Fiction writers are crazy. The non-fiction sorts can get away with having a normal outlook, describing things that exist and events that happened. They can inform and communicate. We fiction writers talk about places that don’t exist, things that never happened, and recount conversations between people who were never born. We map out whole arguments, essentially with ourselves.
Does embracing the art of writing drive us mad, or does it simply strip away the flexible layer of sanity we wear like a windbreaker over our inner thoughts? Who knows? But it’s fun to pop the hood and look inside.
I’ve never been to Middle Earth, Narnia, or London. I’ve seen them in movies and read descriptions in books. I’m fairly certain at least two of them really exist. That’s the wonder of worldbuilding. To make a place seem alive and real is the goal of a particular breed of fiction writer. Speculative fiction is the wide branch devoted to making up places or turning places we know into something they aren’t, or weren’t, or probably won’t become. It makes us believe that we could really walk the walls of Minas Tirith, tour the White Witch’s Castle, or take a taxi to Buckingham Palace.
The ability to accept the premise of an alternate world is the sign of a pliable mind. To create one from scratch requires keeping a separate index of reality inside one’s head. Imagine a swirling chaos of bits and pieces of a world, from castles to inns, bus stops to deep-water ports, all disconnected and covered in scaffolding. This is a world in progress. Eventually a writer will tie is all together, erase the pencil lines drawn from one to the next, and present it as a finished world. In the meantime, there is an unborn world stored in his head, existing alongside memories of the real world.
Playing devil’s advocate is when someone takes a position in an argument that they don’t agree with. It’s a rhetorical device, used to explore an opposing viewpoint, or to work out the details of a position by exposing it to criticism. But the fiction writer does this to an alarming degree. Any writer will have his own thoughts and opinions, but those don’t matter. In fact, the writer’s opinions are best left in a closet while writing. Characters matter. Each character ought to have his or her own thoughts, feelings, opinions, and background. These factors influence their perception of the world, and more importantly their dialogue.
This is the part that gets writers in trouble with some readers. “You wrote X, so that means you believe X.” If a completely sane, rational person had written had written X, the reader might be correct. But that same writer also wrote Y, Z, and QQ7-B in the same novel. X, Y, and Z in this case are mutually exclusive viewpoints, and QQ7-B isn’t even a rational opinion. The reader all worked up about X doesn’t want to admit that the author agreed with them on QQ7-B. In fact, the author actually believes H, which he studiously kept from the novel entirely.
Characters believe things. For a writer, they might as well exist. I know my characters better than some people I went to school with. Non-writers sometimes can’t wrap their heads around this.
In most jobs, when you’re done for the day, you stop doing what you do. You go home, you set aside the tools of your trade, and move on to the non-work side of your life. You don’t wait tables at the grocery store. You resist the urge to fix the plumbing at the post office. You don’t hold sales meetings at the movie theater. Plenty of people have work that follows them home, thanks to the wonders of laptops, wi-fi, and smartphones. But those people are working. Other professions, I imagine, can’t be set aside so easily. Doctors must see someone hobbling on the sidewalk and diagnose an arthritic knee of a sprained ligament (I’m just guessing here, since I’m certainly no doctor); lawyers must hear television commercials waiting to pick apart the legal disclaimers at the end.
But I think that for writers, it goes a step further. Since writing covers all aspects of life, there is no safe refuge from inspiration’s intrusion. Someone misspeaks in a conversation, and the incongruity of the misspoken image gives you the idea for a new series. You inject your characters into situations you see on television, telling yourself how they would have acted in place of the characters on screen. There are times when a word or stray thought takes you on a wild tangent that has to be captured (I usually send myself text messages) before it’s forgotten.
“That band’s name would make a great call-sign for a starfighter pilot.”
“What if there was a magic system based on soda flavors… sodamancy!”
“Maybe that character can have a pet miniaturized giraffe instead of a cat.”
I have a hard time believing that sane people think these thoughts. I do it all the time.