This is about characters. I don’t know about you, but my stories begin with a character, then what befalls that person and that person’s actions, thoughts, whatever, becomes the plot. Which means that the character has to be three-dimensional – a ‘real’, complete person. Which is where so many stories come apart.
My hard-drive is brimming with tales that started off as bravely as a Perkins diesel on a cold morning, only to splutter into archive after a few pages, or a chapter or two. Why? I fell out of love with the character. I was not convinced by him (or her). He did not ring true.
So were they not ‘real’ people? Where was the resource that spawned Melissa, or Kieran, or Gavin? Was the character someone I knew, or a mixture of people I have seen, remembered, possibly hated in the past? Did I meet them in a pub, teach them once, or was I taught by them? Where or how did they let me down? What was missing?
This sets a thought in train: how well did I know my character? When I painted them, did I see their faces, the way they walked, their mannerisms; did I know their voices in the dark? OF course I did – otherwise how could I write anything about them? But it wasn’t enough.
To convince a reader I must go beyond superficial description and totally immerse them in that character; build a figure in their mind so real and substantial they might walk in through their door at any moment. I think I am learning that to achieve this perceptible depth is not enough. When I meet someone who intrigues me by a cast of their eye, perhaps, or a quirk of speech that draws me to them, it is easy to learn just so much about them, and no more. I might spend half a life with someone without knowing how they would react if a gunman burst in, or they were accosted in the midst of their happy marriage by a sensual stranger. I might think I do, and be completely wrong. That will stand out for me like a beacon light from a false or a dishonest script. And I will trash them just because of that.
There is another, deeper layer to explore before writing this person to a page. Behind the face the world sees, behind the figure they themselves see, is an unexplored darkness I must find and bring forth, because that is where the drama lies. That is the oxygen of a story. How to enter that darkness is the essence and I think the only answer – the unwelcome answer, because not all my characters are likeable and some are downright evil – is to write a little of myself into that face.
Now personally I don’t believe in the dictum which says you should only write about yourself and the things you know. That results in a stultifying parade of novels in which the hero is a middle-aged writer and besides, half the joy of writing is in learning and acquiring the new. So the skill is to incorporate elements – just enough – like the character actor who brings forth Scrooge, or Shylock, or Miss Marple from something that is inside. If I reach that essential element the result will be a true one – the performance will be as good as my humble abilities can make it.
I’m reminded that Dickens would act out his characters. He had a mirror in his room and spent a great deal of time playing out each one, studying the figure reflected in the glass. A lot of his dialogue grew that way. Maybe I should buy a mirror?