Are You Living, Or Existing?

writing craft

Post written by Katie Wall.

"To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all." —Oscar Wilde

Are you living, or are you existing?

I often find myself just trying to get through life. Get through my to-do list, get through dinner and the kids' bedtime routine, get through insomnia so I can get up and tackle the next day all over again.

Sometimes I'll suddenly realize that I'm walled off from what's going around me. The wall is made from whispers of thought:

  • Just send that last email

  • Work harder

  • There's so much to do

  • You can't take a break!

  • Everyone needs more of you

  • Don't stop and feel, you won't be able to get back to work after

Sometimes that means leaving my phone in a different room for a while. Sometimes that means getting outside. Sometimes that means intentionally looking my children in the eye when I am spending time with them and making them feel like the most important thing in the world. Sometimes it means asking someone else to watch the kids so I can have some time to myself without work.

But what does this have to do with writing?

Broadly speaking, writers are human and so most likely identify with this tension between existing and living.

More specifically, I think this applies to our characters. Do you want your characters to merely exist in the reader's experience of them? Or do you want your readers to get swept away in seeing your characters really live?

I know my goal is for my reader to see my characters truly living, as truly alive. So how do I make that happen?

Well, I have to pay attention to a few things when I'm writing:

  • Do my characters have emotional responses to the things happening to then and/or around them? Are those emotions on the page?

  • Do my characters have flaws? 

  • Do my characters have wants? Dreams?

  • Do my characters have obstacles to overcome to achieve their dreams/goals?

When we are merely existing we are walled off from truly connecting with the world, and the world from connecting with us. So it is with our characters as well. But it's not just their connection in the story world that's at stake, but also the reader's connection to them… and that can make or break a story.

Writing prompt:

Today, spend 20 minutes really present in your life. Notice the things around you. Notice how your body feels and what it wants. Notice your emotional reactions. Don't take notes, just be. It's harder than it sounds.

Then, after the time is up, write yourself as a character experiencing what you experienced. Just free write it, no time or page limits, and try not to revise. Be present in the writing, too.

After you're done, ask yourself how that felt. Did it feel different from how you usually feel when you write? Better? Worse? Why?

Next, if you are working on a manuscript first draft, ask yourself how you've been doing with your main character—are they living or existing? Adjust as needed moving forward. Don't stop and revise what you've already got, that can come later.

If you're already in the revision process, do a read-through of your manuscript specifically focusing on this particular aspect of your writing. Trust me, doing this is worth the time spent!

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