Wednesday, January 09, 2008

What Planet is That?

Two items in the newspapers recently caught my attention and imagination. One was about a man who was moving a house. He'd separated it into three sections, and wanted to move it to some land near town but to do this, the sections had to be taken across the town bridge. When they were halfway across with the first part of the house, a man coming the other way on the bridge stopped his car and refused to move. The house section was too big to pass, and too big to reverse. The man in his car would not reverse, no matter what. In the end, they had to jack the house section up, on the bridge, so the man could drive underneath it.

The second item was about a man in England who has celebrated Christmas every day since 1993. He has a turkey dinner with mince pies and watches a video of the Queen's Christmas message, and opens presents he's given to himself. Now, another newspaper has declared that this is a hoax, and the guy is only saying he's done it to promote a single he's just released. But imagine if this was true?

We've probably all heard of or met people like this, and you wonder, "What planet are they living on? How could you behave like that?" As writers, we also think - that is too weird to write a story about. No one would believe it. How could I make that character credible? Sometimes it's enough to use them as a minor character in some way, like comic relief. Or as a villain. I knew someone a few years ago who I eventually realised had psychological problems and couldn't see the damage she inflicted on others. Could I use some of that in a character?

It's easy to create characters like us. We take a little of ourselves, little bits of several other people we know, add some oddities and complexities, and we have someone we can write a story or a novel about. But what this can lead to is continually writing about the same kind of character, someone you're familiar with, someone who doesn't light any fires under your story or your imagination, but someone who doesn't make life difficult for you as the creator.

It's a useful character exercise to take someone weird (or who seems weird to you - we all have different ideas of what is "not normal") and write about them. Write a story that shows who they are, why they behave the way they do, and what happens next. Does the man on the bridge hate the man with the house? Does he have a fear of reversing off the bridge because long ago he did it and ended up in the river and nearly drowning? Maybe the Christmas man lost his family on Christmas Day and he's trying to pretend they're still with him. Or his father has disowned him and he's extracting some kind of revenge.

Strong stories come from great characters who have good and bad sides, light and shadow, deep motivations, backstories that have affected who they are. Characters don't just have likes and dislikes - in fiction, they have obsessions and dreams, hates and loves, and deep, sometimes irrational, fears. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster says that one of the reasons we read fiction is to fully understand characters completely in a way we can never do with the people in our lives, even our nearest and dearest. To allow your reader to experience that in your novel, you first have to do it as the writer.

1 comment:

Kristi Holl said...

This gets me to thinking! I know that the "weird" characters in novels--whether main characters or secondary--are memorable. They stick in your mind. I can't remember the "great authors" I had to read in high school or titles of stories, but I remember the old lady who got dumped at the altar who still dressed in her wedding dress years later and had her ancient wedding cake in the house that was decades old. We want our characters to stick in the reader's mind. The trick--as you said--is to make their off-the-wall action believable by digging into their motives.