Friday, 30 March 2012

There’s Nowt So Queer as Folk

The title of this post is a saying that's stood the test of time. My kids (well-coached in such matters) have a different version of the same idea: We're all different. Now, I'm sure that this is good, that the world would be a poor place indeed without the diversity of human experience. But this multiplicity of viewpoints can make life very difficult. For instance, it's impossible to accurately predict a person's reaction to particular stimulus – such as a manuscript, or a decision that might seem uncontroversial. Everyone has their own prejudices and pressure points, their own strengths and insecurities. People can react in bewildering, even hurtful ways – sometimes they may not even understand why.

To expand on my point from a couple of weeks ago, stories are one of the ways we try to make sense of the world. By building a sandbox of words, we can attempt to model human behaviour in all of its richness and contradiction. Like most scientific models, our early attempts will be ramshackle, amateurish affairs, populated by one-dimensional characters that no-one could mistake for real human beings. Yet, as we write and rewrite our stories, we begin to refine the model, along with our understanding of what makes people tick.

Part of the problem of predicting behaviour in the real world is the vast number of conflicting influences that people are under, influences that we may know nothing about. Work, relationships, family, health, money – these concerns may be circling in a person's mind, each one taking different precedence at different times. What if (mild stereotyping alert) an editorial assistant had a blazing row with her boyfriend just before picking up your manuscript? If it's a story about a world without men, well, good for you. But if it's a story about true love? Expect a form rejection on that one.

A recent revelation for me has been the idea of driving plot through the motivation of several characters - not just the protagonist - while restricting the narrative to a single viewpoint. As the writer, I realised that I had visibility of every character's worldview, which would theoretically allow me to model their exact reaction to an event. More than that, I could use these internal tensions to trigger other events in a linked chain of cause and effect. By purposefully concealing a character's true motivation from another (and sometimes, from the reader), I could drive tension through the story towards the climax. It's fair to say that I also ended up with a fair bit of climactic exposition, as everyone explained what they were doing and why, but I'm sure I can work on that!

There is a writing maxim that suggests when building a convincing fictional character, you should have them act completely out of character exactly once. Perhaps this reflects humanity's very real propensity to snap in moments of extreme stress. Alternatively, maybe it means that - however deep we dig the sandbox - we can never thoroughly understand our characters. But it won't stop me trying to find out.



  1. Facetious comment: I like the sandbox analogy but one probably needs to dig deeper than that!

    More thoughtful comment: finding characters is what we do, isn't it? And sometimes it takes an entire novel to find them.