Write About Extraordinary People, and Other Fiction Tips

Question: In stories like “Hazardous Cargoes,” how do you create a voice that’s radically different from your own?

Jacob Appel: Well, it's interesting.  Hazardous Cargoes is actually a story, for those in your audience, about a man whose job it is to drive a flock of penguins across the country.  And in the course of the story, the truck of penguins overturned.  This was actually a real incident.  I cobbled out of a newspaper a number of years ago and it sat in my desk for a long time.  And walking to work every day, or living my life, periodically these penguins would come back into my mind and the challenge was to capture the voice of the man who drives penguins.  And part of the challenge of that is, there is a famous writer, who I won't mention here, who says you should never write stories about truck drivers unless the truck drivers think like Proust.  And I think there's a lot of wisdom in that. 

I am not a fan of stories about ordinary people who think in ordinary ways.  I am deeply devoted and a big fan of people's stories, but ordinary people who think in extraordinary ways.  Not because there are millions of people out there leading ordinary lives because ordinary lives don't make interesting stories.  Your challenge is to find the extraordinary person who matches the extraordinary facts of a situation that you're going to explore.  And often it's not just a matter of coming up with that voice, but match that voice to the facts of the situation. 

Question: As a writer and bioethicist, do you believe writers should consciously dramatize modern ethical issues? 

Jacob Appel: Well, I think on the one hand, fiction is a very powerful tool to show us the issues and writers should not be afraid to explore these questions.  On the other hand, you don't want to write issue-driven stories.  And the thing you most don't want to do is you don't want to write issue-driven stories in which you've solved the problem, or offer an answer to the issue. 

The distinction I make, and this is purely a matter of case, but I think if you compare probably the two great African-American male novelists in the 20th century, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright is, in some sense, a more didactic writer, if you look at "Native Son," the first of the three **** of "Native Son" is a beautiful lyric work, the second is a lyric work that is driven by issues, and the third is somewhat propagandic and gives you an answer to the question. 

In contrast is Ralph Ellison who shows you in its full panorama the challenges of African-Americans in the early 20th century, but doesn't give you any answers.  And I think history will show that Ellison's "Invisible Man" is a far better and more lasting work than Native Son.  I think for writers out there, you want to show people the issues, or show people the questions, but you don't want to offer them answers, let them come to the answers on their own.

Recorded on March 1, 2010
Interviewed by Austin \r\nAllen

\r\n

Don’t write stories about "ordinary people who think in ordinary ways," and don’t spoon-feed your readers answers to moral dilemmas.

The 4 types of thinking talents: Analytic, procedural, relational and innovative

Understanding thinking talents in yourself and others can build strong teams and help avoid burnout.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to collaborate within a team and identify "thinking talent" surpluses – and shortages.
  • Angie McArthur teaches intelligent collaboration for Big Think Edge.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Brazilian scientists produce mini-brains with eyes

Using a new process, a mini-brain develops retinal cells.

Surprising Science
  • Mini-brains, or "neural organoids," are at the cutting edge of medical research.
  • This is the first one that's started developing eyes.
  • Stem cells are key to the growing of organoids of various body parts.
Keep reading Show less

Do you have a self-actualized personality? Maslow revisited

Rediscovering the principles of self-actualisation might be just the tonic that the modern world is crying out for.

Personal Growth

Abraham Maslow was the 20th-century American psychologist best-known for explaining motivation through his hierarchy of needs, which he represented in a pyramid. At the base, our physiological needs include food, water, warmth and rest.

Keep reading Show less