Sadist and Savior

Since Korrektiv seems to be catching its breath and Henri is awol, Quin is grading papers, and I’m stuck in a chronic-sinusitis-tinged facebook-frittering funk, I’ll throw this out. I signed up for NaNoWriMo (as well as NaPraGoMo, as you may recall) and so I get these great little pep-talk emails from famous writers encouraging me to finish my novel, which is stuck on page 2. The latest one, from Janet Fitch, is pasted in below, and I think it’s pretty good advice.

Dear Author,

It’s happening. You’re writing a blue streak. You’re piling up the pages. You’re roaring through this novel like a forest fire. Then suddenly you hit the immovable obstacle. WHAM. Ow. You’re flat as a piece of typing paper, your mind as blank. Panic!

Whether you’re taking a month or a year, this is always the question. What happens next?

Fiction is all about decisions. Let me give you a personal example. Working on White Oleander, I kept hitting this wall, about chapter 8. It was all going great, all the wheels in motion, and then WHAM. I just couldn’t decide what to do next. I’d try this, try that, but each time I’d get stuck. The character would put her toe in and pull it out again. No, not that. Should I just bag it? Write a different book? Go to law school? Watch reruns of Hogan’s Heroes? I was absolutely blocked at the crossroads.

Luckily I was seeing an amazing therapist at the time. I explained I was afraid that if I chose route 6, then I would be eliminating all the other possible routes. What if route 15 was better? Or 3 1/2 ? So I hedged. I couldn’t commit. I was stuck. And she gave me the piece of advice which has saved my writing life over and over again, and I will give it to you, absolutely free of charge. She said, “I know it feels like you have all these options and when you make a decision, you lose a world of possibilities. But the reality is, until you make a decision, you have nothing at all.”

So you have these options, but which one to go for? When in doubt, make trouble for your character. Don’t let her stand on the edge of the pool, dipping her toe. Come up behind her and give her a good hard shove. That’s my advice to you now. Make trouble for your character. In life we try to avoid trouble. We chew on our choices endlessly. We go to shri nks, we talk to our friends. In fiction, this is deadly. Protagonists need to screw up, act impulsively, have enemies, get into TROUBLE.

The difficulty is that we create protagonists we love. And we love them like our children. We want to protect them from harm, keep them safe, make sure they won’t get hurt, or not so bad. Maybe a skinned knee. Certainly not a car wreck. But the essence of fiction writing is creating a character you love and, frankly, torturing him. You are both sadist and savior. Find the thing he loves most and take it away from him. Find the thing he fears and shove him shoulder deep into it. Find the person who is absolutely worst for him and have him delivered into that character’s hands. Having him make a choice which is absolutely wrong.

You’ll find the story will take on an energy of its own, like a wound-up spring, and then you’ll just have to follow it, like a fox hunt, over hill, over dale.



Janet Fitch is the author of the Oprah Book Club selection White Oleander and more recently, Paint It Black. She regularly blogs about writing on MySpace.


  1. almostgotit says

    I didn’t know you got EMAILS! What was I thinking, not signing up for NaNoMeMo whatever?

    Next year, maybe. This year, I’m just eating cookies, mostly.

  2. almostgotit says

    I’ve also just written a bloggy response, of sorts, to this post, which can be found here:

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