the skeletons in their closets.
If you use a real person’s name throughout your first draft, only to ‘Find and Replace’ it later, you’re playing with fire. Even if you’ve burned all your bridges, your story is better off without them. If you base a character too closely on a real person, they might refuse to take your commands. The plot needs them to go one way, but you know their real life counterpart wouldn’t.
Being real and feeling real are not the same. Use some artistic license.
Keep Your Imagination from Leaking
Just as writers don’t want their memoirs to invade their fiction, we want to keep our imagination from leaking into the rest of our brains.
Having experienced so many narratives, from Saturday morning cartoons to novels, our memories have adapted their story-telling mechanics. Remembering things in three act structures, we assign life events an artificial beginning, middle, and end, when in reality that’s not how they happened. Blending our recollections with our imaginations, can have consequences.
The brain uses the same process to evoke a memory as it does to visualize an idea. The mind’s eye plays its documentaries and found footage movies on the same screen. It’s only natural that we mistake one for the other, but just because we see signs of fate, doesn’t mean our lives follow story logic.
If we corrupt our memories to fit into narrative beats, we’ll see ourselves as heroes and ignore the things we need to change. If we spend our memories in our stories, we’ll run out of material quickly. We need to perfect our skills for fabrication, while keeping them isolated to our imagination.
Writer’s block isn’t always the result of a lack of inspiration. Sometimes it comes from a conflict in the mind. A little self examination can save a whole lot of time. Wordsmiths need to be aware of their own thinking, before finding the right balance between classical and method writing.