Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the Introduction, followed by the first chapter, “How To Make Your Own Imaginary Friends”, which begins section 1, “Being a Writer Just Means You Know How To Get Lost.” New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
Back in January 2017, I was scared out of my mind. I was having trouble sleeping and having panic attacks about the impending inauguration of our current president. I couldn’t concentrate on finishing the City in the Middle of the Night, my most recent novel, until I finally decided to channel all of my anxiety into a story about my fears as a trans person living through this “flaming walls of shit” era.
The resulting story, “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue,” is a dystopian nightmare about a trans woman who gets captured by an evil NGO and forced to undergo a surreal, exaggerated “cure” for her transness. It’s horrifying and intense—and I’ve only read it aloud once, because I find it too painful to read out loud, and a number of other trans people have told me that they had to lie down after reading it.
But putting my fears into a story really helped me to deal with them, and I’ve heard from some cis people that this story helped them understand what trans people are dealing with, and then I could go back to working on City in the Middle of the Night, which also has a lot of themes around trauma and facing up to actual darkness.
It’s a few years later, but I’m still low-key terrified—even though I’ve kind of gotten used to it and found ways to compensate for it, like a chronic illness.
I know a lot of people who haven’t been able to keep writing these past few years. It’s hard to know what the point is of making up random stories when everything is messed up. Families are still being destroyed every day by institutionalized racism, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to rule on whether trans people deserve to have any rights at all, and women’s healthcare is slipping backwards. Many of us feel like our personhood is up for debate. It’s just hard to motivate yourself, or tear yourself away from the flood of awful news coming every day.
But for me, and for a lot of people I know, writing can be an act of survival. It gives us heart and purpose and clarity and the ability to keep going. Making up stories can be a healing process.
So I’m writing a series of essays called Never Say You Can’t Survive, all about how writing and making up stories can help you to survive a terrifying moment in history. (These essays came out of a talk that I gave at the Willamette Writers Conference and elsewhere. And their title is borrowed from the 1977 album of the same name by Curtis Mayfield, which is a piece of music that has given me so much strength and inspiration over the years.)
Stories of Darkness and Escapism
When I wrote “Don’t Press Charges And I Won’t Sue,” I was going to the darkest possible place I could go in a story, and putting my protagonist through the most dehumanizing treatment I could imagine. I needed to face up to the absolute worst that could happen, so I felt like I understood it a little better. I also needed to write about someone facing up to the most nightmarish scenario and still emerging in one piece, surviving, even though it’s a dark ending.
Writing a horrifying story on your own terms means that you can show how someone can survive, or even triumph. And meanwhile, you can cast a light on the injustice of oppressive systems. You can also choose the frame and eliminate some of the ambiguity in some situations, to make things more stark and more clear, or to make juxtapositions that illuminate how the problem started, and how it’ll be in the future.
When you’re telling the story, you get to draw all the lines.
Buy the Book
Never Say You Can’t Survive
But you don’t have to put your darkest fears on paper to be able to use creative writing to survive. Just putting any kind of story together makes you a god in your own private universe and gives you control over a whole world inside your own mind, even when the outside world feels like it’s just a constant torrent of awfulness.
Meanwhile, I’ve been keeping myself together, these past few years, by writing a young adult trilogy full of action and space battles, and people talking about their feelings, and everyone being there for each other and supporting each other. This has been making me happy while the world has been burning down.
And escapism is resistance. People sometimes talk about escapist storytelling as a kind of dereliction of duty, as if we’re just running away from the fight. That’s some bullshit right there. In her 1979 essay collection The Language of the Night, Ursula K. Le Guin paraphrases Tolkien thusly: “If a soldier is captured by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? …. If we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape and to take as many people with us as we can.”
So yeah, escapist fiction is about liberation, and imagining a happier, more just world is a direct assault on the forces that are trying to break your heart. As Le Guin says, the most powerful thing you can do is imagine what if things could be different…What if?
It’s no accident that some of the most enduring and positive communities in the real world have come out of people sharing an escapist narrative. Star Trek, Harry Potter, Steven Universe, and countless other series have created great real-life fellowships. Happier, kinder worlds in fiction naturally lead people to want to band together to try and create pockets of that experience in our world. And there’s plenty of evidence that these fan communities feed directly into political organizing.
But that’s about how escapist fiction can be helpful for readers. Let’s get back to how it can be good for you, the writer.
People will always try to control you by constraining your sense of what’s possible in the world. They want to tell you that reality consists of only the things that they are willing to recognize, and anything else is foolishness.
But you can reject their false limitations in the act of conjuring your own world—and you can carve out a pocket of your mind that they cannot touch, in the act of worldbuilding. The more details you add to the backstory of your world, the realer it feels in your mind. And thus, the better refuge it can become, during hard times.
How getting better at writing can help you survive the worst
You never stop learning how to do better as a writer—even if you’ve published a bunch of books and “arrived” as an author, you’re still on a steep learning curve, for as long as you’re stringing words together. And this is excellent, because it means there’s always more to discover. Put another way, if writing was a house, there would always be new rooms to explore.
The essays in this series will be a mixture of encouragement, ideas for how to use writing to feel okay in a world that is not okay, and actual technical writing advice on stuff like characters, plotting, and worldbuilding. Creating your own world can give you a way to be somewhere else for a while, and your characters can provide you with a whole alternate consciousness. When you create a fictional person, you’re really making a whole other persona, or even an alternate self, and it’s like you get to live a whole other life.
And then there’s the fact that stories have a way of surprising you, which can be both delightful and freeing. For me, a good writing day is often one where something happens in my story that I never saw coming and didn’t plan on. When my characters take on a life of their own, or when I find pockets of my world that I never knew were there, it’s magical. Even as I’m learning new things about how to tell a story, I love to feel like I’m also learning more about my characters and world as I go. And speaking of which, research can also be an underrated fun part of writing, because you learn the weirdest facts—that you can then inflict on all your loved ones.
And sometimes the tiniest moments of personal connection can feel huge, as you’re writing them. I try to remember to luxuriate in the little personal moments, like when two characters haven’t seen each other in ages and they’re together again, and I have a chance to write a quiet emotional scene between them.
The act of finding a story that you want to tell can also be ridiculously fun, when it’s not making you want to tear your hair out. The moment when you get excited about a premise, and then start building out the world and the characters and getting excited to delve further, can be incredibly powerful.
A lot of fancy writing techniques are really, at their basis, ways for you to gain more control over this imaginary realm you’ve created with your mind. You get to control who’s telling the story, how close we are to your characters’ points of view, whether the story is past tense or present tense, and what details the reader pays attention to. Playing with the passage of time, speeding it up and slowing it down, can be a way to show the arc of history, and demonstrate that things that appear permanent really aren’t. Or to reveal the wealth of experience and sustenance that can exist within a single profound moment. All of these things make you more powerful as a storyteller, and in turn make the act of storytelling more healing for you.
Because you control every aspect of a story, you can use perspective and irony to expose the true awfulness of a situation—or to provide hope for another way. You can pull back and show the big picture, the long view, through narrative choices that reveal all the stuff that the main character isn’t seeing. You can provide context, through expansive narration.
And irony is amazingly powerful, because it works against groupthink and paranoia. Fear is about tunnel vision—and you don’t have to limit your perspective that way, when you’re the one controlling the focus.
That voice inside you that stands back and analyzes everything from a distance? It’s so often key to surviving in the midst of scary and depressing moments. You can give that voice its own place at the center of the narrative. I love a chatty, sarcastic first-person narrator—or, for that matter, a chatty, sarcastic third-person narrator.
There’s a reason so much of the most powerful writing from survivors of horrifying events contains surreal or unreal elements. People who have been through unthinkable ordeals often instinctively take refuge in weird, reality-warping scenarios, and you can totally make this work for you. Normality is bullshit, and surrealist weirdness is a direct assault on the bullshit fortress.
And then there’s just the power of telling stories about people who haven’t gotten to be the heroes of our stories in the past. If you’re a member of a marginalized or overlooked group, putting someone like yourself into a story can be incredibly powerful. Especially when you make them the hero, or a character who gets celebrated or understood. The past few years have shown us how powerful representation is, even as we all drown in hatred and bigotry.
The issue of representation in fiction is not just some academic question of fairness, it is a matter of survival. When the full diversity of people is represented in stories, it expands people’s sense of possibility. It’s wonderful how direct a line there is from representation in fiction to empowerment in the real world. And celebrating cultures that have been historically suppressed or downgraded is powerful act.
Writing is a solitary act—but it’s also a way to feel connected to the world, in a different way than spending 10 hours a day on social media. When you write, you always have an imaginary reader in your head, but you also get to be part of a community of writers, each reading each other’s work and building on each other’s ideas, and supporting each other through all the frustrations and setbacks.
And your stories, too, can be full of communities coming together and supporting each other (and occasionally being obnoxious as hell). Lately, whenever I talk about worldbuilding, I focus on how a good fictional world has strong communities—and I’m honestly tired of stories where there’s the protagonist and then there’s just a painted backdrop behind them, that’s just there for them to react against. We are shaped by our communities, for good and bad, and our communities define the worlds we belong to.
Community is going to save us in real life—and in fiction, stories about communities joining together are going to be a lifeline.
Honor what you’re feeling right now
Don’t let anybody tell you that your feelings aren’t valid or that you’re dealing with them the wrong way. If you’re depressed, don’t try to force yourself out of it—and don’t try to make yourself write something that you’re not feeling up to. Whether you feel like writing light and fluffy escapist stories, or dark and intense tales of suffering and angst, it’s all good. Whatever you are able to write in this tough time is self-evidently the right project for you.
If you’re angry, stay angry. Hold onto that anger. Anger is the best fuel for writing, emotion, plot, comedy, and everything else. Channel that energy into stories. Use your anger to create something so beautiful, people will cry all over the page.
And if you feel like writing erotica, write erotica. Make it dirty and obnoxious and queer and sweet and righteous, and build a fortress of horniness to protect you from this cold, ugly world.
Dive into endless worldbuilding, and create more and more elaborate systems and histories, if that makes you feel excited.
Don’t be afraid to be political in your writing, but don’t feel any obligation to champion any particular ideal or point of view. Politics is bound to show up, one way or another, and it’s important to be mindful about the politics of your story—but you don’t have to be political in the way that anyone else expects.
You don’t have to think of yourself as an activist—but anyone who imagines a different reality is helping everyone else to see our power to act, and to make changes. Imagination is always a form of resistance to domination and oppression, and we’ve all been saved by other people’s stories, one time or another. There’s a reason why politicians and organizers try to tell stories, to put a human face on their policies, and obsess about “controlling the narrative”—it’s because our world is built out of stories.
You might set out to write a story just to save yourself, which is a noble and worthwhile goal—but in the process, you might just end up helping to save other people, too. Your characters’ struggles can remind other people that no struggle is ever futile, and your “found family” of supporting characters can help readers to feel less alone. You can tell stories that span days or centuries, that travel vast distances or explore the secrets of a single location—and most of all, that contain startling discoveries and acts of generosity.
You have the power to shape worlds, and the monsters are scared of you.
How To Make Your Own Imaginary Friends
A huge part of the pleasure of creating stories is having another consciousness inside your head. As soon as you invent a fictional character (or even a story that represents a real person), you’re getting lost in that other perspective.
There’s something both weird and tyrannical about being a person and being stuck in just one point of view all the time. Everyone has that experience sometimes where you wake up from a vivid dream and for a moment you don’t remember where you are and what’s been going on. Everything from your skin outwards feels like a blank slate, with infinite possibilities, until reality comes smashing back down onto you.
But when you have other people living inside your head, it’s a way to have that same feeling when you’re fully awake.
I sort of think of it as being like when you have a hard drive, and you partition it—so instead of one drive, you have two, occupying the same piece of hardware. That’s kind of what it can be like, when you create a character and they come to life. They take over their own separate space inside your head.
Sometimes it’s just a relief to be someone else for a while. And whether your story takes place in another place and time, or in the here and now, you’re still cooking up a whole imaginary location that you can get lost in. And then there are plots, and themes, and backstories, and so on.
One time, when I was recovering from surgery, I binged an entire season of The Flash to distract myself, and it was a huge relief to obsess about Cisco and Iris and Wally instead of my own nasty bandages. I’ve definitely gotten lost in reading other people’s books, too. But getting immersed in my own writing project is the best way I’ve found to get out of my own reality.
Think of it as “hanging out with your imaginary friends.”
So how do you find your way into that headspace of living vicariously through the fake people you’ve created?
To me, it often starts with becoming curious. I try to find a person, a place, or a set of events that I want to know more about—and the only way to find out more is to keep pulling on the threads and coming up with the answers myself, out of my own imagination. This is a process that reinforces itself, because the harder you pull at the loose threads, the more threads there are to pull at.
The thing that makes you want to keep writing is the exact same thing that makes you want to keep reading—you want to see where this goes. You want to spend more time with these people and you want to understand what’s really going on behind the curtain. Even if you’ve planned out your story meticulously, you need to see how these events actually play out. (And as I mentioned previously, part of the joy of writing is being surprised.)
Often, when I’m creating a character, I try to find that loose thread. It could be a contradiction at the heart of their personality, which I want to resolve or understand. It could be one random detail about the character that I fixate on. Often, it’s the situation that the character finds themself in, or the conflict that they’re trying to resolve. And finding a way to root for this character (they’re the underdog! they want to right some wrong! they’re treated unfairly!) goes hand in hand with becoming curious about them.
As with all writing advice, your mileage may vary—but for me, it’s not about knowing every little thing about a character at the start. I don’t need to know their favorite brand of toothpaste, or what kind of socks they wear. I often layer in those little details as I write, or more likely as I revise. When I’m starting out, boring details make me bored, but I cling fervently to the aspects of a character that “pop” and bring up more questions. Like, if a character carries around a watch chain with no watch, or spits every time you mention Winston Churchill, or can’t resist getting drawn into magical duels, I want to know more.
In the meantime, I get more curious and engaged with a character who isn’t static. The sooner I can see this character going through changes, the better—because often, your characters are only as compelling as the changes they go through. There’s a reason why so many novels begin on the day when their protagonist’s life is altered forever, rather than starting out with everything on an even keel. When you’ve seen a character evolve once, you know they can do it again. And again.
I’m a big believer in superhero-style origin stories, even if they never appear in the final manuscript. What was the thing that made this character decide to do what they’re doing? Where does their power come from, and what challenges have they faced before?
When I was writing All the Birds in the Sky, I came up with origin stories for every single character in the story—even minor ones, like Kanot or Dorothea—and tried to see how they were different people in the past than they are now. (And I was inspired by the flashbacks in the TV show Lost, which always showed drastically different versions of the characters than their present-day selves.)
Here’s a writing exercise: Write down just one paragraph about something intense that happened to you in the past. Pretend you’re telling a friend about a situation that tested you, and upset you, and maybe also brought out some valor in you. And then think about the fact that you’re no longer the person who went through that mess—you’re almost writing about a different person. And by retelling that story, you’re both reliving and recontextualizing those events. And maybe try to fictionalize some of the details, and see how it becomes more and more about a different person.
The next thing you know, you’re turning yourself into a story. And you’re also spending a moment with the two different parts of yourself that come into play when you’re tormenting your characters.
There’s the you that’s standing outside the story and thinking of ways to make life miserable for these people, and then there’s the you that’s inhabiting them and going through their desperate struggle with them. These two parts of yourself aren’t really at odds, they’re both weaving a story together—and this actually makes you feel bigger, because you can contain them both. Bigger, and more alive, in a world that wants you to be small and half-dead.
And speaking of change and origin stories, there’s something incredibly compelling about a character who has major regrets. And when we watch someone do something unforgivable, we’re primed to root for them as they search desperately for an impossible forgiveness. I also live for a character who has unfinished business, something from their past that nags at them.
A good character usually has as much story behind them as ahead of them. We might only need to glimpse their past, but we should know that they’ve already been on the journey before the story even begins.
Think about what your character isn’t seeing
I love self-aware characters, and characters who comprehend a situation in ways that nobody else does. There’s something very satisfying about identifying with the only person who’s aware of a problem that everyone else ignores.
And yet, often the easiest characters to invest in are the ones who are blissfully (or excruciatingly) unaware of what’s going on around them. People who are in denial, or selectively oblivious. People who have been kept in the dark about some basic facts of their own lives. Especially when we can glimpse things out of the corner of our eyes that these characters fail to notice, it can create a kind of suspense—like in a horror movie, when you want to shout look behind you!—and fill you with a desperate urge to see this person wake up to reality.
When I was writing The City in the Middle of the Night, one of the ways that I got into Mouth’s POV was by putting her self-image at odds with her reality. Right off the bat, you learn that she thinks of herself as someone who loves constant travel—but the road gives her headaches and makes her miserable. She describes herself as a remorseless killer—but she agonizes non-stop about whether she should have killed Justin, the fence who betrayed her. She’s not the person she keeps telling herself she is, and that made me want to know more about her.
On a similar note, I’ve got all the time in the world for someone who’s having an identity crisis.
Pretty much every protagonist I’ve ever created has been struggling with the question of “Who am I?” Or, to put it another way, “What does this make me?” When a character is struggling with a huge choice, they’re really trying to figure out who they’ll become if they do this, versus that. How can they use whatever power they have wisely? How can they rise above the terrible circumstances that threaten to break them?
Meanwhile, to turn it around, I often find that when a character isn’t clicking, it’s because I’m avoiding the biggest pain points, because nobody likes to dwell on unpleasant things.
Why isn’t this character upset by the death of their mother? Why did this character never have a real reaction to their friend’s betrayal? Why isn’t anyone calling this person on their bad behavior? I sometimes instinctively flinch away from the most intense parts of a character’s story—and I’ve seen this in plenty of books I’ve read, too. When I realize my mind is sliding away from some aspect of a character, that’s usually where the really good stuff is.
Some more ideas for finding the perfect imaginary friend
- Give your character a strong point of view. Make them funny, give them ironic observations about their situation, let them vent a healthy dose of snark. You’re going to want to spend time with whoever has the funniest lines and darkest insights, whether that person is the first-person narrator, third-person POV, or just someone we hear from. Master storyteller Eileen Gunn says that when a character isn’t clicking, she usually gets them to rant about something. Basically, do whatever you have to do to get this character’s voice in your head: write a fiery monologue, talk to yourself in the shower, have them livetweet their favorite TV show. Whatever. Doesn’t hurt if your character is a little bit of an obnoxious asshole. Or a lot of one.
- Put your character at odds with their world. Similarly, there’s something immediately compelling about a character who disagrees with everyone else. In a world where everyone wears psychic snakes as belts, it’s more interesting to follow the one person who loathes snakes. Maybe your character is part of a whole community of outcasts, or maybe they’re a lone rebel—but it’s always easier to invest in someone who doesn’t entirely fit in, and who might see the injustices everyone else chooses to ignore.
- Start with a type and then mess them up. Often, a good character starts off as an archetype that you’ve seen before in fiction (or in real life). But the more time you spend with them and the more different situations you put them in, the more they start to open up and show different layers that you might not have expected from the broad-brush characterization you originally gave them. This is really no different than how you get to know living, breathing people. You start with a label—”gamer,” “yuppie,” “crusty punk”—and then gradually you find out that there’s more to this person than their broad-brush category. The good thing about meeting characters as types first is that you can start them off loud and exaggerated—like a dashing rogue, or a cowardly spy—and let them make a strong impression. And then you can find the subtlety inside them later. (Sometimes they get deeper and more layered in revision, too. But we’ll talk about revision later.)
- Start with an intense situation and then figure out who’s in it. Someone stole your shoes. Your mother got trapped in a collapsed railway tunnel. You finally got a shot at your dream job, but the interview was a disaster. If the situation is intense enough, you can be swept along by it, and then you can find your character by how they react to this mess they’re in.
- Give your protagonist a goal they can never have. Make your characters sweat, right off the bat. We can all think of compelling fictional characters who don’t seem to want anything much—but as a general rule, we care about people who have strong goals. And there’s nothing better than a character who wants something that’s actually impossible, like staying young forever or winning the love of someone who’s totally unavailable. (Or see above, re: impossible forgiveness.)
- Imagine an extreme action and then try to picture the person doing it. This sort of goes hand in hand with characters being at odds with their society, and also the thing about launching the story on the day that everything changes. Sometimes the best way to get into a character is to see them do something completely outrageous, something that nobody else would choose to do—and then find out why, and what the consequences are. What do you mean, you fed your psychic snake-belt to the great mongoose who lives in the forbidden zone? What kind of maniac are you?
We all contain multitudes
When I was in college, I took a year off and lived in China and Australia. I supported myself by teaching English in Beijing, and by working in warehouses in Sydney, and I found out that I was a very different person when I was standing in front of a classroom than when I was hauling boxes around. (And don’t get me started on that time that I nearly got stabbed by my tweaker roommate, who then sicced a biker gang on me. Long story.)
The point is, I got a really good sense of how different I could be, depending on where I was and what I was doing. And since then, I’ve had a few different careers and transitioned from male to female. At the same time, there’s a part of me that never changes, my core or whatever.
We all contain many wildly divergent versions of ourselves, which is part of why creating characters and making up stories is so exciting and fulfilling. It’s a way to discover new aspects of your own mind, and create personas that you get to inhabit for a period of time. And these figments of your imagination won’t just keep you company in the midst of an atrocity, they’ll also help you to strengthen your mind. You can gain courage from these made-up struggles against adversity, and also find out that there’s more to you than anyone ever realized.
When your characters take on a life of their own, they can help give you life. And maybe, in turn, you can put them out into the world, so they can give some life to everyone else. We all need an imaginary posse every now and then.
New installments will appear every Tuesday at noon EST.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award, and her story “Don’t Press Charges And I Won’t Sue” won a Theodore Sturgeon Award. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.