Thursday, April 26, 2012
The Art of Writing No 23
A game I used to play when waiting for someone in a bar or sitting waiting to be called to the departure gate for a plane, in fact whenever I had not had the sense to bring something along to entertain myself, was ‘scenarios’. Before developing the fluid structure of the game I had occasionally found myself wondering about one or two people around me because the way they dressed or talked or acted made them the centre of attention. Then I began to think of the sin of omission – why was I not as attracted to the rest of my immediate humanity? I remember teachers in school being faced with describing the children in their classes. The research showed that there was a hierarchy of connection (good or bad) with a percentage of pupils but there were also many who just slipped through classroom life, unnoticed. Once I had started down this road and tried to observe people equally, life became immeasurably more interesting. I even wrote an academic book called The Compleat Observer for researchers.
My observation led me to create scenarios for the people around me; their histories, current circumstances, ambitions, sexuality, psychologies… It had the effect of broadening the range of characterization which was later to prove handy when writing fiction. The best bit about it (since we humans love solving conundrums) was seeing whether predictions about people turned out to be true. Of course, among strangers this was rarely possible but during an evening an occasional hit made me grin to myself. “He is having an affair with a younger woman and is waiting nervously for her”. “He is going to be stood up.” “ She is sad and waiting for a friend to join her and commiserate.” On the other hand, the occasions when my predictions proved utterly wide of the mark, showed how I, like many I know, have inbuilt ways of seeing that belittle the potential of those around me. They weren’t sad. They were not poor. They could be massively extrovert.
This all adds up to understanding what stereotyping really is and how dangerous it is for the writer. It is far more than crude gender dichotomies, race, religion and so on, it is within us at all times and is part of the way that we construct the world. A novelist has the advantage that all the characters in his or her novels are as transparent as needs be even when they begin as strangers to the author and gradually, as the plot thickens, take on a flesh and blood reality with any number of subtle psychologies. We read books where only the main characters have any claim to be life-like. The rest have walk on parts and may not even be graced with a description or name. Tom Stoppard’s Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a lovely poke at how we write off minor characters by giving them a complex life beyond anything Shakespeare had decided for them.
So, the point of this little essay is to ask you whether you are caring for the whole of humanity in your fictional universe. To be fair to your characters (whether good or evil) have you said enough to make them sufficiently real to please the reader? Have you looked round the bar of your novel and given time to those you would once have ‘written off’’ without even knowing it?