My Big Think on Generative AI and Human Artistry’s Death

In a parody of Michelangelo’s "Creation of Adam," a human hand reaches out to touch fingertips with a robotic hand.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

For maybe as long as I’ve been published (a decade this fall!), I’ve used the line, “Timothy Johnson fears nothing more than the future, so he writes about it and hopes he’s wrong.”

I think that’s important contextualization for who I am as a futurist and precog (admittedly, I don’t think I’m a very good one), but I think it’s good to frame all of this with the sentiment that I hope I’m wrong about generative AI, or large-language models (LLMs), which is a less-sexy name but probably a more accurate and responsible one we should be using (and I will use for the rest of this post).

I struggled with this post because not only is it a very complex issue (one I’m betting the non-artist techbros will challenge), but I think I had illusions it would be my definitive take on LLMs and its position in art. I’d write about it once, and that would be that. But, I know these can’t be my last words on the subject because, well doggonit, I’m a human being, but more to the point, LLMs are still so new and changing so rapidly that my takes on it are evolving, too.

Suffice to say this post may exhaust you (it exhausted me to write it), but it won’t be exhaustive.

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How to Develop Your Characters on the Page

A doctor shows a patient a chest x-ray and points approximately to where the heart is located.
“You see, your character’s heart should be right about here.” (Photo by Skintone Studio from Freerange Stock)

My last craft post covered how to develop characters for your understanding as the writer. I’ve split this crash course in character development into two parts because characters develop in two main spaces. Well, three, actually: the writer’s head, the page, and the reader’s head. Your perception of your character is inevitably different than the one that exists on the page and is further invariably different from the one that the reader comes to know. I won’t be going into readers’ heads because that would be presumptive and rude.

In my previous post, I made another critical separation. I split you planners and pantsers into your respective groups, and I gave the former a whole heap of questions to consider in your logic-centric minds. For the latter, I gave you some tips that almost resemble exercises, and they are focused on helping you get the feel of your characters. For both groups, it all was work for you to do for yourself, work intended to pour the foundations for your characters so you could write from a place of intentionality instead of wandering and wondering what the heck you’re writing about (an affliction that plagues us all, I promise).

Now, let’s look at developing your characters on the page for the reader’s understanding. How does character development actually work on the page anyway?

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How to Develop Your Characters off the Page

A black cat reaches out to touch a human finger in a reference to the Creation of Adam painting
Photo by Humberto Arellano on Unsplash

Last time I wrote about craft, I directed you to the starting line. In that post, I wrote superficially about getting to know your characters, kicking off the plot, building your world, and the search for information. Someone asked me about developing that stuff, and I realized I’d glossed over it. I’d told you it was important work but took for granted you’d already done it.


So let’s talk about character development. When we talk about character development in a story, we typically refer to the ways in which that story develops its characters on the page. How do the characters develop for the reader? What does the reader come to learn and understand about the characters, and how do the characters change through their arc? What story does that arc tell, and what significance can the reader derive from it? Those are questions I won’t be addressing in this post but will in a later one. This time, I focus on developing your characters off the page for your understanding. How do you create a character so that you understand and know them well enough to then insert them into a story for the reader to meet and follow?

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Everything Ends: The State of Apocalyptic Fiction

In his 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh lays out the case for climate change and charges contemporary fiction writers with the responsibility of writing about it. But why, Ghosh wonders, aren’t our fiction writers writing about it? Ghosh condemns contemporary fiction writers for a failure to address climate change. 

I found it an interesting accusation because, in my experience, fiction writers were, in fact, writing about climate change and had been for years. Ghosh proposed the idea that writers in the literary mainstream would tend to be relegated to science fiction when writing about climate change, and considering the realities of western literary culture—where we tend to draw lines of artistic merit between literary traditions—I think he had a point. To me, though, a good story is a good story.

Regardless, in the eight years since Ghosh’s book hit shelves, I think we’ve seen a more widespread willingness of writers to go there.

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Finding Your Story’s Starting Line

Track athlete in a light blue track suit crouching at a starting line and preparing to run
Photo by Gratisography / Ryan McGuire from Freerange

I was on a panel once that was taking questions from the audience, and a guy raised his hand and asked how to know when to start a new chapter. He said he’d written hundreds of pages, and it was only chapter one. A silence fell over the room as the audience waited with rapt attention and those of us on the panel had no idea how to respond to that. Without seeing that guy’s manuscript, I was certain his problem was he hadn’t found the beginning of his story yet.

To the guy’s credit, he’d started writing his novel, and that’s admirable. Moreover, he’d started doing the work, and that’s progress.

I don’t remember how we, the panel, responded to him, but the point here is, again, without seeing that manuscript, I would expect to find pages and pages and pages of world building and information about characters, places, customs, traditions, etc. That stuff is important, but it’s not the story.

Finding the starting line is a very common problem for us writers because we are (and this is true—unless you’re using generative AI, which is bad and I’m going to get to someday) human beings, and it’s natural for human beings, when beginning any creative process, to search for information. Even legal cases start with a discovery process. As storytellers, we begin by asking questions like, Who is this person? What is this place? We build a foundation.

I’m here to tell you, while that stuff is incredibly important and you need to work on it because everything rests on it, the story starts elsewhere.

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