“Where did you come up with this story?” A friend commented, after reading my new novel, Whom Fortune Favors. “I never knew you had this much imagination.”
Now, I’ll take a compliment any day, even if it is not quite accurate. So I didn’t correct my friend by saying that when it comes to writing fiction, I’ll choose observation over imagination every time; because stories worth writing are everywhere around us, in our families and friends and the untold trials and triumphs of the people we see every day. Far from sitting at home imagining things, we writers are more likely to find inspiration by thoughtfully listening to someone who despises us for who we are, or how we look, or for the ideals we hold. Our best stories happen when love and understanding overcome ignorance and hate.
If you identify as a writer, you’ve probably already met someone with “a great idea for a book.” They may sit at the bar and relate the action and events of a complex plot until your eyes glaze-over. That’s imagination. But these barstool authors seldom describe the depths of their characters; the motivations, obsessions, fears and compulsions of the people they are writing about. That’s observation. And observing the human condition is the only way to give depth to characters whose voices will advance our plot through dialogue.
Of course, writers like Ray Bradbury, J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling can floor us with imaginary landscapes and creatures. But I believe that they are actually the keenest observers of all, because when I read Harry Potter I am in the head of a pre-adolescent with an unhappy home life who is discovering his magical powers. Hermione, Ron Weasley and Draco Malfoy are as real as the kids playing next door, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Dumbledore and Hagrid in mufti at the local supermarket. When Rowling writes dialogue, I’m in that conversation. That is why J.K. Rowling is a genius; she makes her characters so genuine and familiar that we hardly notice that the magical spells and fantastical beasts are not real.
That is what observation does for us – it gives us insight into the human condition – and helps us to understand how people react to events and relate to each other in the crisis points and sweet moments of their lives.
Isn’t that what we really want to write about?