Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the first chapter, “How To Make Your Own Imaginary Friends”, which begins section 1, “Being a Writer Just Means You Know How To Get Lost.” New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
Part I: Being a Writer Just Means You Know How To Get Lost
Chapter 1: How To Make Your Own Imaginary Friends
A huge part of the pleasure of creating stories is having another consciousness inside your head. As soon as you invent a fictional character (or even a story that represents a real person), you’re getting lost in that other perspective.
There’s something both weird and tyrannical about being a person and being stuck in just one point of view all the time. Everyone has that experience sometimes where you wake up from a vivid dream and for a moment you don’t remember where you are and what’s been going on. Everything from your skin outwards feels like a blank slate, with infinite possibilities, until reality comes smashing back down onto you.
But when you have other people living inside your head, it’s a way to have that same feeling when you’re fully awake.
I sort of think of it as being like when you have a hard drive, and you partition it—so instead of one drive, you have two, occupying the same piece of hardware. That’s kind of what it can be like, when you create a character and they come to life. They take over their own separate space inside your head.
Sometimes it’s just a relief to be someone else for a while. And whether your story takes place in another place and time, or in the here and now, you’re still cooking up a whole imaginary location that you can get lost in. And then there are plots, and themes, and backstories, and so on.
One time, when I was recovering from surgery, I binged an entire season of The Flash to distract myself, and it was a huge relief to obsess about Cisco and Iris and Wally instead of my own nasty bandages. I’ve definitely gotten lost in reading other people’s books, too. But getting immersed in my own writing project is the best way I’ve found to get out of my own reality.
Think of it as “hanging out with your imaginary friends.”
So how do you find your way into that headspace of living vicariously through the fake people you’ve created?
To me, it often starts with becoming curious. I try to find a person, a place, or a set of events that I want to know more about—and the only way to find out more is to keep pulling on the threads and coming up with the answers myself, out of my own imagination. This is a process that reinforces itself, because the harder you pull at the loose threads, the more threads there are to pull at.
The thing that makes you want to keep writing is the exact same thing that makes you want to keep reading—you want to see where this goes. You want to spend more time with these people and you want to understand what’s really going on behind the curtain. Even if you’ve planned out your story meticulously, you need to see how these events actually play out. (And as I mentioned previously, part of the joy of writing is being surprised.)
Often, when I’m creating a character, I try to find that loose thread. It could be a contradiction at the heart of their personality, which I want to resolve or understand. It could be one random detail about the character that I fixate on. Often, it’s the situation that the character finds themself in, or the conflict that they’re trying to resolve. And finding a way to root for this character (they’re the underdog! they want to right some wrong! they’re treated unfairly!) goes hand in hand with becoming curious about them.
As with all writing advice, your mileage may vary—but for me, it’s not about knowing every little thing about a character at the start. I don’t need to know their favorite brand of toothpaste, or what kind of socks they wear. I often layer in those little details as I write, or more likely as I revise. When I’m starting out, boring details make me bored, but I cling fervently to the aspects of a character that “pop” and bring up more questions. Like, if a character carries around a watch chain with no watch, or spits every time you mention Winston Churchill, or can’t resist getting drawn into magical duels, I want to know more.
In the meantime, I get more curious and engaged with a character who isn’t static. The sooner I can see this character going through changes, the better—because often, your characters are only as compelling as the changes they go through. There’s a reason why so many novels begin on the day when their protagonist’s life is altered forever, rather than starting out with everything on an even keel. When you’ve seen a character evolve once, you know they can do it again. And again.
I’m a big believer in superhero-style origin stories, even if they never appear in the final manuscript. What was the thing that made this character decide to do what they’re doing? Where does their power come from, and what challenges have they faced before?
When I was writing All the Birds in the Sky, I came up with origin stories for every single character in the story—even minor ones, like Kanot or Dorothea—and tried to see how they were different people in the past than they are now. (And I was inspired by the flashbacks in the TV show Lost, which always showed drastically different versions of the characters than their present-day selves.)
Here’s a writing exercise: Write down just one paragraph about something intense that happened to you in the past. Pretend you’re telling a friend about a situation that tested you, and upset you, and maybe also brought out some valor in you. And then think about the fact that you’re no longer the person who went through that mess—you’re almost writing about a different person. And by retelling that story, you’re both reliving and recontextualizing those events. And maybe try to fictionalize some of the details, and see how it becomes more and more about a different person.
The next thing you know, you’re turning yourself into a story. And you’re also spending a moment with the two different parts of yourself that come into play when you’re tormenting your characters.
There’s the you that’s standing outside the story and thinking of ways to make life miserable for these people, and then there’s the you that’s inhabiting them and going through their desperate struggle with them. These two parts of yourself aren’t really at odds, they’re both weaving a story together—and this actually makes you feel bigger, because you can contain them both. Bigger, and more alive, in a world that wants you to be small and half-dead.
And speaking of change and origin stories, there’s something incredibly compelling about a character who has major regrets. And when we watch someone do something unforgivable, we’re primed to root for them as they search desperately for an impossible forgiveness. I also live for a character who has unfinished business, something from their past that nags at them.
A good character usually has as much story behind them as ahead of them. We might only need to glimpse their past, but we should know that they’ve already been on the journey before the story even begins.
Think about what your character isn’t seeing
I love self-aware characters, and characters who comprehend a situation in ways that nobody else does. There’s something very satisfying about identifying with the only person who’s aware of a problem that everyone else ignores.
And yet, often the easiest characters to invest in are the ones who are blissfully (or excruciatingly) unaware of what’s going on around them. People who are in denial, or selectively oblivious. People who have been kept in the dark about some basic facts of their own lives. Especially when we can glimpse things out of the corner of our eyes that these characters fail to notice, it can create a kind of suspense—like in a horror movie, when you want to shout look behind you!—and fill you with a desperate urge to see this person wake up to reality.
When I was writing The City in the Middle of the Night, one of the ways that I got into Mouth’s POV was by putting her self-image at odds with her reality. Right off the bat, you learn that she thinks of herself as someone who loves constant travel—but the road gives her headaches and makes her miserable. She describes herself as a remorseless killer—but she agonizes non-stop about whether she should have killed Justin, the fence who betrayed her. She’s not the person she keeps telling herself she is, and that made me want to know more about her.
On a similar note, I’ve got all the time in the world for someone who’s having an identity crisis.
Pretty much every protagonist I’ve ever created has been struggling with the question of “Who am I?” Or, to put it another way, “What does this make me?” When a character is struggling with a huge choice, they’re really trying to figure out who they’ll become if they do this, versus that. How can they use whatever power they have wisely? How can they rise above the terrible circumstances that threaten to break them?
Meanwhile, to turn it around, I often find that when a character isn’t clicking, it’s because I’m avoiding the biggest pain points, because nobody likes to dwell on unpleasant things.
Why isn’t this character upset by the death of their mother? Why did this character never have a real reaction to their friend’s betrayal? Why isn’t anyone calling this person on their bad behavior? I sometimes instinctively flinch away from the most intense parts of a character’s story—and I’ve seen this in plenty of books I’ve read, too. When I realize my mind is sliding away from some aspect of a character, that’s usually where the really good stuff is.
Some more ideas for finding the perfect imaginary friend
- Give your character a strong point of view. Make them funny, give them ironic observations about their situation, let them vent a healthy dose of snark. You’re going to want to spend time with whoever has the funniest lines and darkest insights, whether that person is the first-person narrator, third-person POV, or just someone we hear from. Master storyteller Eileen Gunn says that when a character isn’t clicking, she usually gets them to rant about something. Basically, do whatever you have to do to get this character’s voice in your head: write a fiery monologue, talk to yourself in the shower, have them livetweet their favorite TV show. Whatever. Doesn’t hurt if your character is a little bit of an obnoxious asshole. Or a lot of one.
- Put your character at odds with their world. Similarly, there’s something immediately compelling about a character who disagrees with everyone else. In a world where everyone wears psychic snakes as belts, it’s more interesting to follow the one person who loathes snakes. Maybe your character is part of a whole community of outcasts, or maybe they’re a lone rebel—but it’s always easier to invest in someone who doesn’t entirely fit in, and who might see the injustices everyone else chooses to ignore.
- Start with a type and then mess them up. Often, a good character starts off as an archetype that you’ve seen before in fiction (or in real life). But the more time you spend with them and the more different situations you put them in, the more they start to open up and show different layers that you might not have expected from the broad-brush characterization you originally gave them. This is really no different than how you get to know living, breathing people. You start with a label—”gamer,” “yuppie,” “crusty punk”—and then gradually you find out that there’s more to this person than their broad-brush category. The good thing about meeting characters as types first is that you can start them off loud and exaggerated—like a dashing rogue, or a cowardly spy—and let them make a strong impression. And then you can find the subtlety inside them later. (Sometimes they get deeper and more layered in revision, too. But we’ll talk about revision later.)
- Start with an intense situation and then figure out who’s in it. Someone stole your shoes. Your mother got trapped in a collapsed railway tunnel. You finally got a shot at your dream job, but the interview was a disaster. If the situation is intense enough, you can be swept along by it, and then you can find your character by how they react to this mess they’re in.
- Give your protagonist a goal they can never have. Make your characters sweat, right off the bat. We can all think of compelling fictional characters who don’t seem to want anything much—but as a general rule, we care about people who have strong goals. And there’s nothing better than a character who wants something that’s actually impossible, like staying young forever or winning the love of someone who’s totally unavailable. (Or see above, re: impossible forgiveness.)
- Imagine an extreme action and then try to picture the person doing it. This sort of goes hand in hand with characters being at odds with their society, and also the thing about launching the story on the day that everything changes. Sometimes the best way to get into a character is to see them do something completely outrageous, something that nobody else would choose to do—and then find out why, and what the consequences are. What do you mean, you fed your psychic snake-belt to the great mongoose who lives in the forbidden zone? What kind of maniac are you?
We all contain multitudes
When I was in college, I took a year off and lived in China and Australia. I supported myself by teaching English in Beijing, and by working in warehouses in Sydney, and I found out that I was a very different person when I was standing in front of a classroom than when I was hauling boxes around. (And don’t get me started on that time that I nearly got stabbed by my tweaker roommate, who then sicced a biker gang on me. Long story.)
The point is, I got a really good sense of how different I could be, depending on where I was and what I was doing. And since then, I’ve had a few different careers and transitioned from male to female. At the same time, there’s a part of me that never changes, my core or whatever.
We all contain many wildly divergent versions of ourselves, which is part of why creating characters and making up stories is so exciting and fulfilling. It’s a way to discover new aspects of your own mind, and create personas that you get to inhabit for a period of time. And these figments of your imagination won’t just keep you company in the midst of an atrocity, they’ll also help you to strengthen your mind. You can gain courage from these made-up struggles against adversity, and also find out that there’s more to you than anyone ever realized.
When your characters take on a life of their own, they can help give you life. And maybe, in turn, you can put them out into the world, so they can give some life to everyone else. We all need an imaginary posse every now and then.
Part 1: Chapter 1 was previously published May 12, 2020. New installments will appear every Tuesday at noon EST.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award, and her story “Don’t Press Charges And I Won’t Sue” won a Theodore Sturgeon Award. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.