The I of the Swarm

Photo by Max xx

This post concerns character and voice, but I’m going to start by discussing bees. And Denis Diderot.

In his novel Rameau’s Nephew, Diderot disputed the notion of a distinct and singular human personality. He considered this a holdover from the days of superstition—it smacked of a soul, and other discardable pieties.

Using as a mouthpiece a fictionalized version of the composer Rameau—who was constantly obliged to curry favor with patrons, placate audiences, appease musicians, hold off creditors, sweet-talk paramours—Diderot argued that we assume a given role depending on the social circumstances we face, with completely contradictory roles required in different places at different times.

Who am I supposed to be?

Instead of being steadfast and certain—our “true nature,” or the image of God—human character more resembles a swarm of bees, comprised of dozens, even hundreds of individual poses or personas swirling around a void.

If one of those personas feels more solid or firmly rooted, that’s only because habit, created by the daily assumption of that particular role—dutiful daughter, friendly neighbor, taskmaster boss—has made it more routine, familiar, natural.

But all it takes is a sudden or drastic change in social setting and we find ourselves asking: What’s expected of me here? Who am I supposed to be?

Characters in drama and fiction owe their existence to the human capacity for personalization. Gods and monsters are the humanized faces of elemental forces of nature or the deeper aspects of the psyche.

In Why We Read Fiction, Lisa Zunshine argues that characters evolved from the need of ancient man to intuitively assess the motives of strangers, which over the millennia transitioned, as Diderot suggests, into the stereotypical social roles we assume to “play well with others.”

Whatever the source, we come pre-equipped and then further develop over our lifetimes an extensive inventory of internalized personalities who provide the raw material for our fictional characters.

Photo by Robynejay

Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, compiled an entire catalog of characters premised on moral type—the flatterer, the coward, the newsmonger, the backbiter, the braggart, et cetera. This kind of classification helped form the comic characters of Theophrastus’s student Menander, and a century later those of Terence, but its influence continues into modernity. English writers especially found Theophrastian characters useful, all the way through the 19th century. Fielding, Smollett, Thackeray, and Dickens employed them—they suit nicely the satirical purposes these writers pursued—and one often finds hints of them in secondary or comedic characters even today.

Look no further than the website TV Tropes. The section titled “Characters as Device” is populated by contemporary Theophrastian characters: Always Second Best, Cop Boyfriend, Nazi Grandpa, Perky Goth. (One might add Elmer Fudd, Foghorn Legorn and Pepe LePew to the list.)

Even when we probe deeper, trying to make our characters more “real” by providing psychological complexity through contradiction, mixed motives, buried secrets and the like, we can’t help but rely on these mental simulacra, because they form the inner representations of personality we carry in our minds. They comprise the first level of language of characterization.

But if characters come from the swarm of bees Diderot identified, what of the void at the center? Is that the writer? Am I really nothing but the wind in a hall of mirrors?

Great writers have great voices


This disturbing idea, that there is a strange insubstantiality, a kind of lack of gravity at the very heart of our lives, hardly vanished with Diderot. Nietzsche famously remarked: “The doer is just a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.” Heidegger believed in a self but he argued it was an accomplishment, not a gift; it’s something we do, not find. Sartre, with his famous dictum “existence precedes essence,” dismissed any notion of a fundamental self, believing like Heidegger that we create our identities through the daily struggles of life.

Only a pinhole of nothingness—consciousness, a kind of watchful disembodied “I”—resides at the center, calling to mind the Buddhist concept of No Self, which in its faceless, bodiless calm escapes the ravages of desire.

Photo by Matley0

As my characters begin to feel more solid to me, more vivid and free and real, I sometimes experience that same sense of immateriality that Diderot and Sartre and the Buddhists describe. No matter how firm my grasp on who I think I am, another “me” hovers in the background, watching, appraising, keeping track.

Though this anchorless sense of self isn’t so extreme I’m afraid I might wake up one day to discover I’ve turned into a cockroach, I do at times feel a little south of steadfast. Something’s in play. If not my persona, my identity, my soul, then what? And yet who’s asking this question if not “me”?

Such questions no doubt delight philosophers, but for a writer they’re quicksand. And this is why so often great writing can be identified by voice.

Voice forms perhaps the most mercurial of all the attributes of writing. It’s the hardest to get one’s mind around, the most elusive to develop in one’s own writing, and the most difficult to teach. It incorporates style (diction and rhythm), worldview (choice of topic, time, setting, and approach to that subject matter) and attitude (blithely comic, bitterly satiric, ironic, tragic, nihilistic, fatalistic, philosophical, and so on). It’s the expression of your unique humanity through words.

For a writer, voice is the “I” of the swarm.

It’s often remarked that Joseph Conrad’s fiction truly matured with his creation of Marlowe as a narrator. The same is sometimes said of Junot Diaz and his fictional avatar, Yunior. Fitzgerald’s masterpiece owes no small debt to Nick Carraway, the unreliable Midwestern stand-in spinning the tale.

What these characters provided their authors was a fictional double to speak for them, which provided an escape from the wandering void at the center of the personality. These narrators with their distinct voices provided their authors with an anchor in the whirlwind—or, to use the more common metaphor, they provided the writer with a liberating mask, helping crystalize the style and perspective and intuition that generated the fictional world on the page.

Stephen Dobyns, in his essential book Best Words, Best Order, refers to this as the inescapable deceit of the writer. Through some curious magic the development of voice permits the putting aside of ego. I am aware both that the mask of voice personifies the most compelling, insightful aspects of my nature and that, at the same time, it isn’t truly me. It allows me to focus on the work, not myself.

Great writers have great voices, which is to say they have a distinct persona embodied in their language. They may or may not realize that voice is but another character, though I’d bargain most do. Regardless, it’s a stabilizing factor, a way to ground the writing so the dizzying whirl of personas in the psyche doesn’t take over.

Editors and agents routinely admit that what they’re looking for in every manuscript they pick up isn’t just a gripping story. It’s a unique and compelling voice.

Photo by flyzipper


If you’re struggling with this element of your own writing, try to identify who in your inner menagerie of characters could best stand in for you, representing your understanding, your command of the facts, your vulnerability, and most importantly your attitude. Then stand back and let that character tell the story — create a character who can be your mouthpiece. Or choose one or two characters within the story to serve that role. Step back and let go. Assume the mask. Speak.



Have you ever had a character come to you like a figure in a dream, and sensed that the character symbolically represents some aspect of your own experience?

Can you sense a distinct persona in your own authorial voice?

Do you find it easier to write through the voice of a particular character or characters?


P.S. Three months ago, my post here concerned writer Richard Smolev, who battled ALS while writing two novels and numerous stories and non-fiction pieces. Sadly, Richard succumbed to the disease Saturday morning. He was a wonderful writer, a lovely man, and a cherished friend. He was profoundly heartened by the comments Writer Unboxed readers provided in response to that earlier post. I want to thank everyone on behalf of Richard for their generosity, kindness, and support.


About David Corbett

David Corbett is the author of five novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running? and The Mercy of the Night. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, and numerous other venues. He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, Delve Writers, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, and in January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character


  1. Deb says

    Hello David:
    I recently watched your presentation on “The Outer Limits of the Inner Life: The Art of Character” over at the Delve Writing website, and found it tremendously moving as well as inspiring. So what I first want to say to you is simply: Thank you.

    In regard to your present post, I think constantly about the voice of the narrator. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that the voice of the narrator is the very first thing I look for as a reader. Do I want to spend time this person? translates directly for me into: Do I want to read this book? Taking this one step further, I’m usually more interested in the narrator than I am in the plot. If the narrator’s voice is captured well enough, I’ll go along on the journey. Of course, I know this isn’t true for everybody, but it is for me.

    You use the term “fictional double,” whereas I might substitute the word “fictional spokesperson,” just because the word “double” feels a little too personal or intimate to me, and because I do need that “liberating mask” to help me crystallize what it is I want to say.

    And no, I haven’t had a character come to me like a figure in a dream, but I do refer often to a particular photograph, which is that of a young woman who lived in Gettysburg during the battle, which is the subject of my current work-in-progress. Her name was Tillie Pierce, and the photograph I’m talking about can easily be googled. I’m continually haunted by the expression in her eyes. I hear her talking to me across the centuries. It’s her voice I imagine I’m trying to capture when I write. It’s “the strange and blighted land” she found herself traveling through after the battle that is the very world I’m trying to conjure up for my readers.

    “Step back and let go” you say. “Assume the mask. Speak.”

    Well, I’m trying! I try every day. And any time I find myself wondering why I chose to tackle such a monumental project, I have only to look at Tillie’s photograph and remember why.

    Thanks for this lovely, compelling post.


    • says

      Hi, Deb:

      That is as perfect a response as I could hope for. I’m like you, it’s voice that draws me in and holds me. I do need story as well, but story alone tends to bore me, like a badly told joke.

      I also often use photographs to solidify a character’s impression in my mind and in my heart, and the more intense the impression the more likely I can hear the voice coming through. And yes, finding that one character or persona to crystallize the voice can provide just the right entry point for the story, a way to shape it with the personal intensity and focus it needs.

      Good luck with your book and Tillie Pierce.


  2. says

    It’s a funny feeling when you realize that, after writing literally millions of words, you have developed a distinctive voice – and you’re not exactly sure where it came from.

    It’s you, the writer – and this is the way you do things. This is how you are, how you write, how you solve problems.

    A little scary, but there it is. It is, in some way, the sum of you, expressed in word choices, in storytelling choices, in creation of characters.

    Like an exponential curve which flattens out to an asymptote (a horizontal line which it approaches for infinity, but never reaches or passes), voice is something you get very close to, and then you go on with your writing, and voice is always there, an old reliable. You don’t think about it much, just depend on it and use it.

    I suppose people can change, make radical alterations in their voice as well as their persons, but it takes a monumental conscious effort after a certain point in life or in writing.

    Please accept my condolences for the loss of your friend Richard.

    • says

      Hi, Alicia:

      Having been a math major I particularly enjoy your analogy of the exponential curve. The writer’s voice in many ways approaches the best expression of his creative self, but never truly captures the whole of him. And that’s a good thing. It allows for continued growth and self-exploration.

      I can imagine a writer suddenly trying to change his voice altogether — a normally ornate writer, for example, suddenly stripping things down. But I imagine it feels like someone going through rehab, recovering from a terrible accident. Or someone recovering from the loss of a loved one, relearning how to live with an absence where a presence used to be.

      Thanks for the kind words about Richard.


      • says

        What about someone like Peter Carey, who’s constantly experimenting with voice, and changing it quite radically? Do you think there is something of Peter that carries through all of his projects? Something that is uniquely Peter?

        Personally I’m still struggling, searching for my voice. Maybe it’s there and I just can’t see or hear it. Maybe it’s emerging. But I really found this article very helpful and inspiring. Thank you.

        • says

          Hi Mary Ann:

          I think Peter Carey is an excellent example of a writer who has never stopped exploring. But he also routinely grounds his voice in his characters, like the brothers in THEFT, who have utterly different narrative styles (one being marvelously unhinged). Carey brilliantly vanishes behind his characters, and allows their voices to tell the tale.


  3. says

    Wonderful post! Thank you. I spent the past several months reading Descartes to Hume to Kant to Husserl (studying philosophy, yepp) so these questions about to what extent we really exist as ourselves, a singular thing, have been weighing heavily upon me. And not in a delightful way. Phenomenology, in particular, makes me constantly question to what extent I am what I tend to think I am at any given moment.

    But here’s what I think right now: yes, we’re each a swarm and so much more than our egos tend to think we are at any given moment. But I think our swarms are distinct. I don’t think they would all be distilled to the same swarm if they were able to be completely actualized. I tend to think that the whole point is for us to get to know, own, and express as much of the swarm as possible.

    With that in mind, here’s what I want to caution about voice: just because you may have found one that works for you, that doesn’t mean you have to stay there. Picasso would not have been Picasso if he had stayed in the blue period, though he would have undoubtedly still been a fine artist. Finding a particular voice may be liberating, but perhaps the true artist’s journey requires moving on to uncover and dialogue with other parts of the swarm. As much of the swarm as possible in one lifetime! (I do love that image.) Cheers.

    • says

      Hi, Pam:

      Well, you have your work cut out for you studying that crew. Fascinating, unsettling stuff.

      I agree completely with your qualification. Voice can become a crutch if relied upon too glibly.

      there’s a quote from Coltrane I love: If there is something you do not understand, you must go humbly to it. the self is no different. Voice, approached wisely, is a way to go humbly toward the mystery of identity.

      But without voice, we can too easily fall prey to the whirling alternatives.

      Basically, what I’m saying is: develop your voice carefully, come to trust it, but never forget it too is an illusion. There is always more.

      Thanks for commenting:


  4. says

    “For a writer, voice is the ‘I’ of the swarm.” That sentence glowed off the page (well, the screen). Two particular characters speak for me in the book I’m writing. Funny thing, though, they are so different in their beliefs and world views. I puzzle over this, but not too hard. I’m learning to trust what happens.
    I also love what you say about ‘the mask’. I recalled a lecture on pagan ritual and magic where the lecturer discussed the role of mask as a means of shape-shifing, of assuming the energy of another entity. Isn’t that what we do when we write? There’s so much here to ponder. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend. I consider him a role model based on what you said about him and will think of him when I feel challenged in my work. Thank you for a wonderful post..

    • says

      Hi, Susan:

      I normally write in multiple third person, so I too have that experience of descending into quite distinct voices as the story unfolds. But one step back there’s always a unifying persona (me, for lack of a better word), providing the coherence of vision necessary to amke it all work as a whole.

      I’m kind of the showrunner, as it were, letting my characters write their own episodes, but I get final say.

      Thanks for the kind words about Richard. I’m glad you find his example inspiring, and I very much think he’d be delighted by that.


      • says

        You made a lightbulb go off in my head. Those disparate voices that come from multiple characters…maybe those are all the ‘me’s’ trying on various hats and coats and world views. I guess that’s what we all do as we navigate this life. Marvelous!

  5. Deb Boone says

    Sorry to hear the news that ypur friend, Richard Smoley, is no longer here amongus. His story inspired me. Overcoming obstacles is part of the writing life, amd Richard succeeded over physical frailty. Thank you for sharing his loss as well as the success of his life as a writer.

    Your post on character is fascinating, and comes at a very good time in my story process. Motivation for the ‘why’ of what a character is doing, or thinking, is often the first thing that shows up on the page. It is also, often, not the best choice. Rather it is the ‘safe’ choice. I am moved by the possibilities inherent in a protagonist acting or reacting to the environment in which they find themself. It is easy to relate to that. The different hats we wear in our lives. For me, there has been the ‘daughter’, the ‘wife’, ‘mom’, ‘friend’, ‘co-worker’, and each role is indeed a different dynamic. Within each label is a new subset of traits. Take the mom. Not the same with an infant or toddler as with a teenager.
    Thank you for the great post. I will be adding this to my ‘keeper’ box.

    • says

      Hi, Deb:

      I’m glad Richard’s story touched you. I can assure you that would mean the world to him. I can also assure you he would have loved chiming in here, talking about writing, his great love.

      I have a chapter in THE ART OF CHARACTER on what I call the Tyranny of Motive. What a character wants and why is simply an inescapable element of characterization. But it’s also necessary to realize that characters, like us, are also a swarm of bees, and that there are levels of desire. Humans have an incredible capacity of fooling themselves, telling themselves they want one thing because they’re too scared to admit they want something else. The discovery of a deeper yearning lies at the heart of most great stories.

      You made me chuckle at your list of daily roles. Again, going back to THE ART OF CHARACTER, I use the example of a mom in exploring the multiplicity of roles we play, and how this can be used to create contradiction in a character. “One must be many things to many people,” as one of my characters says in DONE FOR A DIME. Clearly, you’re no stranger to that notion.

      Thanks for chiming in!


  6. says


    Like us, characters may at times be chameleons but to the degree they are they also will degrade in our esteem. We are most stirred by, and drawn to, characters who always are grounded, honest and natural.

    That is to say, we like characters (and people) best when they are themselves. When editors (and readers) respond to “voice”, that is what they are responding to.

    Why? Characters (and people) who are themselves are secure. They are strong–even if they have problems and must grow. We can trust them, count on them and feel safe around them.

    Contemporary fiction utilizes more and more the first person as well as “close” or “intimate” third person points of view. Interior passages on the page are more frequent and longer than in mid-Twentieth Century novels. It’s as if writers want to spill all that is thought and felt by characters, and readers want to wire tap into characters’ internal minds.

    I believe that is because as a society we longer trust each other to be real. From our top leaders, to TV personalities, to our neighbor in the McMansion next door, it feels like everyone is wearing a mask of goodness to cover up their true selfish, flawed and human selves.

    No wonder we value authenticity. Voice is the way in which a writer expresses that authenticity through story, theme, outlook and honest observation of the human tribe. When novelists show us how people really are, we feel safe in their care.

    That is why it’s so important to eschew types except in comic and satiric works, and to allow characters to be full, rich and real. When we as writers are comfortable with that, our own voices can shine through them.

    Nice post, David. I think you’ve quelled the storm of bees and laid to rest for writers any anxiety about having an “I”. Your thinking sits right with us because Theophrastus was wrong. We are real and we have an authentic core that is wholly and uniquely “me”, or try to.

    The nice thing is that what makes characters great is also what makes our writing great–and easier to boot. Now I’m going to go stir some honey into my tea. Take that bees!

  7. says

    Hi, Donald:

    I was hoping you’d chime in. I always love your posts here, especially on character.

    You brought a smile. As I was responding to earlier comments — and in my own writing this morning — the issue of authenticity and trust was front and center.

    I actually have a character realizing that what he knows of truth is actually defined by trust. The truth doesn’t lie in the mind of God. It lies between people. It’s an issue of authenticity and trust.

    Because humans (and characters) are flawed, they can make mistakes. They can be confused and even dead wrong. They may even, like Rick Blaine in CASABLANCA, become cruel and hurtful. But we will not lose sympathy for them if we sense that inner core of honesty, a capacity for self-correction. Rick may stand by idly as Ugarte gets killed (“I stick my neck out for nobody”) and humiliate Ilsa, but he also helps the Bulgarian couple win at roulette so they can escape. We know at heart there’s something decent about this man, so we stay with him.

    If this isn’t true — if the story is about a character who never quite gets it (Don Quixote, say) — there needs to be another character (a Sancho) whose perspective we trust. This is why black comedy always requires one person who sees the “system” honestly, even as the hero embraces it to his ruin.

    Jake Gittes in CHINATOWN is hopelessly self-deluded, but his craftiness, his will to justice, and the seriousness of his plight (his vulnerability) carry us along until his inner decency finally reveals itself.

    The same is true of Joe Buck in MIDNIGHT COWBOY and Michael Clayton. These characters are pursuing woefully misguided agendas, and the story is about the arc of their self-correction. We could easily lose interest in them if there weren’t some hint of a more authentic core. (With Joe, we see his wounded past and his southern manners; with Michael we see his love for his son and his concern for his friend.)

    I’ll resist the temptation to fall down the rabbit hole of unreliable narrators. I’ll get no work done today if we go there.

    Stepping back to voice, I think the issue is authority — this allows the reader to trust the teller of the tale. Even if the voice is quirky and mercurial, I agree that there has to be something solid at its center so the reader is willing to stay with it.

    The other word worth bringing up here is empathy. I note in THE ART OF CHARACTER that it’s far more important that the reader empathize with a protagonist than find her likable. And empathy is created by revealing the character facing a real problem in the best way they know how. Again, like you say, this creates a bond of trust.

    I’m not sure I agree that long passages of inner reflection are more prevalent now than in the past. The 20th century gave us stream of consciousness among other devices for self-examination, and the current obsession with story and pacing mitigates against lengthy self-relfection. (The obsessive flogging of show-don’t-tell also works against lengthy interior passages.) But I’m heartened by your conviction that I’m wrong about this, and that interior passages remain a healthy aspect of the modern novel. Novels, in contrast to scripts and plays, permit the use of inner life. Why not use one of the form’s most unique technical elements to full advantage?

    Thanks for chiming in. Food for mucho thought.


    • tom combs says

      David –
      Great post!
      As I read I anticipated Sir Maass would be drawn in. The mix of philosophy, psychology and the art of writing you laid out echoed elements he shared at the “Story Masters” seminar I was able to attend in Mpls.
      Your statements that “it’s far more important that the reader empathize with a protagonist than find her likable” and “empathy is created by revealing the character facing a real problem in the best way they know how” are compelling.
      In line with your and Donald’s observations might it be said that while the character need not face things the “best way they know how”, they must face things in a way that is authentic/credible for them (I think this is only a matter of semantics). If the response is ill considered, anger driven, problem-ridden or surprising all the better (as long as the response is true to the character).
      Stimulating stuff!
      Thank you – I am enjoying the discussion.
      I am going to track down your books

      • says

        Hi, Tom:

        You actually touch on something that’s crucial, and could generate a whole post/seminar/dissertation on its own: how to make a character both “authentic” and surprising.

        Any story with meaningful conflict will oblige the character to act in ways that are outside the norm. And surprising circumstances should dictate unanticipated responses. Often, once the hero’s original plan fails (around midway through the book, if not earlier), he’s obliged to improvise, which often reveals a deeper level of character.

        The trick is to render a character in such a way that despite the surprising turns we never feel him acting unbelievably — or, as it were, “out of character.” If the behavior is unbelievable there needs to be something to suggest that the lack of credibility will somehow be explained or reconciled later. Sometimes this reassurance is provided by nothing more than the writer’s authority, established by his voice and command of his fictional world. We’ve come to trust the writer and so continue despite the momentary confusion.

        To get to this level of deep character you have to explore his backstory in a reasonably comprehensive way, so your understanding of his vulnerabilities, strengths, secrets, wounds, regrets, passions, etc., are known to you, even if hidden from other characters in the story. This will provide you with an intuitive understanding of the character’s normal limits, and how far beyond those limits he might reasonably go if faced with a crisis.

        “Authenticity” can be as much of a trap as writing to type, if you don’t conceive the character with a reasonable degree of complexity.

        As for credible vs. “the best way they know how,” yes, I think it’s largely semantics. My wording was somewhat off the cuff. What I meant was that the character engages meaningfully and credibly with the problem/struggle. We can relate to just about anyone we see struggling honestly with a real problem, even if that problem bears no resemblance to anything in our lives — like climbing Mt. Everest, or robbing a bank.

        But there are no absolutes here. Some people found Walt on Breaking Bad incredibly compelling. Others “couldn’t root for him” and stopped watching the show. There’s no magic wand.

        Thanks for chiming in.

  8. says

    Great post. I especially liked your reference to the contemporary Theophrastian characters: Always Second Best, Cop Boyfriend, Nazi Grandpa, Perky Goth. So often those are written as stereotypes and it is always nice to find one depicted with a twist.

    I do have characters who come to me with their own voice and often my stories start with dialogue that they are already sharing with me. As for my distinct author voice, I’m not sure I’ve developed that fully. How to recognize it or define it is elusive to me.

    • says

      Hi, Maryann:

      You can waste months if not years perusing the TV Tropes website. I recommend it, with this caution: It’s geared toward TV writing, with the crushing time demands that medium has. A trope can be very useful when the deadline looms. But it can also become a lazy habit and lead to cliché.

      I have some thoughts on developing your own authorial voice in THE ART OF CHARACTER. A little lengthy to go into here, but I think you’ll sense, over time, the more you write and revise, a core personality who represents your best writerly self. Sometimes you find it in a narrator like Marlowe or Yunior. If you use third person, it will reveal itself in the cohering style and viewpoint and attitude that knits all the other characters and setting and plot together. Even though that’s not as conspicuously a character, the reader still sense the personality in the words. And like Donald says above, the reader’s trust and confidence in that voice is essential.

      Happy writing!


  9. says

    This was an interesting thought-provoking article David. I’ve written plots where the main character was left open ended so that they would be ready to take on any situation. By the time I wrote the final version, a different character, a “mere” persona, had taken over as the protagonist. I see now that I was creating those main characters from the void at my center. An interesting concept and now I see how to avoid it in future. This is a great post for aspiring authors. Thank you very much. I look forward to reading more by you.

    • says

      Thanks, Ivan. Glad to be helpful. One of the biggest hurdles I always have to face when I begin a novel is the fact that I normally start with an idea or situation. I then need to craft a story from that, and then — most importantly — I need to discover the characters for whom that story is not just possible but necessary. It takes a while for that to take shape. But without it I find I’m not writing characters, I’m creating plot puppets.

  10. says

    “Am I really nothing but the wind in a hall of mirrors?”

    If our characters’ characters are, like us, “swarm of bees, comprised of dozens, even hundreds of individual poses or personas swirling around a void,” as writers in the center of it all, it feels very much like we’re the wind swirling through a hall of mirrors: exhilarating, frightening, dizzying, freeing, overwhelming, uncomfortable, all-seeing, insignificant, all at the same time. And we put ourselves there, in that tilt-a-whirl of sensation, again and again until we hurl. Yikes! Is anyone else’s head spinning at the thought of this? No wonder most writers drink! Loved this Monday head-rush, David!

    Sorry for the pain you’re feeling at the loss of your friend.

    Sophia Ryan / She Likes It Irish

  11. says

    Hi, Sophia:

    To be honest, during one of my final read-throughs of this post, I thought: What are you doing to these poor people? I feel, as they say, your pain.

    And yet, like I said, writers can’t afford to sink into the quicksand — or just keep whirling around in the hall of mirrors. We have to make decisions and stick with them — about our characters, and about ourselves (our voice). Part of the wisdom of writing, I think, is knowing when to stop, decide, and move on. This is learned over many hours of writing and re-writing. Or when deadlines loom…

    Thanks for the kind words about Richard.


  12. says

    Thank you for this thought provoking article, David.

    The voice I’m drawn to belong’s to the outsider; I identity with this persona. And, through your article, I see that this is the writer’s role–to step aside and hold the mirror up for humanity.

    • says

      Hi, Leanne:

      The outsider lacks any investment in the bargains with the truth and outright lies that knit together the social fabric of a given community. He can, to the extent he understands it, speak the truth. This is why A Stranger Comes to Town has been such a compelling story form for so many centuries.

      Thanks for the comment.


  13. says

    BTW: In last night’s episode of TRUE DETECTIVE, both a roving tent preacher and the atheist detective Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) had dialog expressing a belief in the illusion of the self, the impossibility of real self-knowledge — except, perhaps, at the moment of death. Eerie and brilliant — Nic Pizzolatto is a stone cold genius.

    • Tina says

      Loved the newest episode. I think the nihilistic detective will most likely change his world view by the end of the series. His world view was once hopeful, and he was a loving family man, before the personal tragedy. He could make no sense in his loss, so it must have been just another meaningless event in a meaningless world. His arc will most likely lead him toward personal and universal meaning.

      • says

        Hi, Tina:

        I love your optimistic faith that his arc will turn toward the light. I’m not sure, which adds to the suspense.

        I think you’re onto something in the sense he certainly seems capable of a turn away from the darkness — it’s credible and authentic, to follow the discussion thread a bit. But Pizzolatto has established an almost Old Testament atmosphere where the worst is always possible and human life is cheap, which creates incredible tension.

        I don’t think the death of Cohle’s daughter and the ruin of his marriage were meaningless, though. I think they were shattering. His vision seems profoundly shaped by his loss of faith in life’s meaning (let alone happiness) when his daughter was killed so senselessly and he and his wife began “blaming each other for being alive.”

        But he clearly once possessed a deep love, and that provides us with a sense that he’s at some level capable a deep attachment again, even though he says he “knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to be alone” (which is how he explains being so solitary).

        Cohle’s deep commitment at this stage of the story is to the truth, no matter what harm or discomfort this causes — thus his calling out of his partner for his capacity for denial. I’m not sure where that will lead him yet. But I’m real eager to find out.

        Thanks for chiming in:

  14. says

    A wonderful post, great comments, lots to chew on. Thanks!

    I confess that in my own writing I’m not much of a beekeeper, although I’ve always liked the buzz. My selves are reasonably integrated, my core essence well connected to my conscious, writing self (that took years of practice!). I’m actually not different faces in different situations, to my embarrassment at times. Thus my best stuff is autobiographical, my strongest characters based on real people, my finest stories are true ones.

    For years, I felt autobiographical narrative was the weaker choice, the easy way out. Yet my inventions were glib and false. So I’m giving in to the sweet lure of authentic voice. And too, getting older means I have a lot more material to play with. Bring on the honey.

  15. says

    Dear Mary:

    Gee, what a cop out. (Joking, joking.)

    Interesting. The older I get, the more I feel betrayed by memory, and thus feel like everything is invented.

    That said, the characters I base on real people are always the most compelling. Reality is humbling in a way the imagination is not — it insists you get it right — and it’s often complex in a way that our inventions merely aspire to.

    For example, real people normally reveal their contradictions more conspicuously than invented ones. John Updike wrote a poem for his old high school classmates, thanking them for giving him a broad range of human types he would rely upon for decades in his writing. I’ve used the same classmate from sixth grade — with differing tweaks for each usage — for several characters.

    But I think the kernel of wisdom in your comment is: Trust what works for you.


    • says

      I agree with your “The older I get, the more I feel betrayed by memory, and thus feel like everything is invented.” The notion of autobiography begins to seem ludicrous. All my experiences continue to shift as I change over time, and my perspective changes, taking on new and different meanings. My understanding of the context changes. In this sense I think we as writers are always filtering our own experiences and understandings through the psyches of our invented or borrowed characters, and whatever new circumstances we put them into. And in this sense I suppose we are getting closer to the I at the center of the swarm.

    • says

      William Zinsser nailed it when he called his book of memoir craft _Inventing the Truth_.

      The fractured prism of memory is my very theme, as it happens. Our mistaken inventions of our lives *are* the story.

      Of course we can’t hope to get the past exactly. Even a video camera chooses and frames the picture. But the past has given me amazing stories, and I took notes (my journals). It’s a shame to waste a perfectly good scandal.

      • says


        I love the notion of inventing the truth.” And yet as a former math major and a believer in science I do believe the truth can be determined in certain circumstances. Or at least blatant falsehood exposed.

        This reminds me of something I say often in THE ART OF CHARACTER: You don’t know yourself by yourself. Our internal prejudices and the vagaries of memory can often lead us astray. Often wee need a trustworthy other to help us when we wander too far afield.

        But in general, I agree. If life has given you material, you’d be a fool to disregard it. (And life has given us ALL material, if we’re just wise and patient enough to explore it.)

        Thanks for the dialog:

  16. says

    Loved this post! I also connect with stories through voice. I have to have a character to connect with, but I connect to the characters I love almost exclusively through voice. They’re not mutually exclusive for me.

    Since I’m a teacher during the daytime, I’ve privy to all kinds of personality tests that we take and give to our students – learning styles (I’m visual), how I best communicate (written, duh), whether I’m a “doer” or a “thinker” or a “relater” or an “influencer.” Heck, I even know whether I’m a “north, south, east, or west” personality.

    What’s interesting, is that I’m different in different settings. At work, I’m a doer. At home, I’m a relater. My core values are unchanging, but my driving forces are different in different scenarios because different dynamics call upon different facets of my personality.

    I love that, from this perspective, I can see this in my writing. I’ve always worried that maybe I hadn’t really found my true writing “voice” because my narrative voice can be quite different, depending on the story being told.

    Definitely coming back to this post to read and ponder…

  17. says

    Hi, Kendra:

    That’s the limitation of “personality tests,” they identify a type to which you conform, but we’re never just that. reality demands so much more of us. Our “types” are just the personas we employ given the nature of the social situation we encounter. Understanding this about ourselves can help immensely in characterization. It provides a simple, concrete way to envision the seemingly contradictory aspects of the character’s full personality by envisioning completely incompatible situations in which she might find herself.

    As for your voice varying with the story — you should no more feel confined to a single voice than your characters should be limited to a rigid mode of behavior. And if you write a novel in multiple third person, especially close third person, each character should have a distinct and recognizably unique voice.

    I’d worry more about your narrative voice being loose on deck in a given piece than that it might vary from work to work. But readers do tend to have expectations, and if you change up too much from one work to the next, they won’t know what to expect, and might not automatically embrace your next book.

    Thanks for commenting: