Thursday, 30 July 2020

How do you invent a character?

On the one hand, I can tell you what I normally say about this, and offer links to numerous writers and pundits who have offered their thoughts on the subject, and I can tell what my creative writing teaching shtick is on this, and perhaps that is fair enough. How you invent a character, right there.

On the other hand, don’t look at me. I literally have no idea. Meaning,  I am half-way through my fifth novel at the moment and omigod. I find myself, on page 180 or wherever, looking at my joint protagonists (for some reason, novel five has ended up with two protagonists aged eight and fortyish, don’t even ask), and I have No Idea whether they conform to want v. need, or the change, flat, negative or open ended character arc. Worse, or is it worse, I can’t even make distinctions, I don’t know what their hobbies are, their birth signs, favourite food, or where they normally go on holiday. When I’m writing, they feel real, and they are doing stuff, and I have made various discoveries about them. When I not writing, I return to the various gurus I’ve consulted in the past, and panic. Are they driving the action? How much agency do they have? What is their Lie? What is putting this Lie under pressure?

I tried to learn ballet when I was small, between the ages of six and nine, I think. I was very, very bad at ballet. Not only uncoordinated, but fundamentally psychologically and emotionally unsuited to the task.  My motivation was the lure of appearing in the yearly dance display at the Mitchell Memorial Theatre wearing a lovely, flowy costume, this being the closest to being a fairy princess that a bookish speccy was going to get.  But between me and that glittering goal were endless rehearsals, mostly not even wearing the proper costume but just my boring leotard and the shoes that weren’t even proper ballet shoes with blocks. Finally, for my very last performance, I tried to focus. I practised, I twirled, I plied, I ran in graceful diagonals, looking surprised (you were supposed to be see an imaginary puppy), I raised my arms above my head in the exact shape that the ballet master modelled for us.  My father, with his usual wry detachment, observed that I was a ‘slave to technique’.

We need technique, writers, dancers, artists of all kinds, but do we need to be enslaved to it? That is the question.

Which brings me back to this: how do you invent a character? The most helpful response I can give is that there isn’t one way. Sometimes, a character appears almost fully formed before you even have a story – Baroness Orczy claimed that she ‘saw’ her most famous character Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, on an Underground station platform, like a sort of conjuration. Sarah Waters said the two main characters in her novel The Paying Guests needed to be capable of murder, and everything else about them followed from that. Vikram Seth based the matriarch Mrs Rupa Mehra in A Suitable Boy on his grandmother. David Copperfield is a proxy Dickens, and many writers have taken a similar autobiographical approach, from Francois Sagan in Bonjour, Tristesse to Sally Rooney in Normal People. In my first book, I thought I would bypass autobiographical writing completely and wrote the story from a man’s point of view, but actually, he was just the male equivalent of me.

There is a huge amount of advice out there, so if you do want some proper advice check out Linda Seger’s Creating Unforgettable Characters, K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs or the relevant chapters in James Wood’s How Fiction Works, John Mullan’s How Novels Work or Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings, published by Routledge and The Open University. For some YouTube thoughts I recommend Tyler Mowery’s Creating Characters Part one and two

Another piece of advice would be to read as many different sorts of novels and stories as possible, and let your mind fill up with them, rather than consciously looking at how each writer tackles this great challenge. Feed your intuition that way, and feel your way towards these people. I am reading stories by Alice Munro at the moment, and you experience the characters and their engagement with their world, rather than being able to say exactly what they are like, or being able to summarize their character traits. Or that’s how it seems to me.

And with that, I sign off and go back to the half-written book, and all those nuanced, nebulous, brain-twisting questions. 


Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Buddy movies and the writer's journey

In a way, writing a novel is like being one half of a buddy movie. At the start there is the sheer incompatibility/unfeasibility factor. You, with your crowded, aching, gadfly brain, half-remembered micro-inspirations and unfulfilled desires. The book, currently a void, not even a pile of paper yet, as there is nothing to print out, not even some electronic symbols on a white electric background because you actually have no idea what the hell it is even about.  This is a relationship that is never going to work.

As you progress, it actually gets slightly worse. After any amount of time, but certainly after producing 30,000 of words, your self-belief undergoes a necessary adjustment. You hit a wall. You nosedive. The words are shit. The idea might be shit, but as yet, you are not even sure it is one. Innocence has been lost, and you and the draft – a mean, truncated, ugly thing – stare at each other balefully.

Maybe you stop at this point and the buddy movie reaches a premature end. Thelma and Louise get a puncture when they are barely out of town, Louise hasn’t shot anyone, Thelma hasn’t had the benefit of Brad Pitt, everything just fizzles. The two women think ‘oh fuck it’ and go home, stuck in their frustrating lives.

Or maybe you carry on. The novel and you patch it up, decide to make a go of things on the basis that neither of you are much good, certainly nothing special, probably a lot worse than the other unwritten novels and their disappointing authors. You grind away, tapping out the terrible stuff. The novel looks on, sceptical. Sometimes you hack bits off the novel, the intolerably irrelevant, the magisterially over-written. The novel shrinks and winces. But you carry on.

This, sometimes, is when it starts to go quite well. You haven’t finished yet, there are a thousand problems still to overcome, but you have reached the part where Thelma and Louise are in their shades, and have just blown up an oil tanker.

Emotional self-management doesn’t come naturally to most of us. I grew up with the idea – based on Hollywood movies - that writing itself was photogenic and intense, the demented author swigging bourbon while sitting at the sweaty Remington, writing into the small hours. By dawn, the novel would be born, a work of genius, a book to change the world. One would expect no less after such a harrowing engagement with the muse. 

But actually, over the years, I have come to accept that not only is writing itself a long game; the production of each individual book or story is itself a multifaceted, time-hungry challenge, and that one of the most difficult aspects of this is staying sane during the peculiar period during which something that does not exist takes shape. Moods swing between mania and zombie-like dejection. Wine tempts. Cake beckons. Twitter glitters.  Self-control is essential at such times, tedious strategies must be adopted: eating your greens, getting fresh air, not reading rave reviews of recently published authors.

My most effective mental strategy is treating the novel like my wrong buddy, the person I am least likely to get on with, my irritating flatmate. Each day we take our places and we carry on. There are goodish days, there are bad days, and eventually, there is a thing. The novel exists. What was once a tiny shimmer of possibility is something else now, usually much less pure and perfect in execution than in imagination, but actually a thing. By managing expectations and checking in each day, it is possible to reach this extraordinary place. If you are lucky, it is the edge of the Grand Canyon and you have found the ending that is the perfect exit for you and your now beloved buddy, your newly finished book.