I recently* watched an interview with author John le Carré, in which he spoke at length about life as a spy versus life as a writer and the importance of story and character. Stories, he said, are “the ultimate escape: the fictional world is the one in which you really want to live”.
Now, if ever there were two careers likely to make one an expert on fiction versus reality, I’d say spy and novelist would be the ones! And le Carre’s assertion on stories is certainly true for me – the fictional worlds I travel to are invariably more interesting than my real life,** but more importantly, they tend to make a lot more sense; I am somehow more deeply involved in, and often inspired by, fiction in a way that I’m not always by my blander meatspace existence.
I wonder is this escapism true for everyone in the way that it is for those who write and work with stories? Le Carré wasn’t just talking about the daydreams in which surely every human indulges. He meant the particular finely crafted fictional worlds of books and film – populated with people so lifelike you can imagine them stepping off the page and down the street.
Stories help us to understand reality
I have spoken before about people who resist giving up their hold on the real world. And I frequently encounter those who are dismissive of fictional fancies. Yet we have always made sense of the world through stories; we’ve always taught children and societies through myth, parable and fairytales.
Many university courses, particularly the oft-looked-down-upon Arts courses, still do so.*** Not just English, but philosophy, culture, sociology and other subjects are all taught with one eye/ear on stories to get the message across and clarify different concepts. In part this is also to show students and readers the different ways there are to read various books and texts, but these are important lessons too for writers who want to learn about hidden layers, messages and triggers in a story.
This week Linda Morris wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald about the Australian army’s prescribed reading and film lists****. “Reading lists,” she writes, “are assembled by military forces to help soldiers understand the history of conflict, develop critical thinking and navigate moral and ethical questions.” Here is a prime example of fiction – albeit based on and bolstered by real life encounters and non-fiction materials – being used to help people come to grips with the real world. The realities and complexities of war are such that simply explaining the facts are not enough to prepare a person for it. We need stories to bring things to life; to enhance understanding.
It is sometimes easier to relate through fictional characters – whose inner thoughts and turmoils are often more clearly defined than those of a “real” person ***** – and consequently it is easier (as a reader or a writer) to untangle your own thoughts, feelings and experiences through their stories. And yet these days a lot of people would say that fiction isn’t the place to get life lessons. It’s all just someone’s imagination. How sad, they say, to live your life in books and not experience the real world. You can’t really connect with a fictional character, they say.
Readers need characters to be real
Countless tales have been written where fictional characters come to life. And plenty of people talk about how much they wish certain characters were real. The fact is someone wrote that character, that experience. Even if entirely invented, the author must have drawn on something to pull that creation together: their own human emotions, or traits they’ve seen in others.
Many authors’ writing tips include putting together files or boards for each character, including their backstory, traits, appearance, tastes and so on. It’s important to note barely any of this goes into the actual story but it’s enough to help build the character into three dimensions in the author’s own mind – which means a lot of things will, or should, bleed through as they’re writing the story proper. It also means there is a frame of reference already built in when that character needs to react to a situation or interact with other characters.
Of course this technique won’t work for everyone – many writers are dedicated pantsers, working entirely without notes – but even if you keep it all in your head, you need to “know” your character if you’re going to wrangle him or her (or it) successfully on the page. This background is handy to prevent characters simply performing “actions of convenience” that move things to a necessary plot point but are otherwise out of character or lack sufficient motive. It means that if someone has to ask the question “why did he do that?” there is already an answer.******
This level of detail is why authors so often talk about characters writing themselves – not all of them spring to the page fully formed, some require careful creation by the author – but once you know them well enough, your characters may almost speak for themselves. This also means that when it comes to editing, your editor will also be able to spot inconsistencies in a character – even though they may not have all the background knowledge you do as the author.
So do writers
The irony in all this is that while the fictional world may be more alluring, the best characters are true to life; they are drawn on real people, real experiences – even if one single character is a mishmash of several real people. Le Carré suggests writing these characters can be an opportunity for the writer to explore themselves, noting that “in the reinvention of oneself you get the therapy of making character”.*******
Good writers are generally good observers, taking in all levels of detail from the world and the people around them – from dialogue overheard in cafes to altercations and misunderstandings between friends.********
The most convincing characters are believable because they draw on reality. Of course there are extremes – the serial killers you’d hope are not actually based on the writer’s true experience – but again the most memorable tend to be the most human. What makes them chilling is their charm, often the fact that you can imagine this person, responsible for such reprehensible crimes, could be your neighbour, your friend, even your lover. They share traits with people you, the reader, actually know.*********
Of course there’s further irony in the fact that while they strive to create realistic worlds – and even the fantastical ones must in some ways be realistic – many writery types often joke about their personal obliviousness to and inability to interact with the real world.********** Again, I would point to the real world’s dismissal of those who work with fiction as perhaps a reason for this sometimes-awkwardness; for example, the glazed expressions from people bored to death when one waxes lyrical about a beloved story or thrill of getting the words to align Just Right.
Fictional characters never judge you for this passion.***********
Stories and fictional characters are often what make some of us get up in the morning and keep us up at night. They may be our own creations or someone else’s, but though they’re not often accorded the same respect, they’re things we take as seriously as other people take their own jobs. (Perhaps more so in some cases, because some people hate their jobs and don’t care about them at all.)
Caring this much is hopefully what makes good stories. You care about the fictional as if it were real, because sometimes you wish it was. And ideally you want your reader to have the same yearning. If le Carré is right, and the fictional world is the one in which you really want to live – or the one in which you’d like your readers to want to live – then you have to make it real.
Do you get lost in your fictional worlds? Do characters write themselves onto your page? Or are you one of those terrifylingly well-adjusted creative types who can compartmentalise and socialise with the best of them?
*Recently = months ago. It was one of the extras on the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy DVD.
**Not a challenge. Even the most creative writer would get limited mileage from the exhausting adventures of editor-sitting-at-desk.
*** Anything from Shakespeare to The Matrix can be used to explain complex philosophical ponderings…
*****Because real people don’t have their own separate author, or a draft and edit function. Well, unless you want to be metaphorical or philosophical about it…
******Of course if someone is asking that question when they shouldn’t, that may not be a good sign. Make sure any excessive background you have kept wrapped up tightly away from the manuscript has a little more air to breathe and circulate.
*******And really, there is no better place to start when asking a character to perform a certain feat than by asking yourself what you would realistically do or say in the same situation. If you don’t like the answer, decide which one of you – you or the fictional character – needs personal development/therapy.
********You need to watch out for this. Some writers will warn you that anything you say can and may very well be used in their next book. I once made the mistake of mentioning an altercation I was involved in, forgetting I was at that moment standing in a room full of writers. I quickly found myself surrounded by a selection of eavesdroppers clamouring for a detailed anecdote, which both my stage fright and my conscience failed to provide. However, this was a handy reminder that writers are always listening and anything you say to, or near, a writer is fair game.
*********As indeed do real serial killers, apparently. Neighbours and friends are frequently reported as shocked that the quiet unassuming person on all the news channels is the criminal described.
**********This tumblr post by Neil Gaiman is the perfect example.
***********Unless you write them that way. In which case I refer you to the above footnote. Not that one. The other one.