We Don’t Have to Know Everything

What do you do with someone who won’t behave?

This person is secretive, aloof, moody. She’s keeping me up nights and interfering with my novel-in- progress. She’s the character who “vants to be alone!”

Her name is Robin. She’s a twin. An accomplished photographer. She has dark hair and green eyes, she’s twenty pounds overweight, she’s married with two sons. Her marriage is in trouble. Her twin sister has died, and she carries a terrible secret.

All these complications in her life, and yet, even after excellent feedback at a workshop, I remain stumped by what Robin desires and what will keep her from getting it.

Photo: Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

So I start over at the beginning, revising as the story seems to lead me. I try applying a rubric the workshop leader shared. It’s a good tool to get a handle on what a story is about (can you say it in a sentence?), determine what the “container” is (time frame and place), and sketch out the main characters and plot points. The rubric helps, but I’m not there yet. I’m still worried about not knowing clearly who Robin is and where she’s going.

I have to confess I’ve never been big on plot points, but I’m learning. I tend to let the story evolve, which means I may do more work than someone who is able to plan the story (or book) out, start to finish. Sometimes, because of my tendency to “pantser” rather than plot, I feel inept as a writer.

Many writing experts contend that we should know everything we possibly can about a character before we begin. But a fine teacher of writing and an exceptional fiction writer in his own right, David Jauss, takes the stance that we don’t have to know everything. In fact, Jauss says it may be preferable not to know; not knowing every detail ahead of time may lead to richer character-ization as we discover things about characters as we write them.

What a relief!

What Jauss says doesn’t absolve me of all responsibility where the story is concerned. I can’t put the writing on automatic pilot. (Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could? But I don’t trust the recent developments in AI to do the job.) But Jauss’s take allows me the freedom to write about this character and her circumstances, to write into her, and see what unfolds. Maybe I’ll discover along with her how she ticks, where she’s headed, and how she’ll get there.

So here we go, my make-believe friend, Robin. Let’s see where the words on the page take both of us.

How do you handle your less-than-cooperative characters? Are you a “know everything” writer or one who goes with the flow?

2 thoughts on “We Don’t Have to Know Everything

  1. I’m just clearing the dust from my keys, too.

    Pantser or Plotter? Hybrid here, forever and always. I like a basic skeleton that gets added flesh and sinew as the story grows.

    It may take longer, but I have to think it’s a more satisfying experience for the writer and a more engaging experience for the reader.

    I have faith that Robin will take the reins the more you sit with her.

    Best of luck


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