Every writer’s been there. You’re introduced to someone, he or she asks what you do for a living, and you hesitate. Should you say you’re a writer? Because you know, as sure as eggs are little cracky things, that the truth will unleash a torrent of questions about why you write—questions that, if answered honestly, can tarnish the shine of the encounter.

The last thing some people want to hear is that writing is a job like any other, complete with office politics and why-did-I-ever-agree-to-do-this moments. Some want to hear that you dreamed of writing since childhood, driven by a muse—not that you wanted a change of career, assessed your core skills and markets, wrote a business plan, and implemented it. (Which is what I did. I can put an audience to sleep with that one.)

So I focus on why I continue to write after 25 novels, plus assorted comic series and video games, which is way past the point when I’d normally feel the need to seek new pastures. I’m still an old-school reporter at heart. Writing fiction satisfies my journalistic need to hear and relay the testimony of everyday people at the center of events. My books deliberately provide no answers or messages. I’m drilled in the habit of objectivity, and also aware that the steady drip of fiction has more power than facts to shape opinion, so I handle it with caution. I relate a situation via the conflicting views of the characters, and that poses questions. All I ask of readers is that they think about those questions. The conclusion is entirely up to them. And I often don’t even have an answer myself.

That’s a large part of the satisfaction I get from writing a novel or a script: not knowing exactly how things will turn out. I get to explore a completely alien landscape—the minds of characters whose lives and thoughts aren’t mine. I stay strictly within their tight third-person views of the world as they experience it, even when those views offend me. Whether I build a character from the ground up or develop one, whether within my own copyright or in licensed work, I can step into that character’s mind. It takes a kind of voluntary dissociation akin to method acting, military planning, marketing, or detective work: to think like the other guy and work out what he’s going to do next. In writing, though, my trick is to follow and not try to steer or counter. I want to understand the characters and how they interact, not love or hate them. That’s the reader’s job.

Those minds often surprise me and change my opinion about things I was sure I held dear; sometimes I’m relieved to get out of the more disturbing ones and move on. All the things worth writing about are outside me. I’m a lens, not a source. And even if it’s not always a comfortable journey, it’s always a stimulating one.