March 13, 2015

Joists—Characters of Strength By T. L. Wiens

My renovation project is moving forward. I reached the point where I needed to remove a load bearing wall. There’s a lot of work to be done before you start swinging the sledge hammer on this particular job.
First, we opened the wall to expose the complications it would present. Heating ducts and electrical greeted us. These were easy fixes. We rerouted the circuit for the electrical and removed the ducts which we planned to relocate anyway. Everything was going along fine.
We built temporary support walls on either side of the load bearing wall. These would serve as supports until we got the beam in place. That’s when things got complicated.
Upon closer inspection, we discovered whoever put the duct work in, removed a large chunk of the joist beneath the floor. To add to the issue, the main heating duct line was directly below so we didn’t have access to the joist from the basement. A simple job just became quite complicated.
We had no choice but to remove the basement duct work that would later have to be rerouted. Then we had to fix the broken joist. Because of the weight this particular area would be bearing once everything on the main floor was finished, we set in a post to support the now repaired joist. With all that done, it was easy to get the beam in place.
What does all this have to do with writing? For me, the joists and wall studs of a book are the characters. Main characters need to be well built, holding the plot together; the joists of the structure. Minor characters are more like the wall studs, also important but they can be moved and changed with a lot more ease than a joist.
Like the house, a weak main character will put the entire structure in jeopardy. As writers, we need to make sure we have this part of our book working well. It’s funny how a poorly developed main character can cause a minor character to bend and bow the structure of a book. Sometimes we have to go back and rewrite, restructure our characters.
For me, characters often develop as I write. Most of my early manuscripts have at least four chapters that will never see print. They’re my character development stage.
I do other things to develop characters like in depth character sketches. I like to use some of my video games—usually my Wii and put a real face on these people. Or I’ll look at images on the internet until I find the look I’m going for. To have a visual helps me to see other characteristics like facial expressions.
Most writers, myself included have a purpose when we write. We fall in love with certain events. But sometimes our characters don’t fit the actions. There’s nothing worse than a book where suddenly the shy quiet main character becomes some party animal for one chapter and one chapter only. Worse is if there’s not any given reason for the change. I’ve come to understand the stories I write aren’t really about my wants for the plot but rather learning to listen to the characters to develop my theme.
When you have strong joists and well built walls, you have a structure that will stand for a long time. When you build strong main and minor characters in a book and stay true to who they are the plot will almost write itself.


  1. An excellent analogy! We are in the process of doing some renos as well and can definitely see the similarities.

  2. Hope you enjoy the process. We're redoing a whole house so not living in the chaos. But I am living in the chaos of my present writing process. I prefer renovation to editing at the moment.

  3. Thank you for the analogy ... I think the character building applies so well to ourselves. Strong joists and well built walls ... although we can go beyond that to wonder if we box ourselves in?

  4. I have written very little fiction, Tammy, but I think your analogy would be very helpful for anyone who was into a novel or learning about fiction. I agree with Jocelyn that this analogy could carry over into real life too. Don't let anyone tell you that fiction writing is easy!

  5. Jocelyn, I find I box myself in when I prevent my characters from being themselves or get stuck in forcing a plot event. I've edited the work of a friend who will often insist on certain events even though they don't fit the story or the characters. It weakens the books but makes him happy. I think this is when you become more important than the message God is trying to convey through your writing.

  6. Sharon, I think it does apply to nonfiction as well. I recently watched a very interesting documentary on Hitler. It showed a side of him I've never been aware of before. So many of the things he did became so much more understandable as I learned about some of his idiosyncrasies. With fiction, you do character sketches. With nonfiction, you need to do a lot of research, make sure you get a full picture of the person. Either way, the better you develop the character, the easier the story will come to the reader and the writer.


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