Friday, 12 September 2014

The Evolution of Max

Why is it that there are some ideas and characters that won’t go away, no matter how you try to ignore them? I’m not the kind of writer who subscribes to the idea of characters as voices in my head, demanding I tell their story, so I'd prefer a scientific explanation. And that answer, I feel, must revolve around such characters and stories satisfying some kind of deep psychological need.

But first, a bit of history. Actually, quite a lot of history, so bear with me...

I have a character - originally called Mark Tastic - who first surfaced twenty years ago. I’d written a sketch for our student TV club called Do It! in which Mark reeled off a list of leisure activity suggestions to camera, in an extremely anarchic style. I guess, in its primitive form, it was intended as a spoof of Why Don’t You? (which people of a certain age will remember from BBC children’s TV in the 1970s). My friend Peter took the lead role and completely knocked it out of the park, to the extent that I still struggle to separate the character and his performance.

We filmed at least one more edition of Do It!, but that was in no way enough to exorcise the character from my psyche. I wrote a long, rambling history of Mark’s subsequent career, in which he became a reality TV star, drifted into pop group management and finally joined forces with undead rock stars to foment revolution. The scattershot treatise was illustrated with new photos of Peter (including one of him apparently lying in the gutter and drinking Domestos). This all went up on a now lost website and I’m sure it was read by almost no-one. Mark also made an appearance in his “Moral Crusader” form in my CheeseCrank fanzine, which was actually read by a few people and which you might have spotted in The Museum of Me.

Given this ongoing trend, you won’t be surprised that when I came to write my first Young Adult novel, I couldn’t resist a cameo from Mr Tastic. In one very memorable scene, Mark “prepares” my young protagonist for an appearance on his TV chat show, which consists of Mark freaking out in the green room and singing a heavy metal song about darning socks! It was all part of some literary master plan I had concocted to build a connected world in my novels – a kind of Kurt Vonnegut/Quentin Tarantino for kids.

The next step, therefore, was to launch into a full-length Tastic adventure, a spoof biography entitled Mark Tastic – The Man, The Maniac, The Messiah? This opened with Mark jumping out of a helicopter into a giant vat of custard and got progressively sillier from thereon. I wrote nearly 20,000 words of this, so I must have been really into it at the time, but clearly not enough to actually finish the book.

I took a break from all things Tastic to write Back from the Dead, which took a couple of years (given the many rewrites that book went through). But, when I was thinking about the next book, who reared their ugly head again? Yes, it was Monsieur Tastique once more, although this time he became an eleven-year-old boy and underwent a name change to the more contemporary Max Tastic. I wrote the first 3,000 words of a 7-9 comedy book in which Max attempts to become a world-famous rock star, while giving useful tips on how the reader can do the same. I got great feedback on this from a critique group and excitedly sent my progress so far to my agent, sure that she was going to love it.

My agent, sadly, was decidedly lukewarm on the book. I didn’t realise it at the time, but her image of me as a writer was very different to mine. From what I can tell, she thought I should be working on more serious teen novels and not bothering with silly knockabout stuff where the main character pretends to be a girl called Abigail Cheesemold, while hiding a family-sized bag of Haribo cola bottles in his knickers.

This is the exact point when I should have put my foot down, and said that I wanted to finish the Tastic book. But I was so desperate for approval that I sent her the harrowing first chapter of an older children’s book I’d been experimenting with. “This is the book,” she said immediately. “You must write this.”

Big mistake.

Thus, Max Tastic went back into the drawer for another four years, apart from a brief cameo on this website. But to paraphrase his great work of children’s fiction, Max Tastic is the character that wouldn’t die. I’m currently 10,000 words into a new 9+ Tastic book, a book that my Oxford critique group have enthusiastically demanded I must finish!

Quite clearly, I can’t leave this Tastic character alone. But what is it that makes him so recurrent? What deep psychological need does he satisfy for me? As far as I can analyse it, I think it’s his anarchic personality that strikes a chord. Exuberant, self-confident and brashly assertive – Max has all of the qualities that I perceive myself to lack. As a free spirit, rule-breaker and iconoclast, he is the Ferris Bueller to my Cameron Frye.

All this being true, I have to wonder why I’ve never completed any of my long-form stories about him. Indeed, my recent creative crisis did cause me to park this latest book for a couple of weeks, while I considered other outlets for the work, such as a website or enhanced e-book. But my critique group are very insistent that the latest instalment works extremely well as a book, and I need to complete it that way first.

So, it looks like I’m writing “just one last book” before I move on to other projects. After twenty years, I certainly feel that Max/Mark Tastic and I could benefit from some closure.



  1. Nick, how fan- TASTIC! The only person who should have been saying 'This is the book, you must write THIS' is the voice of your internal genius, ie you as writer. Now that you've pointed out Ferris Bueller, I've just realised that it is such a good comparison and I loved that as a kid. Keep writing! Olivia K.

  2. What no voices in your head? I knew it. I am bonkers. Still after reading about your obsession I feel slightly happier about things. Great post, and I agree, you have to finish the book. Marie

  3. Don't worry, Marie - there are lots of other writers who get woken in the middle of the night by characters demanding to be heard!

  4. Write it! He's clearly not going to go away! :-D

  5. Thanks for sharing this Nick. Personally I would be really disappointed if you didn't finish this as I love what you've done so far. Kirsty

  6. Yes yes yes! I want more Max Tastic too!
    And I loved reading about Max's evolution.