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Writers on Writing: Yiyun Li

Why You Should Talk to Your Imaginary Friends

By Stephanie HoogstadPublished 2 years ago 4 min read
Writers on Writing: Yiyun Li
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Yiyun Li is a novelist, short story writer, editor, and winner of such awards as the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the California Book Award. In 2010, she was named one of The New Yorker's 20 under 40 and a MacArthur Foundation fellow. Her best-known works include her short story collections Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and her novel The Vagrants. For more information, be sure to check out Li’s Wikipedia page.

The reason I’ve chosen to focus on some insight from Li is twofold:

1. Back in my master’s program, we read and discussed The Vagrants.

2. I had Li as a professor for a short story literature class when I was getting my bachelor’s degree at UC Davis.

One of the most striking elements in Li’s writing is her characters. They’re raw, real, and all a little bit ugly yet, somehow, relatable. That’s why I think it would be a good idea to focus on how she views the development of good characters:

Writing fiction is this kind of staring, too. You have to stare at your characters, like you would a stranger on the train, but for much longer than is comfortable for both of you. This way, you get to know characters layer by layer, until any dishonesty is stripped away.

--Yiyun Li

This quote, part of a longer article comprised of several writers’ advice, presents an interesting perspective on character development. It suggests that characters are not just constructs of our minds. Rather, they have a sort of life and consciousness of their own. They can lie to us, hide their pasts from us, and mislead us about their stories; it’s only by watching them and spending an inordinate amount of time with them that we can find the truth and write the real story.

By Tengyart on Unsplash

Admittedly, as I type this, it sounds a little crazy. After all, characters are fictional. They shouldn’t have lives of their own because they aren’t real. Of course, there’s a reason that a lot of writers joke about being bombarded by the voices inside their heads (or, during writer’s block, the voices in their heads not speaking to them). But is there any validity to this approach to character development?

Many people would argue that the characters they create are composites of many different people they know, that they are based on historical figures, or, in some cases, that the writers are the characters. These claims might be right. All writers, I think, slip some traits of friends, family, bosses, etc., into characters, even if it’s subconsciously. However, does that mean that we don’t “stare” at our characters to get to know them better? Do we just passively put together some traits in the hopes that a realistic character will come out on the page?

I cannot vouch for every writer, but I lean towards Li’s way of thinking. Our characters may be an extension of ourselves, historical figures, or people we know. Still, that does not mean we don’t have to get to know them. Personally, my stories evolve the more time I spend “observing” my characters. My current fantasy WIP has been in the tube for years, and it’s only thanks to the time I’ve spent with the main character that I finally know in which direction the story needs to go.

My only problem with Li’s assertion is that it implies the characters begin as strangers. While logically that should be the case, I never feel that way with my characters. Even new characters feel very familiar to me. It’s a bit like when you make friends as a child; you have a lot to learn about them, but from the first moment you play together, it’s as though you’ve known each other your whole lives.

Either way, I doubt that most characters pop up fully-developed in the writer’s mind. It takes time and patience to get to know them. Often, it takes multiple drafts of one story to figure out who they really are. Even then, even after publication, you might find yourself returning to that story in future years and realize that you had a character entirely wrong. If they do appear to you fully-developed, you’re either very lucky or have the brain of a super computer with Artificial Intelligence. In the latter scenario, you might have something bigger to worry about than character development. (World domination, anyone?)

What do you think about Li’s insight? Do you have to “stare” at a character in order to get to know them better? Or should you be able to understand them rather quickly? Are they strangers when you first think of them? Or do you have the nagging feeling that you’ve met them before? Make sure to leave your thoughts in the comments.

This article is an updated version of a post from my blog, The Writer's Scrap Bin. You can check out the original here.


About the Creator

Stephanie Hoogstad

With a BA in English and MSc in Creative Writing, writing is my life. I have edited and ghost written for years with some published stories and poems of my own.

Learn more about me:

Support my writing: Patreon

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