On the subject of depth

I was recently asked a question that, in all honestly, I don’t feel qualified to answer. However, it’s a question that I think is very interesting and one of my favorite things to work on when writing. The question was, “How do you write deep characters and deep novels?” It’s only nine words (I’m fairly certain; math never was my strong point) but it packs a punch. Reading YA literature these days – or any literature, for that matter – has shown me that as a society, we are really lacking depth. Our novels are a mile wide and an inch deep. They may have great plots and vast ideas and hilarious characters,  but so often I finish a book and put it down and realize there was no lasting anything to it. I came away without being strengthened or convicted about anything, I came away without any interesting questions swirling in my mind, without any real value to take away.

Because of this, naturally it makes me the happiest author in the world when someone tells me my books and characters are deep, but I also feel a little bit out of my depth (pun intended). But then there’s the moment where I’m completely stumped – what on earth should I say? I feel like I’ve said a lot of it before, but surely I’ve missed things. That’s why, this might end up being a little bit more like vaguely coherent rambling, but I hope it helps and makes some sort of sense.

What does it take to make a deep novel? I think that question lies in the answer ‘what does it take to make a deep character.’ You cannot have a good book without good characters. Here’s my one big, astonishing piece of advice.

Don’t be afraid.

I used to write ‘safe’ characters. They never said or did anything that really pushed any boundaries. If they were rude, they apologized. They never did anything shocking or horrible or surprisingly good. They just kind of were, their personalities only half finished. Experimenting with really troubled characters began last year with ArchAngel; were Simon was mentally scarred from an abusive, alcoholic father. Then came Monster, where I explored more questions and pushed more boundaries than I had in any previous book. Sanctity of life, human experimentation in the name of science or revenge,  artificial insemination, even the question of what constitutes a human soul were subjects explored in Monster. And I had never been so completely positive that God was pushing behind me to write this book. In Acceso, I explore the problems of depression, suicide, and slave contracts. In Unforget, I’m tackling the subjects of humanity and morality in a broad sense.  These are not made-up problems. These are real, horrible things that people suffer through every single day, and yet people are afraid to talk about them.

Let me tell you something. God did not tread lightly around controversial subjects. He addressed them head-on, because He had the answer – He was the answer. He still IS the answer, but He isn’t walking on earth in physical form to tell people so so it’s our job. If we’re afraid to speak about subjects that are real and important and shocking and maybe even horrifying, then I don’t think we can truly say we’re doing as much as we could be doing for Christ. There’s a picture floating around on Facebook that says something to the effect of, “The next time someone says ‘what would Jesus do,’ remind them that freaking out and flipping tables is a viable option.” While I don’t think ‘freaking out’ is a viable option, Jesus did not hide from issues that needed spoken about.

He spent time with prostitutes, swindlers, thieves. He spent time with them, He reached out to them, He told them what real love was. He showed them a way out, and He was certainly not afraid to do so. Now, it depends on what you like to write. I used to think I would only ever write fantasy or sci-fi or steampunk. Oddly enough, I’ve discovered that my writing style actually turns more toward realistic fiction with twists of other things. Things that could happen, or that DO happen, with occasional dashes of alternate reality or science fiction. I think this is because God has called me to write about real issues, and tackle them in creative ways. This is a pretty heavy thing, but at the same time, I love it.

Don’t write perfect characters, because perfection has no depth. Don’t write without hope, because Christ is hope. Don’t write without real conviction as to what you’re writing.  Don’t be afraid to write about painful or touchy subjects (and in reverse, don’t use Christ as an excuse to write whatever you feel like). Write what you feel led to write. God hasn’t called us all to write the same things; each of us will use our talent differently. Use it for Christ, and there’s no way you can misuse it.

The way to write a deep book is to do it without fear, and to write in tune with God. This might sound difficult or near impossible, but it isn’t. In fact, I find my writing life and my spiritual life are tied and inseparable. If my writing is flat and lagging, it’s generally because my spiritual life isn’t what it should be. I think the more you get in tune with God, the more you will be in tune with you writing. Fall in love with God, fall in love with what you write. Writing isn’t really something you do; unlike most jobs, it’s what you are.

Don’t be afraid to live it.

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39 thoughts on “On the subject of depth

  1. My darling daughter – You leave me speechless (and I haven’t stopped talking of it…) and breathless with YOUR depth. You are a lone reed…. I LOVE YOU BEYOND MEASURE!!! Quaecumque Vera!!!!!

  2. Wow. Such excellent advice, Mirriam! I will admit that sometimes I think my writing lacks depth. I get a plot idea and have trouble attaching themes to it that pack a punch. I’ll need to think on this. Hitherto my mantra has been Jane Austen’s: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects at once and restore everyone not greatly at fault themselves to tolerable good humor.” 🙂

    • Thank you so much, Rachel!! I find your gift for writing astonishing, and I have NO doubt (no doubt) that you’ll use it exactly as you were meant to! And kudos for a most excellent quote 😄

  3. Love this…
    I adore books that make me think, that catch my attention and stop me in my tracks, that force me to sit up and realize once again just how incredibly awesome our God is – and sorry, Amish Romance doesn’t cut it for me. (And yes, it’s why I love your stories. They don’t dance around the outside, which means sometimes they cut straight through false beliefs I didn’t even know I had.)

    As far as writing goes, my spiritual/writing lives are DEFINITELY tied. The more I am amazed by God, the more I want to capture even a small picture of Who He is through my stories. Writing totally is what you are, and when I’m where I’m supposed to be, my writing shows it. 🙂

    • You just made me very happy, Tanzy 🙂 Amish Romance doesn’t cut it for me either, but I guess it does for some people. Yes!! Spiritual live and writing lives are inseparable; or at least they ought to be 🙂

  4. Thanks so much, Miri. 🙂 I don’t know how my writing life is supposed to be tied to my spiritual life… I mean, that would be awesome… but I don’t know how. 😄 I don’t want my books to be shoving my beliefs down people’s throats, if you know what I mean. I definitely want there to be truth in it; I just want it to be subtle.

    Also, do you research things when writing? Like, I don’t know, mental disabilities for instance? Would you research that to help your novel? Mine is fantasy and I don’t know what to research. :\

    Another thing (sorry for the constant flow of questions XD), should I just start my novel over? Or keep with this draft and then go back? I’m redoing most of the plot. -_-

    Thanks so much!!

    • I think it comes as spiritual depth grows. With spiritual depth comes writing depth. Or at least that’s how it’s worked from me 🙂 And I know I’m doing well when I don’t feel like I’m shoving my beliefs down others throats, but just proclaiming it with what I write. It took a while toget there, though; and sometimes I find myself struggling with it anyway.
      I research some things. I did a LOT of research for Monster; medical terms, medical procedures, etc. What sort of research would you want to do with your fantasy? When I’m writing fantasy I read a lot of fantasy books and things like that to give me ideas.
      And as for re-starting your novel…I’d say if you dislike how it’s going, then yes. Re-start; wipe your slate clean, begin again with something fresh and new. If you like it, then keep going – first drafts are for what discovering what your novel is about; so don’t expect it to be perfect. It’s like a storyboard – it gets your thoughts straight and then you flesh it out, make needed changes, and have a blast with the rewrite!

  5. I think that’s the main thing to remember, definitely. I’ve met so many Christian writers who were so afraid to write characters with problems, or about issues that seemed “too dark” or “sinful”, and so their stories lacked that punch that made it relevant, that made their story seem real, that made it all tie together and made it last. It’s something I’ve struggled with, I’ve been afraid of what other people will think of my writing if I deal with that (and then I go and pull a character out of my brain like Loki…goodness gracious…)…but yeah. Don’t be afraid, dear fellow writers. Because art is awesome, and it shouldn’t be sacrificed because of our fear.

      • *jumps in* Sorry. 😛 This brought another question to mind; would be immoral then to have implications? To elaborate on that… If there was a bad guy who wanted to “use” a girl *coughcoughblush*… would it be immoral to imply that? Not that I would ever write anything coming of that… sorry… awkwardness….

        • I don’t think it would be immoral to imply that. Things like that DO happen. Now, I wouldn’t write it graphically – but if it was important and you were writing it for a reason, if it were displayed in a bad light (since it’s the villain’s doing) I wouldn’t think it was wrong to imply that. In Unforget, Cayne and Moon receive help from a prostitute, Topaz (based off Rahab, actually). I think if you’re just throwing it in there for graphic immoral content, that’s bad; but I know you and so if there’s a lesson to be learned behind it, I say go ahead. That’s my take on it, anyway. 🙂

  6. Ahhh! This is so true! I used to be so scared to write anything that was out of my life…but I’ve recently learned to make more happen that was out of my broundries. Honestly, it’s changed my writing.
    Most of my characters are based on people I personally know or sides of myself so it’s not too hard to get depth when I throw out personal feelings.

    I find myself happiest when I’m writing what I want to write…and what God wants me to. Any other time I’m not. So I’ve learned to just write for me.

    Thanks for the amazing blog!

    • Exactly!!! You’re inspirational, Neeley!! Way to go!! I find my characters used to all be based off myself to some extent, but the more I write, the more they become their own beings. It’s exciting!! EXACTLY! When we’re so in tune with God that what we want to write is what He wants us to, then…well, there’s nothing better 🙂 Thank YOU!!

  7. Depth is difficult to achieve; lovely post, Mirriam! I have been teased by most of my friends for torturing my charries… Jesse, my trouble child, came from a perfect home- until her dad was deployed to the Middle East, killed in action, and the financial standing of her home completely crumbled; Jordan never knew her dad and her mom was abusive and later died in a fire; Phoenix- she was raised by an assassin, who’s now trying to kill her. Jordan and Phoenix are rude and bubbling with hatred for everything, and poor Jesse is turning to illegal activities to get the anger out of her system.

    And they always seem to break down at the worst possible moments. *sigh*

  8. You are so right…Jesus is the answer. This is a bit off the topic of writing(I’m not good at writing) but it’s along the same line in thought. Yesterday I attended a belt ranking for my two sons who are in Karate. The visiting instructor was telling the students to find their one “ishi”石 and to meditate upon it every day. He told them that his personal ishi was to do a good job at work and to be a good father. As he was lecturing the students about this concept, I was thinking as a Christian my personal ishi should be to glorify Christ in all that I do. It’s funny at the time I didn’t know what ishi meant so I came home and looked it up on the computer, it means rock or stone. How fitting to call him our personal “ishi”, Jesus is our rock!
    Keep up the great work Mirriam!

  9. Great post, Miriam! It totally inspired me today. Me too, I find that “If my writing is flat and lagging, it’s generally because my spiritual life isn’t what it should be. I think the more you get in tune with God, the more you will be in tune with you writing.” So true!

    P.S. I have been keeping up with your posts via e-mail regularly, tis just that I don’t comment that often because your blog is wordpress… :p. Oh but this was simply too good a post to pass on without a comment!

  10. I’m pretty depthless so… yeah. Thanks. 🙂

    (And you passed me! You’re half done and I’m still at a measly 22k! :O And taking the day off too… I such a bad writer. :P)

  11. When I began to write seriously I panicked about matters like this. I wanted to write for God, but in doing so, I went to far and muffed it all. He showed me, when i was willing to listen, what He wished me to write.
    You are right. We should never be afraid to write, or to write for Him. Only then will it turn out well, when we are open

  12. Oh you do not know HOW much I needed this post. I’ve been second guessing myself alot lately. Echo (my WIP) is so dark and sometimes depressing. Your blog post made me realize that the subjects I have chosen to write about maybe I’m ok with them. Loved this. ❤

  13. Wow. That’s all I can say at the moment. Wow.

    Thank you, Mirriam. This is something I’ve felt all tangled up in my head about, you helped put some coherence to my thoughts and answer some of my uncertainty. Oh, and that part about our writing lives and our spiritual lives being one… I REALLY needed that. That probably explains why I feel like I’ve been in a desert with my writing lately. I know I haven’t been spending the time with God that I should be and I really need to take care of that ASAP. Thank you for opening my eyes and writing this beautiful post.

    Best wishes from one writer and christian to another.*hugs*

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