Writers can change their world with a single keystroke.

A scene from The Third Man, a character on the run and confronting danger.
A scene from The Third Man, a character on the run and confronting danger.

IF YOU’RE A WRITER, you don’t live in the same world with everyone else.

You can’t.

Everyone else looks out a window.

The day is clear.

The sun shines.

Here come the dark clouds.

Rain may be on the way.

Rain may not come at all.

They watch the world.

They cannot control it.

Writers live on a bridge.

It’s a swinging bridge.

One end is tied to reality.

Writers have no idea where the other end is tied.

That’s why they’re trying to cross the bridge.

On the far side is where they want to be.

On the far side, they can create a world of their own.

Want it to rain?

It rains.

Want to be lost in a dry and heat-seared desert?

Erase the rain.


Bring on a woman.

At least, that’s what I do.

I’m sure my wife brings on a man.

We mold the characters we want to hang out with a while.

Then we marry them off.

We love them.

We hate them.

We hurt them.

We disappoint them.

We frustrate them.

We kill them off.

We miss them when they’re gone.

Or, if we have a sense of decency, and few of us ever do, we let them ride off into the sunset.

They populate our stories.

Our stories populate our novels.

Everything is real.

Nothing is real.

As John Updike said: We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’ up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.

So how do we make our characters interesting?

It’s easy.

We make them believable.

Hemingway once said, and I paraphrase loosely, write your stories about people. Don’t sit around making up characters. People are living, breathing, human beings filled with love and fear, likes and dislikes, hopes and emotions. Characters are caricatures.

How do we do this?

We don’t tell readers about our characters.

We show readers who and what they are.

Fred East put it this way: If you tell the reader that Bull Beezley is a brutal-faced, loose-lipped bully with snake’s blood in his reins, the reader’s reaction may be, “Oh, yeah.”

But if you show the reader Bull Feezley raking the bloodied flanks of his weary, sweat-encrusted pony, and flogging the tottering, red-eyed animal with a quirt, of have him booting in the protruding ribs of a starved mongrel and, boy, the reader believes.

All you have to do now is come up with a plot.

I’ve known writers who spend days and weeks and sometimes a lifetime searching for a plot.

It’s not that difficult.

Build a world.

Populate it with a few interesting people.

And remember the words of literary genius Jim Thompson.

He said: There is only one plot.

What’s that, you ask.

Things are not what they seem.

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