Writing the Story: It’s all about the Characters

 

The world of storytelling: it’s all about the people

Telling Imaginative Histories

I prefer to read and write character driven fiction. Don’t get me wrong both plot and setting are important to me, but they don’t excite me, either as an author or reader in the same way that characters do. Characters bring stories to life.

The novelist, Dame Hilary Mantel, gave the five lectures in this year’s run of the annual Reith lectures on BBC radio 4. Mantel, the author of best-selling, historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (to name only two of her many books) spoke inspiringly on how she views writing in general and writing historical fiction in particular.

She talked about what history is, about how it can only ever be an interpretation rather than irrefutable truth. She didn’t deny there are historical facts. Certain things happened on certain dates, certain decisions were made, certain outcomes happened. And from these facts we construct a possible impression of the past.

Mantel said that she did detailed research before writing her Tudor novels and that she saw her fiction writing as bringing the past and the dead back to life, as taking the events and creating a picture of how things possibly were for the people living through them.

Although I write mainly contemporary fiction, much of what Mantel said about the writing process resonated with me.

I had to research a wide range of topics––from Scottish crofting law and the care of sheep, to the politics of the Middle East­–– while writing my novel, Displacement and this continues currently as I write its sequel Settlement. The geographical settings of the Isle of Skye and Israel-Palestine are real, certain historical, political and cultural events that give background to the plot did actually happen.

But for me the magic, the alchemy of writing the novels, comes from creating credible, interesting and engaging characters. My characters are imaginary, but they must be brought to life in the same way as any ‘real’ historical characters must. I must inhabit and get into the head of my characters––and by doing so present a credible picture for my readers of the events and the realities my characters are living through.

Similarly, when I wrote my children’s novel The Silver Locket which involves three contemporary children travelling back to the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites in eighteenth century Scotland, I had to research key historical events such as the Battle of Culloden, but also what life is like for today’s eleven-year-olds. But again the real magic and thrill for me came when I breathed life into my protagonists.

My characters shape the story, their actions and reactions, their motivations, strengths and weaknesses are the story.

My fictional characters, in the same way as long-dead historical ones, come to life on the page. As an author this can seriously mess with your head. Sometimes characters surprise me. They can go off in directions I hadn’t predicted. I talk to my characters, even interview them, when I’m not sure how they feel about something or how they might react in a given situation. I live inside my character’s heads as I write–– much as I imagine an actor does when playing a role. I sometimes expect to see my characters in a real life setting such as when I’m on a real life beach, or up a real life hill that happens to feature in one of my stories.

Characters, historical or invented, have a story to tell. They are living and real for the duration of the book––and perhaps beyond.

All authors need to be imaginative historians and to let the characters bring the story to life and bring life to the story.

What do you think? Is it the characters that make a story for you?

Writing: What’s in it for me?

 

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It’s a journey and I never know quite where I’m going to end up

 

For me, for my life in general, writing has always been a problem-solving kind of activity. If I’ve anything on my mind I always find writing it down helps.

It could be something as simple as a to-do list. I do like lists. I make lists about lists and my desk has been called ‘post-it’ city.

If there’s something I need to think through or work out a plan of attack for, then a mind-map or a set of bullet points put down on paper is the way to go. If something is making me anxious, going round and round in my head and is threatening to prevent me from sleeping then simply jotting it down in my bedside notebook, to be attended to in the morning, is enough to allow me to drop off.

But more specifically, writing creatively, whether it’s an article such as this for the blog, or writing a short story or novel helps me make sense of my world and the world. And it’s not necessarily something I set out to discover. I love that writing for me is full of surprises.

For example, when I began writing my first novel Change of Life I had it in mind that I would be writing contemporary fiction, probably with a target readership of middle-aged women. My main characters came to me first. It was to be a story of a long-time married couple who find not only their marriage, but their wider lives too, under threat from some unforeseen changes. It was going to be a straightforward romance novel albeit where the protagonists were no longer in the chick-lit age range.

But working on the story allowed me to work through and gain an understanding of long-term marriage versus short term romance. It led me to examine the ups and downs and pros and cons of inter-generational family relationships. It let me examine friendship and how life-enhancing a true friendship can be. And it let me look at what being diagnosed with a serious illness means in terms of facing up to the rigours of treatment and to accepting one’s own mortality.

Most of all, as I lived with my characters and saw their story unfold, I began to see that change, even when it looks daunting, threatening or even impossible can turn out to be a good and life-affirming thing. I’d stumbled on some big themes.

When I set out to write The Silver Locket, my novel for children, I was aiming to write a modern Enid Blytonesque adventure story with a bit of time travel thrown in.

But teasing out the story meant having to truly empathise with my three main characters: a child with Aspergers, another child whose mother had died, and a child whose parents were divorced. At the time of writing that novel, I was still working as a teacher of children with special educational and emotional support needs. So getting into the heads of my characters gave me a clearer view of how life might actually be for some real life children. Not only that it let me see that what we often view as a handicap can actually be the very opposite of that, and that children left to their own devices can be remarkably resourceful and resilient.

When I began Displacement, my second novel of contemporary fiction for adults, I set off in a similar vein as I had with Change of Life. My main characters had arrived unbidden – one while I was hanging out the washing and the other while I was driving to work. The story would involve some romance, the main characters would be post-fifty, and there would be challenges aplenty – challenges that would lead to the characters’ complete displacement from their normal lives. I knew that the setting would have a big role to play this time, and I knew that the story would have two main locations: the Scottish island of Skye and the Middle Eastern country of Israel-Palestine.

Even although I knew both locations reasonably well, having lived in one and having visited the other several times, I did expect to have to do some research, what I didn’t expect was just where my research and plot development would take me.

I had to delve further into both twentieth century history and current Middle-Eastern politics than I’d intended. I had to confront the realities for a Jewish child escaping Nazi Germany. I had to investigate Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan and what it takes to be a Royal Marine commando. I had to confront parental grief after the loss of a son. I also came to see that displacement can happen on many levels, have many causes and that it can have both positive and negative effects.

And again, I realised as I progressed with the writing, that this was more than a simple romance, more than two characters meeting and, after overcoming a series of obstacles, living happily ever after. Once more I was in the complex territory of real-life, later-life, relationships and real-life, meaning-of-life issues.

Once again I was pleasantly surprised by just how rewarding and intellectually stimulating working on a multi-layered story can be.

And now I’m writing the sequel to Displacement – working title is Settlement. The first thing I got out of it was the surprise of doing it at all. I hadn’t planned to write a sequel. The second thing was an important lesson: do NOT throw your original novel notes away, even when the novel is complete. Yes, I wrote them by hand in a notebook, no I didn’t store them electronically. Duh! So character biographies and house layouts had all to be done again.

But the third and main thing I’m getting out of the writing this time is bigger than those practical discoveries, and bigger than the discoveries made while writing earlier work.

Working on Settlement has me intrigued. It sees the main female character back working in the Middle East partly as a way of settling some personal issues. Meanwhile, the main male character is also dealing with some significant unfinished business from his past. And the plot is developing and operating on so many levels that I hadn’t foreseen.

I did foresee the relationship difficulties between the two main characters. They see life differently. It was apparent in the previous book that one is a romantic and the other is a realist, one prizes loyalty and the other is fickle, one works at relationships, and the other walks away. And I did foresee a parallel between the consequences of upheaval and settlement in the personal lives of my characters and the wider consequences of displacement and settlement on a national and international level.

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But I didn’t foresee just how much the personal aspects would come to underpin the wider political aspects of the story. I came to realise that just the act of letting someone speak, and of listening to them as they do so, can have far-reaching and profound consequences.

I don’t know if there are more surprises to come as I complete the final third of book, but that’s why I love writing so much. I never know where it’s going to take me or what I’m going to discover.

It’s exhilarating!

My next post will look at what (I hope) my writing has in it for readers…

 

Writing as Sculpture – chiselling down

Sculpture

Life is a bit stressful at the moment – imminent house move
– to name but one pressure point.

However, through all the turmoil, I’m managing to keep
writing – thank the deities. It’s a most therapeutic activity and is keeping me
as close to sane as I can ever claim to be. I’ve kept this blog going, I’ve
written my ‘Words With Jam’ contributions. (I hope everyone’s seen the latest issue
with the JK interview – the magazine is now available in print as well as
online.)

AND I’ve made good
progress with my children’s novel.

So I thought I’d post a progress report.

The first draft is almost finished. I can’t believe how much
I’ve enjoyed writing it. I was very resistant to writing for children, despite
my profession as a primary school teacher. But while I was in the middle of
writing my second novel for adults, the idea for the children’s story appeared
unbidden. It wouldn’t go away. So I had to suspend the grown-up novel, get over
my resistance and get to work on the young folks’ book.

I’ve found it to be quite a different experience from
writing my first novel. I’ve gone from being a planner to a ‘pantster’ (as in,
flying by the seat of my pants). This time I began writing with only the seed
of an idea and no real notion of where I was heading. Whereas the first time
round I had detailed plans and a carefully worked out plot – although there
were surprises along the way – this time I just wrote. And, luckily the story flowed
and developed spontaneously.

I’m not saying that I have a crisp, coherent and captivating
read yet. It’s more like I have a lump of roughly chiselled stone and now the
really hard work of chipping away, shaping and smoothing begins. The process
for the first novel was more akin to that of a draughtsman/artist – building up
to the finished artefact from detailed plans and sketches with precision
brushwork. But this time it will be more of a paring down from a block of (I
hope) beautiful raw material.

The hammering stage will be finished this month and I will
take up the chisel later in the year. In between –  as well as moving house – I need to dust off
my brushes and get back to my older people’s novel.

Okay – I know when I’ve done a metaphor to death – so I’ll
take off my artist’s smock and go write another house move to-do list.