Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Populating the Fictional World

by Sarah Bower

The fiction writer is a strange, parthenogenetic species whose offspring arrive in the world in all sorts of guises. They may be fully-formed or mere outline sketches, male, female, child or ancient, human, robot, or anything in between. Some are sweet-natured, some seething with evil intent, most shift up and down this spectrum in devious and unpredictable ways. All are, or should be, in some way memorable. They bristle with barbed hooks that, once they have entered the reader’s heart, cannot be easily removed.

Having looked last time at tips for how to find inspiration and begin writing, we now come to the nuts and bolts of creating a story, the set of technical components – plot, character, setting, point of view, voice, pace – which make up a piece of narrative fiction. The greatest of these is character. What do we really remember about our favourite books? What is it that makes them our favourites in the first place? Imagine you are among a group of people who all loved Little Women as children. The first thing you do is play the categorisation game. Who are you? Glamorous Amy, worthy Meg, the ‘little mother’, gawky Jo with her ink-stained fingers? Long after we have half-forgotten what happens to these girls in the course of Alcott’s novel, we remember them, the essence of who they are and what they say to us as – usually – women.

There’s another of these games. In your choice of partner are you a Darcy girl, or do you prefer the maimed Mr. Rochester? Or Heathcliff, with all that that entails. You may only half-recall the finer details of the stories of Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett and Cathy Earnshaw, but you never forget the women themselves or the men they fell in love with.

So, when thinking about how to construct a story, even if the characters are not the element which comes to you first, they are the key to involving readers. It is the characters who will ventriloquise what you want to say.

The most obvious – and most hotly denied – source of characters is your own friends and family. This is not to say that you will want to lovingly recreate every detail of Auntie Gladys, or your annoying little brother, or your best friend from school. While all fiction is, by definition, autobiographical because it is generated by the author’s own imagination, there’s autobiographical and autobiographical. A mistake many beginning authors make, when enjoined to ‘write what you know’ is to write what is, in effect, memoir, not fiction.

The way to use the people in your life as characters in your fiction is to cannibalise them. As Graham Greene famously remarked, every writer must have a sliver of ice in his heart. So, much as if you were playing Tops and Tails, you can take Auntie Gladys’ honky tonk piano playing skills and blend them with your best friend’s taste for Malibu to create the basis for a character who is completely fictional yet composed of ‘real’ parts which will help you to achieve the authenticity and true-to-life feel that strong and memorable fictional characters always have.

People watching is a great source of material for characters. I have a chronic inability to be late for anything, which means I frequently find myself hanging around in bars and cafes, waiting for people who have a more wholesome attitude to punctuality than myself. On these occasions, I shamelessly watch people and eavesdrop on their conversations. I make up scenarios about groups and couples based on their demeanour with one another and snatched words and phrases overheard, and busily noting these down in my notebook or on my phone makes me look less like a billy-no-mates as I wait for my companions to arrive.

You can be more pro-active in this process if you actually choose someone in the street and follow them for a while. This is an exercise often set for student actors, to follow a stranger for, say, half an hour and then be able to reproduce their walk, their attitude when sitting or standing, getting on a bus, ordering a coffee etc. This approach is, of course, particularly useful for the budding author of crime fiction!

Once you have amassed the raw material you need to construct a character, how do you adopt the mantle of Dr. Frankenstein and breathe life into them? Fiction, even when it is at the outer realms of fantasy, is an imitation of life. It cannot be anything else because life is all we know. Consequently, the best way to approach the business of making your characters live is to think about how we learn to know our fellow human beings in the real world. We do this from the outside in; it is not, usually, until we know people well that they reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings to us. Even then, they may be selective with the truth, and will give their lies away to the attentive observers by a whole series of ‘pantomimes’. Our knowledge of other people is built up through our senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, possibly, in certain circumstances) and our intuitions. So, when you set about revealing a character to your readers, this is how you should do it.

Try to avoid ‘telling’ readers about characters. When you introduce your heroine, do not give us a paragraph detailing the colour of her hair, the number of brothers and sisters she has, her preference for jasmine tea and pinot grigio over espresso and margueritas. This not only stops the forward momentum of your story because it is merely descriptive, it also tends to be off-putting to readers because it leaves them no opportunity to put their own imaginations to work in conjunction with yours. Focus on showing what she is like through her actions, so she is revealed to readers in just the same way as she is revealed to other characters in the story. 
Let us learn she likes jasmine tea through seeing her order it, or overhearing her telling someone else it’s her favourite. Let us know she has red hair because she wishes it was blonde, or decides she can’t wear purple because it will clash with it. This way we learn not just that she is a red head but that she lacks confidence in her appearance, likes the colour purple, is a little vain and possibly fancies a man who always goes out with blondes. You tell us one thing, but you show us many more.

Finally, remember Stephen King’s dictum that, however minor a character, when that person is centre stage, the spotlight is on them and no-one else. All your characters, even the walk-on parts, must be multi-dimensional and nuanced just as real people are. The milkman isn’t just the milkman, he’s a forty-two year-old father of three whose wife suffers from depression and who dreams of bungee jumping in New Zealand. The hero isn’t just tall, dark, handsome, square-jawed and ripped, he’s terrified of spiders, gets eczema on the backs of his knees and likes seventies soul music.

The power of fiction lies in its ability to turn a mirror on the world we live in and tell us, truthfully, who is the fairest of them all. The driving force behind this process is the characters, the representations of humanity who act out their lives on the page and thereby offer us catharsis. Our relationships with our favourite fictional characters may outlast friendships, marriages or the bonds between parents and children. Wouldn’t you love to think that the characters you create might have this power?

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