There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.
That quote—or variations of it—has been attributed to the sportswriter Red Smith, among others. I’ve thought a lot about it over the years, trying to determine whether the writer was (a) being funny, (b) over-dramatizing or (c) attempting to impart real wisdom. Recently, I’ve come to believe that C is the correct answer.
Good writing is about the mechanics. Great writing is about putting yourself into the words. Actors talk a lot about this—putting themselves into their character. I once asked a friend of mine who had studied method acting at the Actors Studio, “Do you actually become the character?” “No,” he said. That would mean I’m insane. Good point.
So, must writers become the characters we are writing about? No, but there are three things I believe to be essential if you want the reader to believe they exist.
You Must Understand
Without understanding, you’re doomed to writing thin, unbelievable characters. I should know—I’ve written enough of them. We all have. In screenplays, people always talk about a character’s backstory. Screenwriters spend a lot of time writing detailed histories of their characters, things like where they went to school, whether they have siblings, the kind of music they enjoy, etc.
Me, I don’t do that. I always start with someone I know or someone I’ve met. Sometimes, I create a composite. The point is, by honing in on a specific person, I’ve already got my backstory. To me, it’s a waste of time to create a fake history when there are so many real, interesting people in the world. And this is not say that I don’t embellish.