The emotional investment behind writing fiction

Copyright © 2012 Jerry Dunne

The following is a recent conversation I had with a friend that I thought would make a good blog post. I have written it up here as closely as my memory allows. We look at the writer’s emotional investment in his work and how this reflects on his personal sense of worth as well as the pay off it may offer the reader.

My friend asked, “Why do you get ideas for writing your stories?”

I thought she was asking how do I create an idea or where do I find one, so I began to relate a tale about the origin of one idea. But during the telling, her brow was playing with wrinkles, and by the end, her brow was fighting with them.

Then I realised her question hadn’t sounded quite right. Why do you get ideas for writing your stories? Why? It was my turn to show a wrinkly brow. “I haven’t answered your question, have I?”

“When I read a novel,” she explained, “I enjoy the plot and storyline, if it’s any good that is, but what I’m really doing is sympathizing with and cheering on the main characters through the story. See what I’m getting at so far?”

“Of course,” I said.

“I connect with them emotionally. But how am I able to do that? Where does their ability to make me connect with them come from?”

“The writer, obviously.”

“Saying it comes from the writer is too simple. Why does it come from the writer? Why do you bother writing? Why have you been writing for years? I know a lot of physical and psychological effort is needed to write. I’ve heard you and other writers talk of the bubbling enthusiasm, high energy levels, and discipline necessary to sit down and write. I know writers commit themselves in ways many people wouldn’t or couldn’t. They often write novel after novel without a single penny being earned and no one showing any interest in their work. I know years can go by while they do this. Decades even. Their work may put a strain on other parts of their life. But why do they put themselves through this? What force drives them? Saying, ‘writing is me, it’s what I am’ or, ‘it’s what I’ve always wanted to do’, or ‘I love to write,’ or ‘I’m a creative person, what can I say’, or ‘there’s nothing else I’d rather do,’ explains nothing.” She looked me in the eye, and added, “Well?”

I chewed on my bottom lip, narrowing my eyes at her. This one was worse than a copper.

Finally, I shot back with, “Writing is a form of expression, and I have a deep need to express myself in this way. Humans crave expression. We need to let others know how we feel, think and see the world. Storytelling is a great way of doing this.”

“So it’s a strong emotional need?”

“When I come up with a good idea I want to develop, I must commit a lot of emotional energy in order to work it into a viable story.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” she said with a sigh.  “So why do you invest so emotionally in your work? Why you and not me?”

I rubbed the side of my jaw, gazing at her. “Well, you’re not a writer!” She rolled up her eyes.  “Okay, Okay. Let me think!” My finger tapped on the table for a bit.  “At various points in our lives we make choices to invest our physical and emotional energy into certain things. It might be in sport, business, acting, marriage, crime, law enforcement, landscape gardening, running your own business, etc. I chose storytelling. The emotional commitment was unconscious, yet it was fuelling all my writing. It was fuelling my passion. It is my passion. People often invest a great deal of emotional energy into their work without realizing it.”

“And what do you get back for all your emotional investment?”

I took a minute to think about this.

“Writing has become part of how I see myself, part of my identity as a social and cultural animal. My self esteem is wrapped up in it. So praise makes a writer feel valued at a fundamental level. It confirms they have made the right choice with their life. Some writers invest more emotional charge in themselves as writers than as lovers. Who was that writer who said he shrugged indifferently whenever a woman told him he was either a good or a bad lover? But whenever anyone knocked his writing he fell apart for days at a time. This wrapping up your self-worth within a particular form of identity is common. Imagine investing emotionally in a relationship for years only to get a return in the end of indifference or even abuse! Your self esteem, your sense of worth as a lover will take a battering. A writer who’s any good will always receive some bad criticism, but there will also be more people who like their work. This keeps their self esteem from imploding and also keeps them writing.”

She nodded slowly. “Now I see what’s happening. And is there any part of the story that gets more emotional investment than any other part?”

I smiled at her. “You said it yourself a minute ago. A story is all about character. Character is the sun and all else the planets revolving round it. Even successful action films must have half decent character because the viewer has to make an emotional connection with the hero. Otherwise, when the hero reaches a crisis point, the viewer is indifferent to his struggles and probably bored with the action. Though great ideas are obviously worth having, you cannot deal with character half heartedly. You must invest your emotional energy in character. Or else your characters won’t grow strong enough to survive the challenges of a tough plot arc in a way which engages the reader. To be honest, I wouldn’t even bother trying to develop my main characters without feeling a strong emotional connection to them.”

“How do you get to this emotionally connecting stage? What do you do to make this happen?”

“You imbue your best characters with attributes that you like and respect. You build them with pieces of other people’s character until you have a whole new and unique individual. Right from the beginning you are emotionally investing because you are emotionally connecting with each piece of the jigsaw that all together makes up a whole new picture. A writer will often put some of their own personality and aspirations into their characters, too. This deepens further the emotional investment with the character. This emotional investment deepens further still as the writer watches their creations becoming fully developed while working their way through the trials and tribulations of the plot arc.”

“Now I see it all,” she said. “The level of a writer’s emotional investment in his work will determine how much of his self worth he gains from it, while at the same time the most important part of his work is the emotional commitment he makes to his characters. This explains why I as a reader can connect so easily to some characters. A strong emotional charge goes into the character from the writer and comes straight out the other end for the reader. Thanks for the insight.”

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About jerrydunne

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4 Responses to The emotional investment behind writing fiction

  1. Thanks, Jerry, I thought this was such a valuable post That I had to share it with my twitter friends.

  2. Justine says:

    Howdy I am so thrilled I found your blog page, I really found
    you by error, while I was researching on Digg for something else, Anyhow
    I am here now and would just like to say many thanks for a remarkable post and a all round thrilling blog (I also love the
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    My personal blogging site about technological innovation: Justine

    • jerrydunne says:

      Hi Justine,
      thanks for your comment. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. I generally write one post a month and try to put something worthwhile out there.

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