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I Sneak Into Your Brain And Make You Think My Thoughts

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As I was driving two days ago, I had the most piercing and true realization that has ever been had about humans and American society. It was a dazzling thought-culmination of all of the thoughts I had had up to that point in my life. I had to reorganize everything in my mind to fall into line with this epiphany.*

*and I’m not going to tell you

Right after I had this flash of insight, I immediately had another one: that none of my characters could have an insight that I hadn’t already had myself. Dazzled and revolted by this appearance of writerly limitation, I had three more realizations before I got back to my driveway:

1. I can’t ever write a character who’s more clever than I am!

2. I can’t ever write a character who’s funnier than I am!

3. I was supposed to be buying paper towels!

I know this is a bit of an oversimplification. On the surface, it also seems inherently at odds with my certainty that a good author doesn’t only write characters who are versions of themselves. I still think that’s true. I can take the most basic emotions — anger, jealousy, happiness, etc. — and use my experience of them to create infinite permutations and exaggerations and variations of those emotions. A never-ending cauldron of characters, right there. But unlike emotion*, humor and intelligence are not inherent in everyone.

And I really do think that being funny or smart are two of the very few things that you can’t just extrapolate from other experiences. I can write a fearless character even if I am not fearless, for instance, or a fearful character, even if I am not fearful. But I cannot invent humorous situations if I don’t have a sense of humor. And I cannot write an internal, brilliant philosophical observation for a character if I have not had it for myself.

*barring sociopaths

I suppose one could simply copy a joke into a character’s dialog to make them funny. Research a subject and blast facts out on the page for a smart character. Or just have everyone around them laugh at their jokes and be awed by their cleverness. And fake it the rest of the time. But as a reader, I despise being told a character is funny or smart when clearly they are neither.

I’m a massive proponent of indirect characterization. A reader can experience characters and settings in a novel in two ways: she can know them, and she can feel them. Knowing is technically all a reader needs in order to get the meat of a story. In the simplest sort of story, a fairy tale or fable, that’s all there is. But feeling is what gets a story into your bones. It is how you infect a reader with your world.

Should we do a for instance? Let’s do a for instance.

For instance, in The Dream Thieves, I could have written:

Niall Lynch had three sons. The oldest, Declan, was a political creature, slimy and disingenuous. The youngest, Matthew, was incredibly delightful and everyone liked him without any effort on his part. And the sarcastic middle son, Ronan, was always belligerent. Their father was far more of an influence on all of them than their mother.

The reader would know everything I needed them to know about this family. It would be a perfectly fine basis for a story, I suppose. But I don’t think it would get under anyone’s skin. For that, I must be indirect. This is where that silly adage “Show, don’t tell” comes from. Really what it means is that you do everything you possibly can to make the reader understand the truth of the situation before you spell it out for them.

Here is how I actually wrote that paragraph about the three Lynch siblings:

Here’s a grand article Cheryl Klein wrote about Harry Potter a few years ago. In it, she points out that Rowling did tell you how a character felt, but only after she showed it to you first. So the telling served as a thesis statement, a topic sentence. Quite cleverly, she made sure that the reader both knew and felt the facts.

So: about characters being cleverer and funnier than the writer. Possibly one could get around this by direct telling. But I think that you’d rob yourself of emotional resonance if you did. Is the trade off worth it? Maybe. Are the writers of Sherlock as clever as him?  Maybe I’m just not a good enough writer yet to think of a solution to this problem. Maybe it isn’t even really a problem, because there are millions of character possibilities within my current mediocre level of brain power and humor.

I still need paper towels. Maybe I should go for a drive and think about all this some more.

  • Fabulous article. And for the record, I’d even read about your hunt for paper towels cause you really, truly do make me feel your words. Props.

  • If we’re talking about Sherlock… I’d have to say, YES, his writers are as clever as he is. Or at least clever enough to hide it when they’re not. And probably having a whole lot of fun making the rest of us anxious.

    • Hmm. Kinda like someone else we know… (Eg, cryptic ending to first book in series? Teasery excerpt from new book that’s not coming out for FOUR more months?)

      • anonymous

        Well, when you posted this comment, it was actually three months and two weeks.

        If you want to get techinechal. 😉

    • Liz

      Well I think the difference between the writers of Sherlock and one Maggie Stiefvater is that they have multiple minds all working on one problem and feed into one another’s creativity and cleverness. Maggie is jumbling around all in her own brain for the most part.

  • Shannon

    Excellent and fun insight. I teach high school…mind if I use this post in my class?

    • Oh, I’d be flattered!

      • Anonymous

        I love your books!!!!!! I can never put them down! I wish I was as an amazing author as you. I’m trying to write a kid’s book but probably failing miserably. Got any tips?
        I love the paper towel moment. It reminds me of my mom and I. If you can, write faster please. I devoured all of your books in about a week. I couldn’t put them down! I can’t wait for the Dream Thieves to come out. I always tell my friends about your books. We get so excited that we start jumping up and down and run in circles. Ah. Three more months. I like all of the epiphanies. You learn (or should) at least something everyday, right?
        Miss Stiefvater, please never stop writing. It would be such a tragedy, that the world would end!!!!!!!!

  • That’s a fair point. I think you’re right. I know that it’s a lot easier to write certain life experiences (*cough*kissing*cough) when you’ve actually had them yourself — a lot of the stuff I wrote when I was younger I went back and rewrote as I got older to make it fit more accurately into what I’d experienced myself.

    At the same time, I’ve had characters make revelations about certain aspects of life and identity that were purely imagined — only to find that I had the same revelation about a totally different aspect of identity (but the whole thing was definitely intentional allegory, if anyone asks) a couple of years later. Maybe how we can write characters that are different to ourselves, but we run the risk of becoming more like our characters … which is worrying when they’re homicidal fairies.


  • Becky

    This is as an awesome blog post! Thanks so much for sharing! I’d read another version of Cheryl Klein’s talk in her book “Second Sight” (which is amazing) but it was wonderful to see what it looked like before that.

  • Anonymous

    This was great insight, Maggie, thank you! I’m striving to improve my indirect characterization. I want to engage my reader’s imagination – evoke an emotional response to the scenes I paint with vivid imagery and unique perspectives. Your style of “showing”, in my opinion, is one of the best out there. I certainly don’t see limitations to your creativity in the tales you weave or in the characters you create *your cleverness and comical nature, my dear, seem boundless* Achieving a certain balance between what the reader”feels” and what they “know” can make the difference between a good story and an unforgettable story *something to mull over while I drive out to get dog food*

    • Oh, I’m the “Anonymous” one above *shakes fist at comment fail*

  • Melanie conklin

    Yes, yes, yes. It’s amazing how the creative brain seeks out these new and unfamiliar territories, only to find that we are merely viewing the landscape of human experience from a fresh perspective.

  • Interesting re: Sherlock. I think there is an extent to which those writers –and perhaps all writers of super smart characters–construct the worlds in which their super smart characters can be super smart. So perhaps it isn’t just character-building; it’s a part of world building.

  • This is incredibly interesting to think about, and you’re right. Even if you looked up a bunch of facts for your character to talk about, you would be the one looking up the facts and you would learn them too, making you just as smart as your character.

  • I think the topic of Sherlock is different from normal characterization. I think, in Sherlock’s case, the writers start with a rough outline of his character (he is clever and unemotional and notices things) and then they create the story. Sherlock seems smarter because he notices things other characters don’t. This doesn’t mean that the writers are then doing the noticing, because they have an advantage Sherlock doesn’t have (well… proportedly): they are CREATING the things. Their cleverness comes through in their manipulations of information: who knows what and who notices what. The world, the evidence, each character’s motives already exist; and Sherlock is a tool to impart those truths which the writers already know because they’ve built and molded them to be so. Sherlock only points out the truths no other characters are allowed to see. This creates the illusion that Sherlock is cleverer than any human could possibly be.

  • Anita

    I really enjoy these. Can I have permission to cut and paste to share with my Craig/ Va Western writing class this summer?

  • One of the ways we can write characters cleverer than us is that we can spend a day crafting a clever response or an intelligent insight, but they do it instantly in the story – so, while I agree that our own intelligence limits us, we can perform sleight of hand to reduce the appearance of that limit!

  • Sherie

    *and now I you are evil. 🙂 . And funny and clever . And as a reader, though not a fiction writer, I very much appreciate writers bringing me into a character, rather than telling me about them. I feel it credits me with at least a modicum of intelligence. I am often annoyed with writers that try to make their characters ‘intelligent’ or at least knowledgeable about a topic by throwing a bunch of ‘facts’ into the story, particularly when it is clear the writer hasn’t any real knowledge about that topic (the writer needs to understand the facts as well as looking them up on the internet.) Misusing facts often leads to a book being thrown across the room. (I can’t do this if it is an ebook, though!)

    • Oh, I so wish that I had though to phrase it this way in the post — YES. Understanding the facts as well as knowing them — being a walking encyclopedia does not, in my opinion, make you “smart.” Smart is the way your process those facts.

      • Sherie


  • Anonymous

    I doubt that any of us really know what we are capable of until we try. When a writer who is crippled by shyness creates a character who is authentically witty and charming and urbane, isn’t that because there is a witty, charming, urbane side to the writer that has hitherto been suppressed. For me, the most enjoyable part of writing comes from creating characters that are not me; or at least, not the me I recognise.

  • You are an amazing person with a gift for words, and I am so glad someone recommended this site. Looking forward to reading more and to getting my hands on your books! ^.^

  • Ananya

    I think with all of your books you have really infected your world upon me. It’s more than just knowing the personality of the characters, it’s feeling them and experiencing what happens to them as they do. like the person above said you really do have a gift for words and you are able to do this in such a natural way. It’s absolutely wonderful! *.*

  • EM

    Laughed out loud at those epiphanies and my 6yo wanted to know what was so funny. Didn’t translate. 😉

    Remember, though, that TV show writers have the advantage of working as a team. That provides the mind stimulation of collaboration – bringing something to the surface of one person’s brain through others’ input – PLUS each person on the team doesn’t have to have a multitude of strengths as an author does. A high school acquaintance of mine writes for a primetime thriller TV show and his input is the humorous bits, from what he’s told me. Of course, their deadlines are much quicker, so it’d be crazy for one person to be the sole writer.

    One of the great things about reading a novel is that you see what *one* person can do (of course, there is some input from others i.e. critique partners and editors). As a writer of novel-length fiction myself, I can sorta imagine collaborating on a novel, but the idea rather gives me the willies.

    BTW, I read that Cheryl Klein article about a year ago and wept through the whole thing. I was just getting my own writing underway and had recently finished the HP series (yes I’m very late to the party). She had nailed what made HP so impressive to me.

  • EM

    I just had a new thought about this post’s topic:

    What about what happens in dreams?

    I have had vibrant, detailed dreams that imagined songs and full-color paintings I had never experienced in real life – and they flashed through my mind in what felt like seconds in a series of other interesting things going on. How does my brain do that??!! I felt so much smarter after waking from those dreams. It felt like with enough meditation or hypnotism or something I could become smarter than I ever am in real life. Oh, the untapped genius in the other 90% of my brain!

    I think this could be why listening to music – something I never thought I could do while writing – has actually increased my imagination this past year. It works especially well to listen while driving. A song can elicit an image in my mind – often NOT related to the lyrics but more a subconscious connection between the tone of the song and some forgotten memory – that just jettisons my thoughts in new directions. The arts fascinate me for their power to grow the imagination (as well as to heal, inspire, etc.). May they always have a big place in our world.

  • r

    In Sherlock’s case, I think the writer knew the basic plot (how it would end) and manipulated the reader’s mind to make it seem like he was smarter than all the other characters when he really was just observant. So no, I guess writers don’t need to be a genius to create one. If that makes any sense to people what so ever. Get my logic? Your character can have traits to make him or her seem like a genius!!!!!!!

    And with research online.

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Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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