Fictional characters, imperfection and likeability

aphroditeFor many writers, their biggest fear is the blank page. I may be unusual in this regard, because I love the empty whiteness of a new document. The way it appears in front of you, all shining and pure and unspoiled, still full of limitless possibilities.

What absolutely terrifies me is the finished manuscript. Completing a novel should be a cause for celebration, and yet the fact the thing exists at all fills me with dread. Now that it’s in the most polished state I’m capable of achieving without editorial support, the demons of doubt are screaming at full volume.

What if it’s no good? What if people don’t understand or like my characters? And if they don’t, what am I going to do about it?

In any good story, the characters are the driving force of the narrative. So it’s essential that they’re engaging and relatable, or in the case of a villain, sufficiently mesmerising that the reader feels compelled to spend time with them. It’s why so much creative writing advice focuses on character likeability. How to give your protagonist strong and appealing traits, as well as some imperfections to keep them credible. But sympathetic faults, not the serious or repulsive kind that turn people off.

It’s important to learn about character development and to be receptive to editorial feedback on how our characters are coming across. Sometimes there are issues in the manuscript that need fixing: a change of tone in the dialogue or a deeper exploration of a character’s motives to increase empathy for their situation. That said, I do think there’s a danger for writers in attempting to change our protagonists to make them likeable.

I don’t write memoir or autobiographical fiction. My characters are separate beings from me. Nevertheless, their feelings and experiences closely mirror my own, and they tend to be deeply flawed. As a writer, this level of exposure leaves me intensely vulnerable to criticism. If my readers come back and say, ‘I thought your main character was pathetic and needed a slap,’ trust me, I will feel that slap. And yes, it’s happened before, and it will most likely happen again, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do to prevent it.

Well, in theory there is. To avoid that risk, I could watch some popular movies, decide what is broadly considered attractive in our culture, and develop a protagonist around it. I’m already imagining she’s self-reliant, outgoing, feisty, funny and loyal. She gets in trouble for breaking the rules, while inside she’s suffering because of a past relationship hurt. The problem is that I’m not the least bit invested in her, because I’ve just made her up to be likeable, rather than allowing her essence to emerge naturally from my subconscious. If I forced myself to write a novel about her,  my lack of connection to her would be evident. Because her story isn’t what I wanted to write in the first place.

It’s the same in real life. If we mask too much of our identity by constructing a persona to fit the cultural ideal, far from experiencing a greater sense of belonging in the group, we can end up feeling more alone and adrift than ever. When we try to make people like us by adopting the characteristics we assume they value, frequently they sense it and warm to us less as a result.

Real people can be tough and independent and witty and brash and confident and cool. We can also be anxious and introverted and obsessive and insecure and conflicted and crazy-in-love. I happen to be drawn to exploring the second set of traits. I’m not sure I should or even can change this. After all, isn’t one of the delights of reading that we feel less alone and less self-critical, because we see our so-called “weaknesses” as simply part of the wider human condition? Through fiction, we may even learn how someone similar to us came to accept themselves as they are.

Besides, as anyone who reads reviews knows, readers disagree vociferously over character likeability. I loved Anna Karenina for her complexity, but she often features on the most-hated lists on account of her perceived self-obsession and poor choices. The fictional character I loathed most as a child was Pollyanna. I can’t describe how much it grated on my nerves that she was glad about everything. I felt she was unrealistic and that I was being preached to by adults. Yet other people find her relentless optimism inspirational and charming. We all bring our own perspective to the work.

One of my favourite quotes about writing is from Ernest Hemingway’s forthright letter to his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald.  He says, “All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is.”

Not caring about the fate of our work is easier said than done when we’re in the grip of obsessions over critique groups and literary agents and sales figures and Amazon reviews. But I also think it’s the way to produce the most vivid, authentic and powerful writing we’re capable of.

In no way does anything I’ve said above minimise my fear of people reading my manuscript. In fact, I’m not sure anything can, but it’s a fear I’m going to push on through. And hopefully it will be worth it.

 

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On politics, fiction and the fear of speaking out

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So the UK faces more political turmoil and the prospect of another general election, on top of an election, on top of a referendum, on top of an election, and for Labour party members, two leadership elections as well. And that’s all in the last two years…

It’s difficult nowadays to avoid politics on social media, and yet some people still get annoyed by political posts. Many of us were brought up to believe it was impolite to disclose our deeply-held views to others who may not agree. Don’t talk politics at the dinner table, dear. And to be fair, that advice has rescued many an awkward family Christmas.

For those of us promoting our creative work or business, we have to decide to what extent we reveal our opinions. Authenticity is important in self-promotion, but we’re often recommended to keep politics well out of it, since it can alienate potential audiences and distract focus from the product we’re trying to sell.

When I started my blog, I took that on board. I didn’t want to waste my time or emotional energy on political arguments. I didn’t want people contacting me to say they wouldn’t buy a novel written by a snowflake Corbynista if it was the last book on the planet. Instead, I would express gentle thoughts on art and the creative process, reserving my controversial opinions for my personal social media accounts.

I still think that strategy makes sense for some businesses. I also fully respect the choice of artists to keep their voting preferences private. But when I read back over the first chapter of my novel, I realise there isn’t a whole lot of point in hiding my beliefs from my readers.

They are there on every page. And that’s exactly how I want it to be.

Politics to me is so much more than economics or legislation or leaders screwing up on TV debates. Politics is philosophy, psychology, morality and ethics. The stories of human relationships and human societies. In that sense all fiction is political, whether we consciously intended it to be or not.

A novel about sex and dating may not contain a single political comment, and yet is imbued with the author’s worldview. How are the female characters portrayed? Do they have goals or is their role to help the lead male to learn about himself? When we write about people with unfortunate life circumstances, do we hold them responsible or do we choose to examine the inequality and oppression contributing to their situation?

On the first page of my book, my character Kerry is introduced as dealing with unemployment and a mental health issue. In the scene, she stands outside a charity shop on a high street in Manchester, observing and welcoming the diversity of the people passing by. A man sits in a doorway with a cardboard sign: “Homeless and had my benefits sanctioned. Please help me.”

None of my descriptions are deliberately written to make a political point. They’re just the sort of things I notice myself as I wander round the streets, and yet that inevitably reflects my perspective. We all see the world through our own lens, and certain things jump out at us, or don’t.

What I’ve written will not please everyone, and that’s how it should be. And while I don’t want this to become a party political blog, I feel increasingly less desire to conceal my opinions out of politeness or fear.

I’ve been a Corbyn supporter since he emerged on the scene in 2015, and I’ve been deeply inspired by the way he’s risen above the incredible hostility he faces in order to lead his party to an unexpectedly positive election result.

He strikes me as a kind-hearted man and, I imagine, not insensitive. So how does he cope with the pressure? Partly because he’s a seasoned campaigner with a lifetime of experience standing up for unpopular causes. But I also feel he genuinely cares about people and believes in his vision, which matters more to him than ego.

So many of us are understandably anxious about revealing our true selves. Of what our friends, family or colleagues will think of us if we say what we really mean.  What gives us the courage to do it is passion and purpose, whether it’s for revealing our truth in art, helping others or campaigning to change society.

Whenever I get that awful heart-flutter of anxiety before I say or do something which invites criticism, I try to remember that. That it’s absolutely okay to feel the way I do, but sometimes there are bigger things worth fighting for.

Writing and Responsibility

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As writers, we know that if we’re to produce anything worth reading, we have to let go of the people-pleasing tendencies that keep us stuck in fear. If we write from the heart, someone will disapprove of us, and they’ll most likely tell us so.

Courage is essential to good art. It’s an issue I struggle with and have written about before. But lately I’ve found myself preoccupied with the other side of the coin: the responsibility of being a writer, or indeed anyone who writes anything that others can read.

We live in an age of clickbait, trolling and fake news. Every day we see children bullied online, self-serving media commentators demonising vulnerable people, or  fame-hungry fiction writers perpetuating damaging stereotypes. Internet attention-seekers toss out their verbal grenades, and upon witnessing the fall-out, they shrug and walk away. “Well, it doesn’t matter so much. They’re only words.”

Let’s be absolutely clear: words matter. Words can be sophisticated tools that heal wounds and promote tolerance, or blunt-edged weapons that maim and destroy. When we choose to write deceitfully or carelessly to serve our own interests, we betray not only those we hurt, but ourselves and the readers who place their trust in us.

This isn’t about censoring our writing to placate the easily offended. Our collective cultural health relies on our artistic freedom to be controversial and challenge the status quo. But in order to be responsible for our art, I believe we need to write with honesty, humility and purpose, and this applies as much to fiction as to any other form.

Writing with honesty is more than just fact-checking or avoiding lies (although they’re good places to start). Achieving authenticity in our writing requires many long hours of observation, self-reflection and practice. It’s discovering who we are and how we perceive others: a process also known as finding our voice.

Writing with humility is accepting we don’t know everything. Despite our gifts of empathy and imagination, we can still fall prey to assumptions and prejudice. When a critic points this out, it’s important that we’re open to learning, even if it hurts our pride.

Writing with purpose (or intent) is being clear about what and why we write, who will love it and who it might shock, and that the value of our story or message is worth the price of a few ruffled feathers. Having a strong sense of purpose can help us to deal with any haters we attract.

In short, being a responsible writer is not about silencing ourselves, but owning the power of our words. It’s knowing when to revise, when to apologise, and when to stand up and defend our beliefs at all costs.

Is fiction an escape from reality?

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When events take a dark and depressing turn and the political landscape looks bleak, many of us turn to a good novel for comfort and distraction. Undoubtedly it can benefit our wellbeing to switch off the news for a while and lose ourselves in stories about elves or magic or comedy or romance instead.

Stories with happy endings where good triumphs over evil. Where the villain is cast into a fiery hell pit for eternity, instead of becoming… well, you know.

At the same time, reading is so much more than a means of avoiding the outside world.

A long time ago, when I was living with undiagnosed clinical depression, I used creative writing as an escape. I was drawn to themes that were fantastical or magical: ancient myths and legends, heroic tales and adventures. Anything that didn’t remind me of how lost and uncomfortable I felt in everyday life.

On the whole, they were traditional narratives with traditional morals, written uncritically, despite the fact I’ve always been progressive in my thinking. But it wasn’t about me or my beliefs back then. I was telling a story in the way I thought a story ought to be told.

I don’t regret anything I wrote. It was a learning process and at times a lifeline. But I only found my writing voice (and the route to recovery) when I stopped hiding from reality and turned to face it.

Our ‘voice’ isn’t style or technique or subject matter, although these play a part. It’s how we convey our perspectives, our passions and our values. The craft of writing can be taught, but I don’t believe we can truly fulfil our creative potential until we know who we are and what we stand for.

When we’re ashamed or afraid to reflect our emotions and our beliefs and our truth in our work, we end up with a borrowed truth instead. And while imitating others is part of our writing education, if we want to grow and change, we can’t hide from ourselves or each other forever.

To become good writers we have to confront life, however painful that may be.

The book I’m writing now is set in contemporary Britain. Several of the characters are unemployed or disabled and experiencing the nightmare of sanctions and the benefits system. It explores mental health problems and their impact on jobs and relationships. The characters may have different attitudes and viewpoints from me, but the story itself is imbued with everything I believe.

Although realistic contemporary fiction is the path I’ve chosen, this isn’t an attempt to favour it over other genres. The best sci-fi, fantasy and horror authors don’t shrink from reality either; they hold a mirror up to it. They use imaginative settings and alien characters as an alternative lens to explore psychology, politics and the possible future of our species.

We don’t have to compose intellectual or philosophical diatribes for our values to shine through on every page. Almost any story can have a moral or political dimension. If we’re writing a romance, do we give our female characters the same status and complexity as the men? In our fantasy world, how do the rich treat the poor, and what are the consequences? When our imaginary characters get in trouble, do we hold them to blame, or do we address the societal factors contributing to their problems?

Whenever we write a book or a blog, we should question ourselves. Is this what I think? Is it what I feel? Is it what I believe? And if not, why not?  Because I’m avoiding the truth of my experience through fear of criticism or self-revelation? Because someone told me this is what people want to hear?

To see fiction purely as escapism is to miss out on its infinitely greater possibilities. Sharing our authentic stories is not only a powerful means of communication and self-expression, but also of increasing empathy and understanding, and we’ve never been more in need of that than we are today.

We may not see ourselves as political activists, destined for the debating chamber or the campaign trail. But when we have the privilege of being able to tell a story and to access the technology to share it, then we have a voice, and it’s up to us to use it.

Because now is the time to stop burying our heads in the sand.

The mysterious origins of fictional characters

_mg_7743For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the concept of fictional characters. People who exist in the form of ideas, transmitted from the minds of creators to readers across continents and centuries. Despite having no physical presence, they’re recognisable and knowable, as well as the subjects of endless dispute and reinterpretation.

Having studied literature and been a member of book clubs, it strikes me just how intense and heated the discussion can get when readers love or despise a particular character. Fiction seems to give us an outlet to express strong feelings or beliefs about others that we’d hesitate to reveal in a real-world context.

We all have our favourite characters, but where do they come from? Are they inspired by real people? Are they invented from scratch and assigned a set of predefined characteristics? Or do they emerge fully formed from somewhere deep in the swirling chaos of the subconscious?

Obviously the answer depends on the author and their subject matter. I can only speak for myself. I’m not a memoir writer or an autobiographical novelist, and I don’t base my characters on real people (as my friends reading this may or may not be relieved to know…)

I do, however, use some elements of my life, as well as aspects of personalities I’ve encountered in the past. All authors to an extent ‘write what they know.’ Whether our story is about medieval pirates or a satire on the modern workplace, we use our emotional experiences as a basis for exploring those of others.

I began my current novel in 2015 with two characters and a setting. That was all I had to go on.  I had a vague sense of where I wanted these two people to end up, but no real plan for how I’d get them there.

For me, the characters emerge as blurry figures, which slowly come into focus. Sometimes I start with a name. I have a thing about names. They have such strong associations for me that I’d more willingly change my character’s age and appearance than what they’re called.

Gradually, more details are revealed. The outline of a face, an accent, a profession. Very soon I know all sorts of things about them: their troubled past, their taste in art or music, their secret fears and desires.

This is the point where I feel them to be ‘alive’.

Writers talk about ‘the characters controlling the story,’ which sounds mystical, but what it means is we’ve achieved a deep-level, intuitive understanding of that person in all their complexity. After that, they do take charge, because we can no longer make them say or do things they wouldn’t, in order to further the plot. We can try to force it, but it won’t feel right, and we or our readers will sense a lack of credibility.

Secondary or minor characters are slightly different for me. Sometimes, like the main players, they appear seemingly out of nowhere. Other times I consciously create them, because I feel the story needs someone extra to lend it humour or a different perspective.

These characters may start off as one-dimensional or stereotypes. I find it takes a little longer for them to come fully alive when they occupy less space in the narrative. It may not be until the second draft that I get to know them as individuals, which is when they start behaving outside of the narrow expectations I’ve set for them.

As any avid reader knows, it’s possible to become completely and utterly obsessed with fictional characters. This is even more true when we’re creating our own. Since we have full access to their minds, we can get to know them more deeply than a partner, perhaps even ourselves.

I think it’s a good thing that we fall in love with our characters, weird as it may seem to some. Most writing is more effective when the author’s emotions are engaged, and readers are more likely to adore our made-up people if we do.

Characters in stories aren’t a substitute for human connection. Our fictional love can never hold our hand or visit us in hospital or help us bring up our children. But they can be a compassionate presence in our lives, a solace in difficult times, an inspirational hero or heroine, and a route to self-knowledge and empathy.

 Such is the power of our imaginations.

Holding onto the faith that your audience is out there

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I’ve been thinking recently about my people-pleasing tendencies when it comes to writing. I find that social media, much as I love it and useful as it is, exacerbates these. It’s easy to absorb too much advice, to alter our work to conform to popular trends, and to compare ourselves to others. To measure our worth in clicks, likes and shares.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t seek feedback or community online. It’s natural to want validation and approval. To know people enjoy what we do. And constructive criticism is important for helping us learn our craft and improve.

But when we know we’re already technically competent, when we know in our hearts that we’ve found our voice or style, we need to maintain an inner belief in ourselves and our vision, even if we’re not getting the recognition we desire.

The best artists give us the gift of their true selves. They write the stories they want to tell. They portray a landscape the way they experience it, not how they believe everyone else thinks it should look.

Naturally, they also want people to love their art.

If we’re authentic and passionate and we present ourselves well, I believe eventually others will respond. There will be an audience for us, however small. We’re unique, but we’re not so special that no one else can understand or relate to us.

Sometimes we look for attention in the wrong places. We submit to agents who hate our genre. We don’t learn enough about marketing. We turn to those close to us for support, but although they may have our best interests at heart, they’re not the right people to appreciate what we do.

It’s possible too that our sense of isolation is partly an illusion. Someone does care, but for whatever reason, they don’t feel able to let us know. Statistics aside, we can never truly measure the impact of our message, or know who else we’re inspiring along the way.

We don’t know yet what we’re capable of achieving, which is why we have to keep putting ourselves out in the field. Even on the days when it’s tough as hell. When it feels like we’re the only one who values our work.

But valuing it ourselves is always the best place to start.