Tag Archives: characters

The Friday Review No 8: Exploring the Shadows

toddler sulk

I don’t want to write today.

I feel angry, resentful, depressed, bitter.  I want to sit with my back to the world like a toddler, arms crossed, refusing to cooperate.

But I’m not a toddler, I’m an adult, and I can’t bury my head in the sand.

Neither can I stop being me.

So I sit down at the desk, because that’s where I feel safest, and I pour the toddler’s complaints onto the page.  Whining, sulking, complaining. Resentful, spiteful, selfish.  I let the toddler have her say.

And when I sit back and look at what I’ve done, I find I have page after page of scribble, malformed letters sliding together in a hurry to get away from their meaning.  Angry, it says.  Voiceless, it says.  Unheard, it says.  But today I have listened.

I’m a great believer in writing as healing. 

To me it is a refuge, even when I don’t want a refuge, even when I don’t want healing.  When I want to wallow.  It allows me to wallow, and then move on.  Sometimes we all need to hold a pity party for ourselves.

In the last month, I’ve had something of a ‘slap upside the head with the Frying Pan of Enlightenment’, as they say.  It’s been about acceptance.  Accepting my shadows.  The things I don’t like about myself.  The things I hide, even from myself.  The anger, spite, pride, pettiness.  All the things that were dirty words in the house where I grew up, the worse qualities you could display – lazy, selfish, greedy.  As a child, I would have done anything to avoid being labelled with those words.  As an adult, I’m pathologically terrified that people might think those things of me.

But honestly, we’re all lazy, selfish, greedy, sometimes.  It is part of being human.  It doesn’t stop us from being transcendently kind, loving, self-sacrificing, compassionate, gentle, patient, all of which we can also be.  Sometimes.

Accepting that human beings can all display every human characteristic, good and bad, is one thing a writer needs to be able to do in order to paint vivid characters.

Accepting that, as individuals, we can all be those things is something we all need to do.

And as a writer, I can use my experiences of feeling those things, of wanting those emotions, those behaviours, of indulging them, as insights into my characters.  I can use them as rocket fuel for my writing.

But only if I can accept that I have them.

(It’s a bloody hard job, this self-knowledge stuff, but I’m having a go.)

So here I am, sitting in the shadows, gnashing my toddler teeth, sulking fit to burst, and at the same time, observing myself, knowing that all this is going to make a great scene in my novel.

And you know what?  I feel so much better now.  I might even crawl off my naughty step and go and find myself something nice to eat as a reward for exploring my shadows.

Happy Creating,

EF

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Writing is from the Soul

 

p-d-james

The novelist, PD James

‘Part of our duty as writers is to do the work of honestly determining what matters to us and to try and write about that.’

Julia Cameron, ‘The Right to Write’.

I’ve always thought that writing comes from a place deep within, but this last few weeks has confirmed that view in a very deep way.  I’ve been working with my writing coach, Heidi Williamson, as I sort through ideas for my new fiction project.  I’m still not sure if it’s a novel or quite what it is.  I have characters and a setting, but I don’t really know what it is about.

And I’ve been going through something of a soul upheaval at the same time.

Like a huge game of Tetris, bits of me are moving about, realigning, making new connections.  I am understanding myself in a new way.  I am beginning to accept parts of myself I could never even acknowledge I had, so shameful to me they seemed.

All this is coming out onto the page.

Let me tell you a story:

Years ago, I went with my mother-in-law to an event held at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.  Surrounded by trays of dead beetles, dinosaur bones and stuffed animals with scary glass eyes, we sat in an audience and listened to PD James and Colin Dexter talk about writing.  I think it may have been one of the most important experiences of my writing life.

Now, let me set this in context.  I had fallen in love with Oxford primarily because I had discovered Inspector Morse.  (Actually, I had fallen in love with John Thaw, but that’s another story!)  The romance of the city and its surrounding countryside connected with something inside me.  It sang to my soul.  I’d read all the Morse books published up until that point, some of them several times.

In contrast, I hadn’t read PD James at all.

And then the strangest thing happened.

I listened to Baroness James, this tiny little Marple of a woman, sit there and talk about her passion for stories, about how everyone has a story and how she loved listening to them, from her hairdresser to the train guard on the tube.  When she talked about writing, she blossomed, expanded.  A light shone from inside her, a light to which we were all drawn.

Then I listened to Colin Dexter talk about how he wrote the first Morse novel, ‘The Dead or Jericho’ as something of an intellectual exercise.  After all, he said, a detective novel is very much like a crossword, and I designed crosswords, so I wondered if I could do the same with a detective novel.

The contrasting lack of passion was chilling.

And I knew which kind of writer I wanted to be.

I shall always remember Dexter’s cold, dead, fish-eyes as he talked about plotting fiction in the same way as any problem must be solved.  I confess I conceived an intense dislike of the man at that moment.  It seemed to me he was subverting an art form, reducing it to something cold and empty and mundane.  Of course, there must have been more to him than that, because I’d read the novels, and I had seen the skill he had in painting character, but to me there seemed something lacking, a vacancy in his art, not least because he clearly didn’t regard it as art.

And beside him, PD James prickled quietly.  She was a woman with a passion, with a deep soul, a woman who wanted to explore the darkest depths of the psyche, a woman with a profound love for her fellow human beings.  It was obvious to me from her body language that she didn’t like Dexter’s clinical approach, that it irritated her.  I don’t blame her.  It irritated me too!

I have always written whatever my soul directed me to, taken the stories that popped into my head and followed them, followed my passions.  My themes have been the themes I have been struggling with in my own life.   I just never bothered to name them, to deliberately set out to find or understand them before.  Lately I have been doing just that.

I’m not the clinical type.  I need to write what I need to read.  I need to explore my own psychodrama on the page, use it as fuel for my work.  At this stage in my life, I need to know myself deeply, to uncover my own hidden depths, and to write about them.  To write them out of my body and mind, and away.

That is why this new work is taking so long to form.  And why I am deliberately allowing it time to form.

Usually, I start with the idea of a plot and gallop along, with characters being tugged behind.  If they get developed, so much the better, but often they end up at the denouement as thin as paper.

This time I am starting with the characters, with their souls, with their issues, their worries, their suffering, their joys.  I trust that they will tell me what their story will be.

This is not a crossword.  Neither is it a hundred metre dash.  It is a slow, steady, indefatigable hack through dense jungle.

Sometimes, you have to take it one day at a time.

Happy Creating,

EF

A Letter to Darla’s Daughter about Fanfiction

Dear Darla’s daughter,

I’m really sorry, but when your mom left a comment on my website, she didn’t tell me what your name was, so I’ll have to hope you don’t mind my being a bit general.

Anyway, she said that you are 12 years old and that you like writing fanfiction, like me.  She also mentioned that she is trying to get you to start creating characters of your own, something you and I also have in common, because I am trying to do that too.  She believes this is important, and so do I, and I wanted to tell you why.

First, though, I want to say Yay for you!  You’re writing, and that is fantastic!

Writing, as I am sure you have found out for yourself, is great fun, some of the best fun, in fact, that it is possible to have.  And fanfiction?  Well, doing that just makes it even better.  You take other peoples characters and send them out into the world of your imagination.  You can make them do whatever you like, get them into all sorts of trouble, and get them out, have endless adventures with them – what’s not to like?  And then there’s the other thing about it.  You get to act out all your crushes on the gorgeous actors and pop stars that you like.  Yes, don’t blush, we all do it!

I was writing fanfiction at your age, although I was writing about actors and shows you have never heard of, and probably never will, and fanfiction didn’t even have a name back then!  It was something you did by the light of a torch under the blankets at night and didn’t tell your friends about.  A fantasy life all your own.  It was something embarrassing you did in private, like picking your nose!

Now it’s a recognised genre, although there is still a lot of snobbery about it, like there still is about all kinds of genre fiction, like crime and romance.  (Usually the people who criticize it are not writers themselves, though, so feel free to completely ignore their opinions because they invariably don’t know what they are talking about!)  Today, people recognise that most of the great writers have written fanfiction at some point, and popular and literary novelists are being paid to write fanfiction novels for the legitimate market.

Fanfiction is a great thing to do, too, because it allows you to practise, to test out your writing skills and grow them.  The more you write, the better you get, and if you are enthusiastic about the characters, you will write more.  You get to experiment in ways you just can’t with other types of writing.  And if you share your work online, there is a whole world of other writers willing to help, advise and support you as you learn.  So don’t ever let anyone tell you it is wrong to write fanfiction, or that its not ‘real’ writing, because it is.

But here is the thing:  using another writer’s characters can only take you so far.  And if you really like writing, if you really want to get good at it, you have to take the next step.  You have to make up your own original characters.

Why?

Well, here is the thing:  At the heart of every truly great story are great characters.  Look at Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, for example.  Both are full of fantastic, original characters, from Severus Snape to Frodo Baggins.  There are outstanding characters in every truly great novel.  Think of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’, Willy Wonka in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ or even my favourite, the wonderful Sherlock Holmes.  In films, you might choose the shark fisherman Quint in ‘Jaws’ (which you are too young to have seen, I suppose, but that’s a treat for the future!), James Bond or Spock in ‘Star Trek’; on the stage, there is the villainous Salieri in Schaffer’s ‘Amadeus’ or the Phantom in ‘Phantom of the Opera’.  If you haven’t come across any of these yet, I encourage you to seek them out because they are tremendous.

All original.  Each loved by millions.  And each one has ensured their creator’s immortality.

So, to become a great writer, or even a good one, you need to have at the core of your work truly great characters.

But here is the really wonderful part:

There are only seven plots. Okay, yes, you can chop them up and interchange bits of them endlessly, but basically, there are a limited number of things you can do, plot-wise.

But there are as many original characters in your head as there are people on the planet.  And here is why:

No one, anywhere, even if you are a twin, has ever had the same experience of the world as you.

You are unique.

The way your mind works, what has happened to you, the things you think about and imagine, that you think are important, that you love and hate, are all unique.  There may be a few people quite like you, but no one, anywhere, has ever experienced the world exactly the same way as you.

And because you are unique, your imagination is unique.  No one else can create quite the same kinds of characters as you.

And once you start creating your own characters, they start getting up doing things inside your head that are completely exciting and unexpected and utterly amazing.  Believe me – I was writing a novel a few years back, and one of my main characters just upped and died right there in front of me, without any warning, and I didn’t know what to do because half of the rest of the book depended on her being there!  Help!  Okay, I fixed it in the end, but it was a scary moment.  And also utterly wonderful.

Once you start creating your own characters, your writing moves on to the next level.  That element of chaos as they take on a life of their own is only the start.

That is the moment when the wonderful thrill of story-telling hits you, and you open your wings, and take off, and soar through the air.

Fanfiction is great, believe me, but it is like being a sparrow when you could be an eagle,  And wouldn’t you rather be an eagle?

So creating your own characters isn’t just thing your mom goes on about because its what she thinks is important, even though you are having so much more fun making the pin-ups on your bedroom walls have romantic adventures through fanfiction.  She wants you to taste the real freedom of the imagination, as do I.

That is why I am going to write a lot less fanfiction this year, and concentrate more on my original characters.  I’m already having so much fun with it.  So why don’t you join me?

With Best Wishes from your fellow writer,

Evenlode’s Friend.