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Beyond the Gates – Challenging Yourself, Your Characters and Your Readers

An Old City Marker in Washington, DC. Photo by John J Kelley.


Leaving the Old City

My partner and I recently became outsiders, quite by accident. You see, this spring we took up residence in a modern building several blocks from our prior home in a converted row house in the Dupont Circle area of Washington, DC. We knew the move would bring changes. Indeed, we welcomed them. But it wasn’t until unpacking boxes several days later that I had an unexpected epiphany. Scanning the urban landscape from our new living room, the Washington Monument hovering on the horizon, I realized our current building sits just outside the boundaries of the “old city,” those streets and avenues built in accordance with architect Pierre L’Enfant’s original city plan.

In the weeks since, I’ve continued pondering this juxtaposition, enamored by the idea of hovering on the periphery, observing the comings and goings of inhabitants of the preordained community laid out literally before me. I think to myself, “Isn’t this the role of writers, ultimately, to step beyond the turmoil, all too abundant these days, and to incorporate the insights we gain into our work, consciously and subconsciously?”

It seems to me that it is, and in that regard the move has awakened my writing. Somehow moving out from the tended gardens and streetscapes of an established historic district to the more bohemian buzz of our new neighborhood has given me freedom to sprinkle a little grit into scenes. My characters have grown thicker skin. They are more prone to speak up or act out in pursuit of their goals, which don’t skew quite as noble as they began. And while the overall plot trajectory may not have altered (yet), the tone has undergone a notable shift.

This ongoing evolution has me thinking about how change impacts the writing process, nudging writers, characters, and ultimately readers in new directions. Here are a few observations on the act, and consequences, of “shaking things up,” both on and off the page.

Stretch Yourself

Keeping with today’s historical theme, you might be surprised to learn that Thomas Jefferson is the source of the quote, “A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing.” He went on to explain a political context for the observation, but let’s steer clear of that association for now. The point today is sometimes we as writers need a jolt; and being self-starters, it is often up to us to supply the voltage (masochistic as that may sound).

The good news is you don’t have to ship yourself and your belongings across town to gain a new perspective. My back, in fact, suggests placing that step low on the list. But you do have the power to act on the key thing you’re avoiding, or to make the leap you’ve been holding back (you know the one). Drop that critique group that’s become more burden than assistance. Or take that class you fear. Heck, offer to teach one, ignoring the nagging voice whispering you aren’t worthy. Most importantly, adjust your daily schedule so that writing remains the priority, truly, and not merely a penciled-in suggestion.

For whether you’re revising your first short story or have published a dozen times, it is vital to keep growing. And sometimes the best way to get those juices flowing is to lean in and find a new shaft of sunlight. Just do it, even if Jefferson may not have coined that particular phrase.

Let Your Characters Run

But why should you have all the fun? Given that stories are about transformation, switch things up for your characters too. And by that, I don’t mean simply throwing obstacles in their paths. Give them a different voice. Better yet, give them freedom to speak for themselves. Perhaps draft a scene in which a secondary character takes on your protagonist, calling them out. Loosen the reins and let your beloved handle it on their own. See how they defend themselves … or what they confess.

Bestselling author Joyce Maynard (To Die For, Labor Day) has said she starts each of her novels focused upon a single character. She begins with that character, and then allows the drama to emerge out of human nature and the character’s relationships. Of course, not all of us write that way. But even if you’re a devoted plotter, wearing the hat of a pantser for a scene or two may lead you in a new direction. At a minimum, you’ll gain a broader perspective of your characters, whose complexities likely include a smidgen of the unexpected.

Challenge Your Readers

Literary icon Margaret Atwood once wrote that “you need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer.” That forthright attitude shows in her novels, which never shy from exploring unsettling aspects of humanity. But you don’t have to write high drama to include sharper edges in your tales, regardless of genre. A children’s story can have a serious underpinning, even if details are given a soft touch. A cozy mystery can contain genuine emotional depth. And the best comedies have long challenged prevailing notions and beliefs, cloaked in laughter.

The key is to respect your audience, not to protect them. Allow your story to raise uncomfortable questions. If the characters and premise remain compelling, they’ll follow. The dose of reality may in fact add to your story’s appeal. So step back and consider those sections where you may have dialed back, perhaps subconsciously, and instead press deeper. You may be surprised by what you discover. You may also be amazed at what lessons you have to share.

Those are some of the observations drawn from my recent detour beyond the proverbial gates of the city. What tips do you have for keeping your process, and your writing, fresh? Do you have techniques to allow your characters to surprise you, even well into the story?  Do you feel it important that your writing both entertain and challenge your readers? Please share your thoughts. I look forward to hearing them.

About John J Kelley [1]

John J Kelley [2] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [3], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.