Neil Gaiman Says Write

I’m stuck tonight. It’s no use fighting it. Inspiration is an insipid mistress, and I can’t keep her fancy for more than a minute. Tonight, I don’t even have that. So I’m running with it. I’ve been having trouble with an aspect of my writing that I’m sure every author struggles with. That is the problem of developing well rounded characters. Every character of mine seems, to my eyes, to be the same character. They’re all intelligent, they’re all thoughtful, experienced, and considerate. Witty at times, often sarcastic, and usually deep and well meaning and helpful. The problem is that I seem to be writing characters with the one voice that I hear in my head: my own voice. While I won’t go as far as to say I am all those qualities above, I will say that they represent the ideal character to my mind, and that writing outside of that is incredibly difficult. Both of my main characters share similar viewpoints and find themselves in very similar life situations, and I’m really getting worried that, even at this relatively early point in the novel, I haven’t given the characters enough life of their own.

I did some reading earlier to try and help myself out of this hole. I came across some character building exercises on a few different sites, but a quote by Neil Gaiman made me stop and wonder. He said, “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.” 

So, I’m going to do that. I’m just going to write, and write like I know how, with the confidence I feel in the world I’ve created, and hope that my intuition is right in guiding my decisions. The reception my book has received so far has been overwhelmingly positive, so I can only think that I’m doing something right. Or maybe my friends are all just really nice. I’m going to keep writing honestly, and in the best way I know how, and believe that somewhere in this confusion I’ll land on something approaching the truth—the truth of my characters, their lives, their stories—and it will resonate with readers and be successful.

Margaret Atwood added something sobering that I’ll finish with. She said, “Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.” I believe that’s basically true as well. And so while I’m not whining, it’s important to have a place to talk about these things. I don’t really expect you to help. You can be like the ceiling that I lie on my bed and talk to when no one else is there to listen.


  1. Good luck, I know what it feels like. There are days when I just don’t feel like writing anything at all but I end up doing it anyway, almost like a job. Sometimes I come up with some good stuff and I feel okay and there are times in which I don’t but I still feel okay because I at least wrote something. And there’s something satisfying about doing it everyday, to write even when you don’t feel like it. It makes you feel truer when you say to yourself that you are writer, I guess. And I just want to say that I agree with Mr. Gaiman. A writer needs to read a lot, write a lot, and read and write some more.


    1. That’s all very true. Especially the bit about feeling more honest in calling yourself a writer. I struggle with that somedays, when it’s been a week since I’ve managed to hammer anything out on my novel. Other days I feel a lot more confident. It’s nice to know someone else feels the same way.


  2. Maybe only a slight variation to each voice could do it. I recommend the Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and The Submission by Amy Waldman as good examples of how to vary the voice. Maybe your characters Are too similar and you need to look at their biographies.


    1. Some of them are similar, some of them aren’t. Really, no matter the character, I find myself wanting to say the same things, speak in the same voice. I really need to examine that more. I see on Amazon the Art of Fielding has pretty good reviews, maybe I’ll check that out. Thanks for the recommendation!


  3. Even though I haven’t even replied to your comment on my blog yet, I had a thought as soon as I read this post and I wanted to write it down.

    It’s about your remark on characters. I’ve had that same issue, and I think it was Roald Dahl who said that characters have to be extreme. If they’re funny, they have to be REALLY funny. If they’re mean, they have to be REALLY mean. I find that making my characters extreme helps me to individualize them, since it emphasizes their differences. I don’t know how well that applies to your situation, but maybe it’s something to think about.

    Also, thanks for checking out my blog and I LOVE yours.


    1. Thanks! I really appreciate that. And that is something to think about. I have never looked at it that way before, but since you mention it, you’re right: my characters usually fall in the same sort of bandwidth, not too far apart from each other. I’ll have to work on that, thanks for the insight!

      And definitely, it’s great to meet other writers. Keep in touch =)


  4. Everyone here has such great advice. I think knowing your character’s biography is very important, though the drafting out of each person’s back-story can seem to take as long as writing the book. Do you draft much before writing, or just leap into it?


  5. The corollary to Gaiman’s sage advice is this: read. Read everything. Everything you read will teach you something.

    And then write. Write stuff for your current project, and write for no other reason than to download the current contents of your brain. Write to make sense of things. Write because an odd idea popped into your head. Write on a dare, from an arbitrary set of interesting notions. Write your way out of contradiction, because the human brain is a pattern-making animal, and it does its best work when you’re not looking.

    And I do mean read everything: don’t worry if it’s “not in your field” (which is to say, not exactly what you thought you meant to be writing yourself). Most of my fiction ideas come from nonfiction; I learned prose by studying poets, and novel scene-writing by apprenticing with playwrights. I got a sense of what could be accomplished by studying the lives of other writers. That’s the working lives and the life-lives, because the two are not unconnected.


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