I’ve said before — and will say again, right now — that writing processes are very individual. I’m always suspicious of proscriptive writing advice. There are so many different ways to finish a novel, there is no right way. There is just the way that works for an individual author. Consider this my ritual disclaimer. I am talking about my own process and my own interaction with writing. The person next to me on the bookshelf might well goggle at how I do things, because it might be so foreign to them.
Estara said something in the comments that I can’t find, or I would quote it (I might be looking at the wrong site), and I’ve been thinking about it and mulling it over since then.
It was — badly paraphrased on my part, I’m really sorry — about a common story thread running through my books, in particular female characters who gather/protect their families — be those families of blood or families built after the fact.
I found this slightly confusing at first, but on reflection, understand it better. I think.
In the Cast novels, I have one viewpoint character. Although the books aren’t written in first person, they’re a very tight third. If I am writing one viewpoint for an entire book or an entire series of books, I want to spend the time with a character I like. Not everyone will like her. She is more impulsive than I would be, it’s true. She is also a lot younger. But at base, even having done things she’s not in any way proud of, she’s a person who is struggling to make a different life for herself.
Could these books have been darker? Absolutely. I could have started them earlier; I could have started with Kaylin in the fiefs. It would have changed the tone and texture. It wouldn’t be less true, because it would still be her life — but I would be writing about someone’s collapse. I didn’t because in part, it’s not where she came from that matters to me, but what she wants now. Does the past still shadow her present? Yes. Both her own actions in the past, and the things she suffered. But she is not only the sum of her suffering.
The entire Halls of Law are seen through the lens of Kaylin. She sees in them what she wants to see: an extended family. The obnoxious uncle you invite to your wedding even though he’s going to get drunk and serenade you in the middle of dinner. The aunt who tells you you should have lost weight before you got married. She accepts what she sees as inevitable. If the books were written from Teela’s point of view, the office would look very different. The people in the office are who they are — but Kaylin’s viewpoint privileges certain aspects. She wants a home, and a place to belong.
The same is true of Jewel. Many, many readers found Hidden City very hard going for a variety of reasons. I didn’t, as a writer. The book doesn’t start in a happy place, and the lives of Jewel’s den are not — by any stretch of the imagination — good. But what Jewel wanted was, to me. She didn’t have much; she didn’t feel she had much to offer (she often doesn’t), but what she wanted made sense — again, to me. Her life was not easy. None of the lives of her den were easy, either. But she was trying, given the circumstances, to build something positive out of a whole bunch of negative.
But in the West novels, I am not limited to a single viewpoint. I have several. I don’t need to spend all of my writing time in any one novel inside only one person’s head. It increases the range of viewpoints, for me. If I don’t have to remain with one person for the entire novel, I have a freedom to examine many other viewpoints. Duster is one of them.
Duster is not Jewel. But Duster, and her resentment, her anger, the things she wants that she’s desperately afraid of both needing and losing, were part of that. They had two distinct ways of looking at the universe, and Duster wouldn’t have stayed if some part of her didn’t want what Jewel could offer. She was afraid to trust it. But sometimes, you have to take that risk.
The end of Hidden City was not about Jewel, for me. It wasn’t about Jewel, but I spent six weeks not writing a word trying to come up with any other ending. The flat truth is: I assumed that they had all suffered physical and emotional abuse to one degree or another. They were children, they didn’t have homes, and they didn’t have families to look out for them. In two cases, the families they did have were looking out for themselves in particularly damaging ways. People who have — in real life — suffered abuse and trauma assumed it existed in the past because of the den’s circumstances; people who haven’t missed some of the cues.
But putting things explicitly on the page gives them a different weight. I didn’t — and don’t — want these characters to exist only as the sum of their suffering. They accept the past, sometimes without grace, and they look toward the future in the hope that the future will be different.
The ending of Hidden City was about Duster and Rath. The ending was the only thing that made sense of them, to me: Duster was willing to stay, to try her hardest to believe because of the ending. It was the only thing that tipped the balance for her. And Rath was willing to kill and, out of character for Rath to that point, die because of it.
I do not like to torture my characters. I don’t enjoy it because I’m in that frame of mind with them while I write. But sometimes the books take a turn that I didn’t necessarily plan, and I am left with what’s on the page. So I write.
It took me six hours to write four hundred words of City of Night because it was the scene in which Lefty goes missing. I did not want to write it. I didn’t have a choice. I am willing — for story reasons — to write things that almost kill me. I wrote Hunter’s Death, after all. I wrote the first third of The Broken Crown.
But all violence has a strong emotional weight, for me. A lot of readers have told me my West novels are very grim — but I think, when I point at violence & death on the page, I’m one of the least grim fantasy writers I know.
I want my characters to have hope. Even when things are dark. Maybe especially then. I want them to struggle against their own desires and the changing shape of their worlds because of that hope. I suppose, for me, part of hope is that: the people you love. The people who make the struggle so important.
I’m of two minds about this: loving people makes you vulnerable. It makes you vulnerable to loss, and the pain of loss — and that pain can be profound. I understand the desire to avoid it. But … I think it’s human nature to want those connections, and if you protect yourself by avoiding hope — as Duster did for so long — you court despair in its place.
And I guess this is a long winded (very) way of saying: I don’t want to write from a place of constant despair. I understand that there are things that will happen that will give me ulcers to write — but I desperately want my characters to continue to move, even if hope is painful.