That is the question. Writers have debated it for centuries and have articulated their opinions in countless excerpts, often long winded and complicated, so my attempt to explain it may be a bit muddled, but stick with me here.
One modern writer, T.S. Elliot, states that
“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”
In essence, Elliot is pointing out the necessity of a writer to become without, to distinguish himself from the characters that he writes.
They say that every character contains some part of you, as a writer. Whether it be a tendency, a pet peeve, or an experience, it’s there, and forcing it out is impossible. The within is inevitable. The without is possible. And a balance between the two, as I have discovered is the most difficult part, is crucial.
The without means stripping oneself from the character, so that a rich man writing can tell about a homeless man and vice versa. It is the world outside of your own, where empathy takes hold and you step into someone else’s shoes. When this is done, the readers idea of the world, of life, thus morphs and expands.
Now it’s great and all to say that the without is important, but it’s also important that it is written about correctly. This seems fairly obvious, but writers often feel like they have to imagine up huge plot twists to make a character interesting, and Virginia Woolfe, an early twentieth century writer, believes otherwise.
Let us not take for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.”
Virginia Woolfe, Modern Fiction
As Woolfe says, life is not the just the big stuff, the grand adventure, the natural disaster, the epic love story. No, life is the small moments put together to make one big story, and those events are just what writers should relay to their readers.
Just as in real life, bonding is an emotional connection, and though this bond can be formed by epic struggles, it can also be formed through everyday interactions, and oftentimes, that bond is stronger.
The setting for these everyday interactions is the without, the foreign, but the interactions themselves pull from common human experiences, and therefore, oftentimes, from the within. This is where the balance occurs between the within and the without, the personal and the external, and when this is mastered, the reading experience is optimal.
When reading a book such as An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, I find myself loving the main character, Colin, without even realizing it. Upon reflection, I saw that the little things added up slowly over time, so that my love for him grew stronger and stronger, and when he had the smallest of revelations, it felt like my world was spinning.
This connection is so strong because no matter what universe, what ethnicity, gender, or situation, the reader can identify with the little things.