Susan Mihalic







The Spark of Compulsion




At the start of it all is compulsion, except it’s not compulsion yet, but something smaller, a spark of life. For me, character is at the heart of the best stories, so my spark always involves a character, and that character is almost always my protagonist, and my protagonist is almost always female.*


The spark may be a personality trait, a verbal tic, or a physical characteristic, although her appearance is the least important thing about her. It can be a phrase—something she would say or something she hears. The spark seems to come from nowhere, but actually it comes from my subconscious, because part of my brain is always writing. This involves a good bit of observational kleptomania. I’m always cannibalizing bits and pieces of peoples’ lives and overheard conversations. Once I hear it, it’s mine. I have absorbed material in this way all my life. I don’t even realize I’m doing it.


My subconscious generates the spark, and I become obsessed with it, and it attracts other sparks, which reveal more information about the protagonist until I see her clearly. I don’t yet know her well, but my love for her is unconditional.


It’s a creepy kind of love. Because I love her so much, I want to give her an interesting story, which means other characters who emerge will do horrible things to her. I don’t write about global events, so my protagonist will never be held in chains and tortured for state secrets. I write about smaller, more intimate worlds. She won’t need to escape from terrorists but a dysfunctional family or an abusive relationship. The stakes are the same: survival.


Characters exist to do (mostly horrible) things to each other because something needs to trigger the story. Fiction thrives on conflict—and so does my protagonist. The compassion I would feel for a human being in her position would cripple me. The compassion I feel for my protagonist does not. This is the line between fiction and reality. The unhappier and more uncomfortable she is, the higher the stakes and the better the story. It’s an abusive relationship: I’m hurting you because I love you, baby. Someone really should warn my protagonists: “Uh-uh, girl, you keep your spark to yourself. You make yourself scarce around this one. You do not want to know what she has in store for you.”


The compassionate sadism with which I view my protagonist is in inverse proportion to the tenderness I feel for my antagonists—all those characters who are at odds with the protagonist, either benignly or aggressively. If they were human beings, I would dislike most of them and detest some of them. But since they are my characters, I owe them their own special spark—the one that makes the monster human. Dismissing a monster is easy. Feeling compassion for a brutal, twisted human being is much more uncomfortable, and seeing a sliver of yourself in him is infinitely more terrifying. Writing, like reading, is an act of discovery.


The evolution of character mirrors my evolution as a writer. Characters keep me writing. If they didn’t float through my mind, if they weren’t so persistent, I’d be a writer with nothing to write except really descriptive grocery lists. Stories arise from people. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t write. Where would all these people in my head go? Besides, since I’m obsessed with them, I’m compelled to find out what happens to them.


When I was a child, I used to tell myself stories when I couldn’t sleep. I still do. I always hope I’ll dream a solution to a plotting or pacing issue, even though that has never once happened to me. Until it does, I’ll rely on the spark of subconscious.



*A note about pronouns: My antagonists are just as often female as male, but since I used the feminine pronoun for my protagonist, I used the masculine for the antagonist.
















Susan Mihalic is a writer and editor who lives in Taos, New Mexico. She grew up in Mississippi and has a B.A. in journalism from the University of Southern Mississippi. In the 1980s she worked as an editor at what was then Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and in the 1990s as an editor and curriculum writer for an educational software company; she continues to work as a freelance editor. She has taught writing workshops, and for several years, she ran an art school, where she produced hundreds of workshops in the literary and visual arts. She is the founder of No Coast Writers, a read-and-critique group based in Taos. She writes contemporary adult non-genre fiction and is currently seeking an agent for a completed novel, « Dark Horses, » while she works on her next manuscript, « Reunion. »


       Photo Copyright by Eric Swanson

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