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.