Writing Tips by William Faulkner — 4 Big Ideas for Creating a Fictional World

William Faulkner created a massive body of work, distinguished not only for its literary qualities, but for the breadth and depth of its engagement with the human condition. Perhaps his most impressive achievement is that he created an entire world or what Balzac called “a cosmos in miniature.”

1) Set all your stories and novels in one city, county, or state populated by a recurring cast of characters.

Constructing one archetypal county in the American South from the days of Indian possession, through the Civil War to the early 20th century, Faulkner populated it with over 1100 characters who mix and mingle throughout all of his stories.

Think about that for a minute. Pick the city, county, or even state you know best. Stick to it.  Start by writing a series of short stories, all with different main characters who reappear as minor characters in other stories. Then write a novel. As the years go by, you’ll have a growing body of work that’s integrated, fascinating, and a world unto itself.

One great advantage of this approach is that you’ll really know your characters. Not knowing one’s own characters is the major downfall of 75% of fiction writers. Their characters just don’t come to life. Yours will if you live with them and write them for years.

Taken altogether, Faulkner’s novels and stories transcend literature and rise to the level of cultural artifact—a living, breathing chronicle of the South’s soul and soil, its socio-historical reality. Mere history books pale in comparison to the authentic flavor and feel of Faulkner’s moving, soaring saga.

So think big. Enlarge your scope. Write and keep writing. Ten years from now, you will have created your own world if you follow Faulkner’s formula.

2) Infuse your fictional world with cultural depth and insight.

Faulkner was born in the Bible belt, into segregated white society. The tenets of his strict Calvinist-directed Christian faith were strained and twisted by the racism all around him. He knew this world, this culture, this heritage. He investigated it deeply and used it richly in his fiction.

What’s your world like? Your culture? Your family and hood, your experiences and heritage? Write about it. Bring it to life. Explore its traditions, discourse, attitudes, and socio-economic limits, limitations, virtues, vices, and values. Build them into your stories, plots, conflicts, and characters.

It’s what you know and who you are. It’s the real world—according to you. Readers might find it strange and interesting, new and unusual—which will keep them turning pages because they’re fascinated by what you know that they don’t.

Write about what you know and who you are. It’s your best material by far.

3) Think thematically and make your story mean something.

Some of the same themes that infuse Faulkner’s work with such power, feeling and depth—themes which are timeless and universal—can be your themes as well. Think again about your world and your cultural universe—the people, places and experiences that have made your life your life. What do they all mean? How are they manifestations of these themes?

  • Man’s Capacity for Evil This Calvinistic position holds that man is evil.   Look around you at the images of collapse and disintegration, of moral paralysis and spiritual desolation. Capture it in stark depictions and dark descriptions.
  • “The human heart in conflict with itself” As Faulkner put it in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he is concerned mainly with “the human heart in conflict with itself¼.The writer’s duty is to write about man’s soul and his capacity for endurance and compassion and sacrifice.” What a profound statement and guiding principle for any fiction writer to follow.
    • Show your characters engaged in a constant struggle against defeatism, negativism, cynicism, and pessimism.
    • Stress faith in the human heart’s ability to triumph over the failings of the modern human condition: greed, injustice, fear, cowardice, and duplicity.
    • After all, how someone reacts to the negative forces of life is how she should be measured.
  • Primitivism vs. civilization Do you hate or love modern civilization? Has technology distanced us or brought us closer together? Does social media makes us less social? Have the mechanistic forces of modern technology helped destroy the environment and dehumanize the individual?  Are your characters “primitive” or “civilized”?  Can you see, depict, and dissect the hypocrisies of so-called civilized people? For example, are you writing an urban novel? If so, this should be a major theme. Who’s really more “civilized”: the well-to-do or the barely getting by?

4) Try on Faulkner’s Writing Style for Size.

I’m not saying you should try to write like Faulkner. You can’t. No one can. And why try? It’s been done by Faulkner better than anyone else could do it. But, maybe you can learn a few tricks and licks from him, just as young guitarists learn from Hendrix, Van Halen, The Edge, and Clapton.

  • Don’t narrate or report a scene; render it in an impressionistic fashion. Often referred to as “stream of consciousness,” Faulkner’s style is a barrage of long sentences and abstract words, illogically constructed by a free association of images and the projection of events through the memory or consciousness of characters in the form of interior monologue.
  • Faulkner’s vocabulary strains the bounds of the ornate Romanticism to which it constantly alludes.
  • Like life, his prose is paradoxical, appearing at first glance to be rambling and unsettling—a flood of adjectives, two words merged into one, a series of negatives followed by a positive, numerous synonyms for repetition.
  • But if you think about it, his style makes perfect sense as a way to represent in writing the chaotic reality of life’s multiple perspectives, interminable ironies, and incorrigible resistance to simplistic terms.
  • Perhaps paramount and yet rarely mentioned is Faulkner’s mastery of suspense through style: he narrates effects in a dizzying flow of details, invariably suspending the reader’s recognition and the plot’s resolution through a seemingly endless chain of signifying clues dropped almost randomly by various voices from various times and places.

It’s all a matter of practice. In teaching my 6 year old baseball, I’m encouraging him to study all the players’ various batting stances. When he’s in the cage or up to bat in practice, I remind him to try Crawford’s stance and then Damon’s, Longoria’s and Pedroia’s. See what works for him. Ways and means vary; execution is everything.

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  1. Pingback: Les conseils de William Faulkner aux apprentis écrivains | Envie d

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