Why Write Fiction?

I don’t have a piece about S’Mary’s World today because I’m at the point in the project where I need to stop world-building and start writing some actual stories. That’s not so quick. I find it fairly easy to put together a brief encyclopedia article about some aspect of a fictional world, but writing full stories is harder, and takes a lot longer.

As a consolation prize, here are some thoughts on writing fiction, and my reasons for doing it.

Some folks, when asked, will say they wrote a novel or a short story because “that was the only way they could say what they wanted to say.” This strikes me as disingenuous: the sort of thing an author says when someone asks him what a story means, and he has to say something if he doesn’t want to be rude. It isn’t untrue, precisely, because fiction is all about story-telling: the only way to tell to a story is to tell a story, and if the author in question simply wanted to tell a story then indeed that was the only way he could do it.

What the phrase “they wanted to say” seems to imply, though, is some kind of message the author wants to get across. I suppose many authors do write fiction with a message in mind, but I’ve always thought that to be the straight road to fictional wrack and ruin. Certainly, I can’t do it, not and make the story interesting.

So I just want to tell a story.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Actually, I just want to tell myself a story. When I get a yen to write some fiction, I usually start with a title, or an image, that grabs me and makes me say, “That’s odd. How could that happen? And what happens next?” And then I write the story to find out.

Island of the Panzer-Schnauzers” came about in just that way. I was reading a neat book called “Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction“; and as a writing prompt it had a picture of a stout, quaintly-dressed man glaring in high dudgeon at a fish of almost the same size as himself. There were a variety of other animals standing about (one of them on the man’s shoulder, if I recall correctly). And I put the book down and said to myself, “I don’t wanna write about that.” And I went upstairs and began to do something else.

Not panzer-schnauzers. Panzer-schnauzers are tropical, and (except for the beard) have short coats.

But ideas were bubbling in my back-brain, and as I sat at my computer I began to think. Hmmm. The man looks somewhat Victorian. Perhaps the fish is a flounder; I’ve always thought that the word “flounder” is inherently funny. It sounds like “schnauzer,” which is also inherently funny. I wonder what it means to schnauze. The flounder has interrupted him at a bad time, and wants him to do something he doesn’t want to do. A flounder before breakfast is most annoying… And I was off. I set up the first scene; and then it was just a matter of figuring out what was going on and coming to some conclusion.

I’m currently trying to finish up a novel called Vikings at Dino’s; it got started in a similar way. I felt like writing something (I had just gotten an iPad and was trying to justify having it) and I was at a local burger joint; and for some reason I thought of what it would be like if a horde of Vikings burst out of the parking lot and started looting, plundering, and killing. I needed a character, and thought of a fellow named Michael who was adept at getting out of tight situations because he was “small for his age” and had lots of practice. I had no idea who Michael was, or how old he was, or where the burger joint was, or where the Vikings came from. The finding out took me about a year, and led Michael to some very strange places. (I hope to make Vikings at Dino’s available for people to read some time in the next six months.)

S’Mary’s World is different. There I actually started with an idea: an explicitly Catholic colony world, isolated from the rest of the galaxy, and forced to fall back on the monastic model in order to preserve its technology and culture. How could such a place come to be? How would it evolve? And then, what stories would naturally arise in such a place? That led me to the bits of history I’ve been publishing.

As a Catholic, I always write from a Catholic point of view—like Tolkien, I like worlds where Catholic theology is true even if not known. But though S’Mary’s World is Catholic in world-view and Catholic in setting, it isn’t meant to be Catholic fiction, i.e., fiction for Catholics. It’s meant to be just plain fiction with a Catholic setting. (Can’t help the world-view; that’s just me.)

So now I’m trying something I’ve not done before: to write a complete story in a world that I’ve already imagined, instead of letting the world form as part of the process of writing the story. I’ve got a character, and a situation, and a story—and I’ve got to figure out how to tell it, instead of letting it tell itself. Frightening, really. We’ll see how it goes.


Schnauzers photo credit: SheltieBoy via photopin cc

About willduquette
  • jbdavis

    I think that is my problem with C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy. I actually am enjoying it pretty well (halfway through Perelandra), but at a certain point you can’t miss the fact that Lewis wrote it because he had something specific he wanted to get across. The “message” is visible … and that makes it not purely fiction for me. Whereas Tolkien and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings … oh yes, oh yes … the story is first. Anything else is subliminal, because that’s how they were for the author (especially originally).

  • Will Duquette

    Tolkien took the same view about most of Lewis’ fiction. I still love it, though.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    “Some folks, when asked, will say they wrote a novel or a short story because “that was the only way they could say what they wanted to say.” This strikes me as disingenuous…”
    I agree. If one wants to communicate ideas or something philosophic then one should write an essay or non-fiction book. That way the ideas are presented clearly and prima facie. The reason one writes fiction is because one has a story to tell and through that story you will get the reader “to see” (to quote Joseph Conrad) and to experience.

    • http://acatholicviewoftheworld.wordpress.com/ Roki

      Or, perhaps, the “idea” that one wants to communicate is an encounter with a character or an event, rather than the “idea” of a proposition or an argument.

      • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

        Yes but that’s a story.

        • http://acatholicviewoftheworld.wordpress.com/ Roki


          I wasn’t disagreeing with you. I was just trying to describe it differently.

          • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

            Thanks. :)

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    Isn’t that rather like asking why someone draws or paints a picture? Somewhere in the desire to write a story is the pleasure that come from creation. In the drive to complete and revise and polish a story, there also comes a satisfaction and enjoyment in making something that is fine, and we hope others will also find fine.

    • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

      Nicely said.

    • Will Duquette

      Yup. A better title for the post might have been “Why I write fiction” or “How I write fiction”, but I’m constantly told that I need to make my titles more provocative, so that they play well on social media.

      • Rebecca Fuentes

        The chosen title does draw one in more. It implies that, perhaps, there is no reason to write fiction, which causes rebellion within most people. We KNOW fiction is worth writing because some of it is worth reading and watching.
        As someone who is very much a novice at writing, though I enjoy it a great deal, I love it when a more experienced author explains some of his process. Your last post on S’Mary’s world actually started me world building and writing a little again after a very long dry spell, for which I greatly thank you.

        • Will Duquette

          I’m hardly an experienced author; an experienced writer, maybe, as I’ve been blogging for over ten years, and I’ve written thousands of pages of technical writing at work. Being an author is something I’m working on. :-)

  • CC

    I am definitely curious to see how the story your now coming up with will intermesh with the existing setting. Sounds like a fascinating challenge :)