Writing and Shit – part 17 – Controlling versus disempowering


This is something I have only become aware of in the past few years, but I think it is worth bringing it up.

If you have a person in your story (we’re back to people, off characters) who has enough money or powerful enough friends to get them easily out of trouble, your story will not get very far.

Many people in the developed world lead extraordinarily controlled lives. They will be seriously upset by a spill of red wine on their white carpet. If the floor on which your red wine is spilt is hard earth, or dusty boards, or pockmarked linoleum, it doesn’t matter.

Look back at your story-start. Is it possible that it came to a premature end because the people involved were too easily able to put the wrong thing right?

In this case, I have a simple solution for you:


If your story seems to be getting nowhere, because the people in it are insulated from events by money, take that money away.

Here is a situation – a young man receives a phone call telling him his mother, from whom he is estranged, is dying, and that she has asked to see him. He is in one country, in a warzone, she is in the adjoining country, across a border that is the front line of the battle. Now, if they young man is very rich, he can get his personal assistant to hire a helicopter to fly him directly to his mother, letting the opposing forces know he is coming through, buying them off. The very rich young man gets there in two hours.

The fairly rich young man can travel fast through neighbouring countries – by limousine or taxi. The fairly rich young man gets to his mother’s bedside in two days.

But what if the young man is poor – has no money to spend on travel, hardly enough money to eat. How does the poor young man get there? He sets off, on foot, through the battle lines. How does he travel? Any way he can.

Okay, out of these three young men, which do you want to read about?


It’s worth thinking about this example for a little longer. Think about how the very rich young man interacts with people – he gives them orders. He tells his assistant to make the necessary travel arrangements. He is once removed from the driver of his limousine. He doesn’t get to know or even speak to the pilot of his helicopter.

The fairly rich young man interacts by hiring people. He deals with them directly but only in order to pay for their help. Therefore as long as he can afford their price, he doesn’t have to get them to do anything they wouldn’t normally do. In other words, the journey, the relationship, remain for them routine.

The poor young man, though, cannot pay for anything. He needs to form genuine relationships with everyone who might help him. To get them to do what he wants, he must charm, beg, force, trick. His emotional repertoire must be hugely wider than that of the very rich young man.

The truth is, a lot of contemporary fiction is about the problems of people who have no fundamental problems.

By fundamental problems I mean have I got enough food tonight to give me the strength to work tomorrow. By fundamental problems I mean water, shelter, freedom from immediate harm. (This is not to denigrate other problems, i.e., mental health. Affluence doesn’t protect you from these. But writing in-the-head stories, as I’ve done a few times, is a whole other subject.)

Going back to one of my earlier definitions, the rich are more often in the right place. Their lives are more routine, because they’re not forced to improvise all the time. Think of what homelessness really means – to be always in the wrong place. Never to have a rest from being in a story.

Ask yourself, are you writing about people to whom stories no longer happen – only routines – because, when a story threatens to occur, they buy their way out of it?

If so, disempower.

You may not need to reduce your person to the abject poverty of the warzone example, but you may need to take them down a peg or three.

(Try to imagine the Harry Potter story happening to a boy would could afford a lawyer.)

It is very difficult to write a good story about someone who is in total control of their own life.

Mr But: Who is?

Suggestion: The next time you write a story, don’t try to realise an idea or structure a plot. Simply imagine a person whose life appears to be chaotic, and follow them for a while in words. Observe what you imagine happening to them, as something goes wrong and something goes more wrong. Have them remain hopeful, even as their life seems to fall apart. When you have a draft of this story, read it alongside something you have written in a more controlled way about a person more in control of their life. Which feels not the best story but the story with the greatest openness to possibility?


One thought on “Writing and Shit – part 17 – Controlling versus disempowering

  1. Pingback: Writing and Shit – part 16 – Making your characters more sympathetic even if they are baddies | tobylitt

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