Friday, February 03, 2006

Lessons I have learnt about writing novels - Characters #1

When I first started, I thought the most important thing about characters was that the reader never caught sight of the strings. Late I learnt that it is possible to create characters who don’t need strings. Unfortunately, this involves nothing so simply as a Blue Fairy.

Most of us understand the concept of writer as God and the idea that God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. Both writers and theologians are likely to struggle with the concept of omnipotence, since if someone else is all-powerful, how can human beings have free will and be truly responsible for their actions? But hey, that’s not our problem.

Omnipresence is the thing. You cannot merely see everything that goes on from the outside; you have to see inside every character who is of any significance to the plot. Not just inside their heads, but looking out at the world from behind their eyes.

This may sound obvious, but it wasn’t to me. Initially I thought that as long as I knew my protagonist inside out, and had a reasonable understanding of what made the other characters tick, I would be okay. After all, if I was writing a true account of some adventure or other, I would only have to record what others said and did.

But I wasn’t writing about events that had actually happened. It became very easy to make continuity mistakes because I was only following one thread out of the several I was writing about – of course other threads will disappear out of view to a reader, but the writer must keep sight of all those threads all the way along. I also found I was struggling with the words of other characters.

It doesn’t help that our culture’s primary medium of story-telling is now films and television. Some films and television dramas are truly excellent, but a hell of a lot of them take short cuts. For example, there are literally dozens of films about an American policeman who is barely holding onto his job due to his maverick behaviour, facing an enemy whose megalomania can only be explained by the fact that he does a really bad European accent. Some of these films are entirely watchable, a few even entertaining, but we only have to buy into it for ninety minutes, we already know the rules and there are so many explosions, car-chases and fight sequences that we don’t have time to think twice about it.

It is possible to write books like this I suppose, but it seems very dishonest. It plays upon a psychological defence mechanism that has us think the world is made up of good people and bad people. The good people can be flawed, even complicated, but bad people do bad things for no particular reason. We read stories about bad behaviour in the news and think monsters; they are not like us or anybody we know. People even speak this way about those who commit adultery, fiddle taxes, park in disabled spaces, speed or even smoke.

A lot of post-modern literature tries to resolve this false dichotomy by making everyone bad – not necessarily criminal, but selfish and cheating. But cynicism is just as unrealistic, and far less enjoyable to read than the worst excesses of romanticism – you grow to hate all the characters, so lose interest in their experiences.

Another solution often attempted particularly in crime fiction is to give less savoury characters mental illness. This person does a bad thing because they’re nuts and that explains whatever they get up to – whether they are a compulsive liar or a serial killer. This may seem to give a lazy writer complete licence over whatever weird or wacky behaviour their character indulges in, but it’s all bollocks. People, regardless of mental health, sometimes behave irrationally, but there is always also some (warped) rationale behind it. Even the most naive reader is going to struggle with an evil genius who travels the world performing a range of massively complex but gruesome murders on clowns, only to have it crop up that as a tiny child he was violently sick after eating a Happy Meal.

If you need characters to behave in extreme ways, think of a really good reason for them to do it – consider what circumstances might lead you to do such a thing. Most of us are capable of unkindness; most of us make decisions about whether we are nasty or nice on a regular basis, whether we act with compassion or exploit weakness. Most of us have promiscuous thoughts and even wish that some people would experience the misfortune we feel they deserve. I think most people can envisage dramatic scenarios where there would be at least some temptation for us to do something really very bad.

Your own inner demons are of far more use than anything from our cultural fairytales, because they already exist in a real person. Similarly your capacity to do good and be strong, although this seems far more easy to write about. Probably because it is far more flattering.

1 comment:

marmiteboy said...

I find I'm am being drawn more and more towards novels where the characters do the mundane. If the writer is good enough they will be able to capture the imagination of the reader by havig it's characters doing day to day things. I cannot remember many books where anybody has a wee,or makes a cup of tea and a slice of toast, reads a book or watches the tv. Yet this is real life. I've mentioned him before but Haruki Murakami is brilliant at writing about nothing. His books do ahve a lot of weird stuff going on but it's the descriptions of the domestic tasks that really bring the books to life for me. It provides a background to the characters too because we know that they need 3 cups of coffee and a fag before they function in the morning or that they prefer jam to marmalade and so on. It certainly makes me more interested in the characters.

More and more books are so cliched these days. I'm getting fed up of evil, mentally disturbed geniuses too. And down at heel cops who eat burgers and stylofoam coffee.