The Art of Writing No. 15

The question of having characters as ciphers or as complex human beings who beguile, infuriate, seduce, anger, irritate and illuminate the reader in turns is crux. In much of fast food literature, written to formula whether bodice rippers, blood rippers, space trippers or crime grippers, women may be depicted in short authorial shrift. They fulfill the roles of victim, sex partner, wife or mother against a generally greyed out background to the fast narrative. Likewise, men have their stereotypical roles in this range of fiction as victims, progenitoirs of evil, husbands, killers and so on. The more formulaic the genre, the less human characters usually are. Descriptions of them are rarely truly interesting because the writer hopes that the imagination of the reader will fill in the flesh where it is missing.
The reason Dexter is such fine TV is that the hero (!) is a serial killer with whom we can identify. The complexity of his character and motivation is so multi-layered that we catch ourselves wanting him to get away with yet another macabre act and, as a consequence, wondering about the dark sides of our own natures. It is viscerally funny and poignant, disgusting and sentimental and utterly riveting. Clearly a writer can write about anything, no matter how taboo but getting away with it is another matter. By that I mean, inveigling the reader into a world he or she never normally occupies, making it familiar and then building identification with the characters’ struggles, therein.
Why characters have to have complexity is because it allows the writer to explore the unexpected. If, in formulaic writing, a character commits an idiosyncratic act that cannot be explained by depth of character, then that act is not credible to the reader. All of us buy books to suspend our disbelief. The writer, like any stage magician, does this through complex layers of human psychology in his or her cast list.
To tie this up to previous blogs, books are mostly about people in extraordinary circumstances in which they have sex, kill, love, hate, are terrorized by reality or otherwise, go to war, abuse their loved ones, engage in magical journeys… The humdrum is not what we are seeking when we pick up a book in a bookshop.  That is the place from which we may want to escape! Generally we want to know why these characters have got where they are and how they are going to navigate what is in front of them. The more we feel we know them, the better we believe it.
It is a necessary exercise to look at your book in its first full draft and take each main character through the interweaving plot. Are you creating a wafer thin profile? Are you ensuring there is no ambiguity or paradox in this person? Are you limiting his or her power to surprise us by transcending misfortune in some noble way? Can we understand and find credible the wonderful and terrible things characters do, equally? Can we identify with them, full stop.

I was asked at the launch of Azimuth (I did it here in Accra) after I’d done a couple of readings, with whom of my characters did I identify most, as the author. I said every one of them, even the most pathological of the killers and the most pure of those seeking self-knowledge. But, if pushed, I would choose the manipulative and occasionally heartless sixteen year old heir to an empire. That’s writing for you – a male writer, nearly seventy years old, creating a sixteen year old mixed race Persian princess who has become as real to him as any close friend.

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