Jane Lindskold has been writing full-time since 1994. She is the New York Times bestselling, award-winning author of over twenty-five novels, including the acclaimed Firekeeper Saga, Changer, and the sword and sorcery classic When the Gods Are Silent. Her most recently released novel is Asphodel. She has also had published over seventy short stories.
Editor Deborah J. Ross interviewed me about writing, my story in the forthcoming issue of Sword and Sorceress and other things. In it, I touch on how negative influences have had a strong impact on my writing. Here’s an example.
Last week, I took a week off writing to immerse myself in various aspects of the Firekeeper universe before moving into the next part of the story. One of the complications about writing the seventh novel in a series is how easily it is to gloss over small details. Add to this that I haven’t written a Firekeeper novel in over a decade and the complexity grows.
By coincidence, my pleasure reading included a series I am enjoying verymuch – especially for the evolving relationships of the central suite of characters. I’m not going to go into details, but something I read made me think about an often neglected element of continuity – emotional continuity.
When something traumatic happens to a character, something that is key to a great deal of the action of that particular book, and then in the next book, something similar (but not identical) happens, I expect the characters to comment, to remember. When they don’t, my sense that the characters are “real” suffers.
I’m not saying that the author must provide a full recap of past events, not at all. However, real people remember what happened to them and those memories influence how they act in the future. Indeed, one could argue that our core self consists of an accumulated suite of experiences. Whenever something new happens, we seek to understand it by relating it to what we have experienced before. When something recurs, the most common reaction is “Here we go again!” Even new experiences are often understood by how they relate to past ones: “I’ve had milk chocolate with fruit and nuts, but never with chile pepper flakes!”
The importance of emotional or experiencial continuity is one reason that senility is such a horrible thing, not only for the sufferers, but for those who love them. The person you once knew is vanishing, in part because he or she cannot make those little connections to past events that are the heart of identity. PTSD is another side of emotional continuity. In this case, rather than remembering too little, the person is subjected to remembering too much – even to having traumatic experiences “flashback,” contaminating what in reality is a pristine or unconnected situation.
When I’m writing stories featuring continuing characters, what’s most important to me is to establish the sense that the characters have emotional continuity. To me that’s more important than dates or order of events. After all, humans do forget such details. We’ve all had those discussions as to whether it was two or three summers ago that Uncle Joe got that horrible sunburn. The sequence of events is less important than what those events did to us, and how our future actions are influenced by them.
Another element that goes into writing believable emotional continuity is making sure everyone doesn’t react the same way. Let’s go back to Uncle Joe’s sunburn. Uncle Joe is going to remember the pain, and maybe how dumb he felt for forgetting to renew his sunblock or for falling asleep out on the beach. Aunt Reba is going to remember not only her concern for Uncle Joe, but the fact that their long-planned anniversary outing ended up cancelled. Cousin Buck is going to remember how annoyed he was because Dad getting sick meant he had to call off the date he had with the pretty lifeguard. And so on…
When I read a book in a series where the characters seem to remember events perfectly well, but not react to current events in light of past experiences (especially when those experiences were traumatic), my sense that they are real begins to ebb. When they start reacting in light of events from decades before, but seem to forget what traumatized them two years ago, then I feel the fingers of a plot-driven author stirring the pot, rather than feeling the characters actually exist.
Does this ruin the read for me? Not necessarily, but it definitely makes me acutely aware of how I don’t want to do that to my characters – or to my readers. In thinking about what bothers me as a reader, I strive to become a stronger writer.
Now… Off to write!
When she is not writing, Jane delights in doing the impossible, including herding cats, wrangling guinea pigs, and tending a garden in the desert. You can learn more about her works, as well as find links to her social media, at www.janelindskold.com.