Suddenly I’m writing more creatively and thinking “fictionally” and it’s very much in part due to the weekly novel writing course I’m taking at Sydney University. It suddenly looms into clear, lucid view (and not for the first time) just how much characters are indeed the backbone of everything I write.
Have I been holding back? Are my characters strangers? Or are they like best friends that I carry around in my pocket and know inside out, upside down, sideways and in my deepest sleep?
Often, it feels like the former. Some characters come to life on their own and others, I now find I have to work at – I have to uncover them, poke them with a stick until I reveal all there is to know, push them and mould them until they’re exactly what I want. But it isn’t working.
And that’s when I realise – I’ve somehow become “character” lazy.
Those Damn Characters
Characters have almost always come easily to me, smooth, casual visitors in the midst of the day or night, bursting out of my fingertips and onto the page.
They come almost fully formed, complete with voices and quirks and –isms and expressions and postures and details and real-life jobs and friends and histories.
My love of writing, in the past, hasn’t come so much from character creating, but more character discovering.
They speak to me, dictating what they know and how they feel and what they want. Like meeting someone new and finding that you’ve known them for years, really.
And then there are those characters that are a complete struggle.
They’re hazy and half-invisible and mere shadows of something I imagine more fully that just won’t step into the light. They’re functions of the story, without their own perspectives and voices and emotions. Not even ghosts. More like dolls.
Hello? Are you there? No answer.
Can I pin some details on you and hope you come to life? Doesn’t work.
Can I dig into the depths of my being and find some correlation between who you are and who I am? Write from the gut, as they say. And suddenly, my soul is hiding behind a locked door and I can’t get in. The page is blank. A wall is up. Who is this person I’m meant to be writing about and why can’t I get inside their head?
This is when I (and all writers, I imagine) have to work. Hard. To write histories and spell out emotions and life journeys that will never end up on the page, but that it’s imperative for us to know.
Am I Still Resisting?
Yet I still don’t go in for traditional characterisation exercises. I don’t know why. I’m more about instinct. Writing a character backstory doesn’t help. Inventing how they “feel” about things and making up some place in the world for them washes into fruitlessness.
Where do I look now? To the outside world, to strangers on the street and other people that I know in real life or imagine in my head? Perhaps.
But even so, the character still feels stupidly wooden and elusive, as if I’m writing about a floppy mannequin. Maybe I haven’t tried hard enough, knuckled down until my fingers bled. I feel like I’m skimming the character surface in frustration, like I’m floating on an ocean that is my character and no matter how much I try, I can’t dive down. They won’t let me. I won’t let me.
Memories of Voice
Now, writing this, I remember something my lovely writing mentor said to me in our last manuscript meeting: Where’s your narrative voice, young lady?!
Shit, I don’t know, I said, it’s disappeared. Gone walkabouts, hanging out with some other, easier story and kicking this one to the curb.
Four weeks later and I feel like an idiot. Because I’ve just realised it’s all right there. There is nowhere to dive, because I’m already down in the depths. Just at the bottom. It’s all in my head, my gut, my toes – on the paper even, in sly hints and tiny dribs and drabs of description and in the intangible coils of the plot I’ve conjured up. All this time! In my face!
I’ve been so busy trying to desperately confront my character face-on, eyes-open, mouth-wide and soul-bared that I forgot the one most crucial, fundamental thing: I’m a writer.
And character, any character, in order to come from within, has to come from my own voice. Not the voice of some other narrative, not the voice of the genre, not even the voice of the character, which was the grave mistake I’d been making. It has to be all through me. Writing is so egotistical!
That’s when the cogs finally click, the blocks fly into place. Geez.
My soul is laughing at me because I’ve been so stupid. Now, without any prompting at all, a new (old) narrative voice flows. It spills out, it tells the same story but in a new / unique / comfortable / energetic / relaxed / thrilling / natural / controlled way.
Where’s my narrative voice? Here it is!
Will it work for my novel? Who knows. Will it fit in with the plot I’ve got? Christ, I hope so! Does it reflect something inside me? Yes. Does it fit with my character and bring him to life as I see him? Yes.
Finally, triumph. Just a small one.
But now I feel like I know him better than ever, like he’s merged with my brain and my heart, a weird, hybrid of writer and character, real and non-real.
Don’t forget – you’re inside, I tell him. I’m controlling this story, pal. You might be the main character, but I’m the writer and this is my narrative – my voice. Get over it.
He smiles at this, I think. Amused. Smug. All-knowing, he the wise teacher and I the lowly student. And he’s only ten years old! Ha, you finally got it! his eyes say, as if he’s known all of this all along and revelled in the opportunity to enthral me wholly, even for just a short time.
Ready? I ask him. He nods and reclines, but takes my hand. I’ll say something, he explains, and then you decide how I say it and when and why. Perfect, I think. Harmony. Union. Writing. Ready? I say, but I don’t wait for his answer. Let’s go.
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