As some may know, I recently read a book which I felt was exceptionally poor. I don’t get pleasure out of ripping a not very good book to shreds, and normally would have abandoned it within a few pages and therefore never have bothered to review it anyway
But as this was an ARC, and the trade-off for the freebie WAS to write a review, I persisted (getting crosser and crosser) till I felt sure I had enough good reasons to explain my dislike of the book
But interestingly, that very poor book, in its own way has served a useful purpose – it has given me as much food for thought as a very good book – and probably more than a pleasantly okay book, about various aspects of the writing of fiction
Something I found offended me deeply was the using of a character like a pawn, to be whisked round here there and everywhere and made to do all sorts of things to serve the author’s purpose. Well, of course all characters in a novel, or a play, or a story, MUST serve a purpose – but the best writers seem to create characters that you feel have almost become a little bit alchemical, and seem to exist outside the writer’s mind. Who is writing whom? Many writers talk of a sense of a character taking on its own life. They started with one idea of the character, but somewhere along the line it gets to feel as if maybe the writer got possessed, and manipulated, by his or her creation.
Then we start to hear not just the AUTHOR’s voice – but the character’s clear and true voice.
The author needs to in some way to surrender to his or her characters, allowing them to breathe for themselves
THAT book was the absolute reverse. Characters served some fixed and sloppy idea the writer had – and were made to do things which were totally implausible and totally wrong. I felt angry on the character’s behalf. Or, more properly, not THE character, as I had no sense of empathy with any character, but was angry on behalf of truthfulness of time, place, culture and character itself.
The book was set in Victorian England, and virtually every major female character, including the unmarried middle class ones, were casually having sex. This felt utterly disrespectful of truth. Of COURSE I’m not saying that people at that time did not depart from ‘approved morality’ – but if you do step outside society’s norms, there is bound to be some sort of internal struggle or conflict between flouting upbringing and received ideas. Sure, ONE character might challenge norms because of who they are individually, but if everyone is doing it, the writer has not properly inhabited time or place. His or her failure is a severe failure of imagination. And what is being imagined, when time, place and character are created. Why – it’s an act of some sort of empathy. Can I imagine how THIS person might feel, being themselves, in this time, this place?
And of course, that act of empathetic imagination doesn’t necessarily just end up confined to human beings in real times and places. It’s JUST as important when new worlds and creatures who don’t ‘really’ exist are created.
I remember, very fondly, a book from childhood, one of Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series, Finn Family Moomintroll. What made this work so magnificent was the reality of the characters. The vaguely hippo looking Moomins and Snorks, the earthwormish Hattifatteners and the rest never existed, but, oh my, they were true to themselves and their nature.
Of COURSE outlandish words can escape from a dictionary, once placed in a waste-paper basket which is not really a waste-paper basket at all – but, heavens, a magician’s lost hat. And you WOULD end up clearing the words from crevices and the floor for WEEKS, wouldn’t you?
I still remember (and can inhabit) Moomintroll’s pain that the solitary and self-sufficient Snufkin (a happy introvert) will need to go off on his own exploring for 6 months. And Moomintroll (and I) will miss him and be listening out for the returning sounds of ‘All small creatures have bows in their tails’ I learned a lot about loss and enduring it from Finn Family Moomintroll. AND the part of me that is forever Snufkin as well as Moomintroll!
And then…………from the worst, there are the best, who perform that act of imagination and empathy so well, that they can force you to see the world through the eyes of the very worst of people. They can make you inhabit those who make horrific choices, without excusing or condoning those people in any way.
I’m still (more than 6 weeks on) unable to let go of Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land, and the extraordinary ability he had to write a monstrous character from the inside, without ‘commenting on him’ so that whilst knowing from the off that we had someone ‘evil’, I understood from inside the drives that had created that evil, how what was good and even noble turned bad.
As in performance, so in writing. Actors may play villains (or saints), or writers write villains (or saints) but the best performers or writers do this without commenting. We make sense of ourselves TO ourselves and so, I expect, do the villainous.
It’s why, much as I love Dickens, he sets my teeth on edge with his ‘sainted’ female characters. Dora and Agnes in David Copperfield feel much more stuck inside an unreal sugar picture of women on a Victorian pedestal (an illusion) than an act of imagination by an author writing from the inside of their real lives. A painting of the surface, by an author at a distance, rather than an inside looking out.
Perhaps, at the time, it was a myth everyone longed to believe in. Our own time almost seems to function in reverse; we find it easier to understand the shadow side, and search out the flaws. But that is another story……………