The Solitary Writer

And other popular myths. I am certain that there are people who exist, and write best, firmly avoiding any contact with their fellow human. I have doubts about the kind of writing they might produce. I mean, who can write a fully developed character who isn’t themselves (and no, I don’t mean a Mary Sue) who doesn’t watch other people? Writers may be the ultimate voyeurs.

The long-running joke (that isn’t a joke) is to not tease the writer, lest you wind up in a book. I think the addendum to that is that if you tease the writer you may wind up dying a thousand deaths (ala Joe Buckley of Baen authors fame. I was once asked why I hadn’t included Buckley in a book; because although I was a longtime Baen’s Barfly, I am not a Baen author. And am only slightly acquainted with Joe online). Or if you really tick them off, you might die horribly and awfully, as JL Curtis did with his most recent Rimworld book with a character I recognized immediately although real names are elided. Rimworld: The Rift, and I highly recommend it, not for that little bit, but because it’s a rollicking good space opera. You’ll also recognize another character in that book, which leads me to…

Tuckerization, the art of writing real people, with permission, into your stories. I don’t tuckerize often, but I have done it for friends I wanted to honor. It’s fun to create a character that picks out some traits of a person you like and magnifies them into the fiction you are spinning. The other version of this is Red-Shirting, from the Star Trek writers killing off all their support crew willy-nilly, only in a novel it’s using the names of real people for characters who are going to die. Sometimes this can go sideways. I once had to email a friend and explain that what I’d intended as a brief tuckerization, possibly red-shirt, had evolved into main character. He was flattered and gave permission to continue with his name – had he objected I would have used the find-and-replace to force my character into a new name.

I was thinking, with the title of this post, of other people than the characters in my books, no matter how real they may seem to me. I was thinking of the family who demands my time and cuts into my writing blithely. Of the friends who support me when I get stuck on a plot point and want to bounce ideas off someone outside my own head. Of the myriad of people I encounter over time who serve as models for the characters that inhabit the worlds in my head. I like people, by and large. I like watching people and seeing how they interact, and react, and working out the hidden motivations as well as the overt ones.

As much as we like to think of ourselves as solitary beings, living inside our own heads, the best writer emerges from their shell at times and partakes in human interaction. I don’t mean social media – that’s enough to give anyone mental indigestion, most of the time, unless you are very careful – but just to people-watch. Or to stop being so analytical for five minutes and just enjoy… but no. We’re not usually good at that, are we?

My point, I suppose, if the post must have a point other than my rambling about building characters as sort of a Frankenstein’s monster from the people we have met or simply observed from afar, is that no good writer is truly solitary. Unless you are writing a narrative without any humans in it – I’m sure that exists, just can’t think of one off top of my head – you’ll have characters. And the best characters, be they robots, cat-aliens, or simple humans, have human elements. They can’t help it. Reader and writer alike: we are all human. Writing is, in essence, the study of humanity, and then painting it with words into the story.


  1. Hmm.

    Man versus environment could perhaps be done as facility versus environment, with the character of the facility’s designers and builders being only implied by the qualities of the facility.

    Seems like it would be seriously difficult.

    So I’m wondering if I’m crazy enough to try this anytime soon.

      1. I’m not sure. I bounced off an anthology of his Martian Chronicles, and a lot of it didn’t stick.

        I’m short on sleep, anxious, and juggling at least half a dozen priorities. Hence, I fear that I might find myself ignoring everything else and trying to do one mad creative writing project or another.

        1. It’s “soft” rains, but yeah, that was part of it. But a lot of Bradbury’s work used architecture for a sort of characterization. Tolkien, too. And Poe, of course.

          So sure, that would fit right in. A lot of “lost races” and “ancient technology” storylines kinda do that — you try to figure out if the people were interested in nice things or nasty things, sure. And archeology is full of that.

  2. I was asked if a character was based on A, B, or C. I said well, the character is based on the mannerisms of L, the appearance of a young Rutger Hauer (RIP) plus this other person’s gravatar from seven years ago, a little of A and C, and events I read about in [Book 1] and [Book 2], plus some other people from . . .

    The point is, there are a number of people with similar macro-scale experiences for the author to borrow from.

    [Pssst. Cedar, you got the colors wrong on my portrait up there. I’m still a red tabby, despite the best efforts of this past semester to turn me into a silver tabby. 😉 ]

    1. Thus offering an example of that sort of changes you make to real life people for fictional purposes. . . .

  3. — …no good writer is truly solitary. —

    Well, some of us come pretty close. (Certain persons I shall refrain from naming consider that a good thing.) But there’s also this: the writer who inflicts his products on his intimates usually doesn’t retain them for long. (The intimates, that is.)

    Judith Martin, a.k.a. “Miss Manners,” was once asked by a correspondent how to avoid (or avert) questions about her occupation. Her advice was to say “I’m working on a novel.” Miss Martin followed that by saying “Don’t worry that they’ll ask to read it; they won’t.” I find that to be an accurate assessment of today’s typical reaction to writers…exceptions allowed for the Stephen Kings and James Micheners among us.

    — …we are all human. —

    Where on Earth did you get that idea? (:-)

  4. I don’t know who forms the basis of my characters. They essentially arrive and begin acting the way they do without any help from me. I think if I deliberately tried to put someone I know in a story it would come out a bit ridiculous, that’s just not the way I work.

    I do admit to putting Laura Montgomery in “The Abandoned Shoe” as an FAA space lawyer, but the character is her own person and behaves nothing at all like the real Laura.

  5. When I met David Weber I noticed he spoke in a unique manner and was interested in incorporating that into a character. But when I tried I found it just didn’t work and it made me realize a few things.

    Weber speaks in complete paragraphs (probably due to years of writing via computer dictation). People don’t. So, I thought having a character speak in complete paragraphs would be a unique and interesting character identifier. It wasn’t. Why? Because most characters in most novels tend to speak in a similar fashion and I’d never really picked up on that.

    Sure, I knew novel dialogue was stilted and different than normal dialogue but I hadn’t picked up on that most obvious difference. Still, it was nice to listen to someone who spoke differently and would make an interesting character trait in something else. A Mamet style screenplay with more natural dialogue for most of the characters with one who speaks like Weber could work well.

    When I was in my early twenties I’d wander around the city on the weekends and if I saw someone interesting I’d sketch them when I got home later. Much better, much more real drawings than when I drew straight from my head. Though I kind of regretted it when my friend saw one of the drawings (of a Chinese or southern Japanese guy with a fu manchu mustache, a pointy chin beard, an enormous forehead with an elongated skull and a tuft of hair right on top that looked like the right amount of hair stretched over double the area) and said that he knew the guy. Apparently the elongated skull was due to congenital birth defects and the dude was mentally impaired and could die any minute. Focusing attention on a physical defect felt a little unkind and it made me think about the other people I was drawing. Perhaps they didn’t want their giant misshapen nose exaggerated and put on a troll? Still, it often made for some nice drawings.


  6. I’m going to make you suffer through my enthusiasms again….

    I’ve been reading Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in the Dryden translation (via audiobook), and it is absolutely awesome for characterization, both of people and societies. Also, Plutarch seems strangely interested in finding out how historical figures financed their rise to power, which isn’t something usually brought up.

    1. Anyway, the point is that Plutarch shows you how somewhat similar figures in the history of Greece and of Rome were alike and different, and how their societies responded similarly and differently. And I like that a lot. Being a King Arthur type in an elven society, or a Martian society, really shouldn’t work the same way as in Malory.

  7. A minor quibble. While Bob/Wilson Tucker (after whom tuckerization is named, since he did it, and was the first to do so) sometimes let people know in advance, other authors have been known to tuckerize their friends who find out about it when they read the story. Of course, if you bought a tuckerization at a charity auction(which authors have been known to do), then there’s clearly going to notice. And the name might be somewhat changed, but the reference still recognizable.

    This is different from the massively disguised references to literary figures (both real and imaginary) that you find in Randall Garrett’s Too Many Magicians, for example — nobody is named there, and it’s a challenge to figure out what all the references are (but fun, since it’s a good book, and you don’t need to catch all the references, since they’re just throwaways).

    1. In Rusty & Co, he sold Tuckerizations but it didn’t have to be of the person who bought it. As a consequence, he has two RPG characters from other games, and a pet pug turned gnoll. (Nice gnoll you ever met.)

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