One of the things about becoming a writer that doesn’t agree with everyone is the isolation. If you look at various writing blogs (and indeed any sort of creative freelance role, from illustration to graphic design) you’ll notice this as a common theme. It can be a lonely business. My friends sometimes rib me that I spend too much time in coffee shops, tapping away at the laptop like some kind of hipster blogger, supping mochaccinos all day. It’s not quite true of course. the reason I go to coffee shops at all these days is so I can see another human being; recharge the batteries; change the scenery.
But this post isn’t about coping with loneliness. I generally do okay with that to be honest, and my significant other gets home each evening from a ‘proper job’, so it’s not like I’m the last man on the international space station or anything. No – this blog is about the benefits of extended periods of isolation. It’s something that has only recently hit me, as it’s started to help me figure out a few things about characterisation in my work. Sounds like a leap? Read on.
Write What You Know
It’s an old cliché isn’t it? Write what you know. It’s a very limiting mantra if taken literally, but I tend not to take anything literally, which is why I do what I do. ‘Write what you know’ doesn’t mean you have to write a kitchen-sink drama set on an estate in 1980s Stoke-on-Trent (that’s a personal example, I’m sure yours will be different) – it means you can take the relationships that you had, or observed, and the feelings that you felt, and transplant them to outer space, a fantasy world, Victorian England (my favourite), or wherever/whenever.
But the point where the old cliché really helps is with characters. And this is where I start to make an actual point – isolation has helped me to understand myself, and understanding myself has helped me to write better characters.
I’ve always reacted to the world with gut feeling, rather than intellectualised, rationalised viewpoints. That’s often left me grappling for the right words to express my views on politics, religion, society, art, education – whatever. But lately I’ve been giving these things and more some serious thought, drilling down to my core beliefs and really analysing what makes me tick. This allows me to do three very important things in fiction (and in life, to an extent):
1. I can be absolutely sure that not all of my characters are me by extension. They can all contain facets of my personality, share some of my beliefs, if I want them to. But characters need to portray myriad viewpoints, and be complex individuals butting up against ideological conflict. Otherwise, I may as well write essays rather than stories – inform rather than entertain.
2. I can observe people with a writer’s eye. It sounds pretentious, but really it’s just me paying attention to my interactions with other humans, and their interactions with each other. People come from all walks of life, and believe all sorts of things – when you meet someone whose views conflict with your own, how do you react? How do they make you feel? Only by absolutely understanding myself do I gain a point of reference by which to measure others.
3. I can write situations to create conflict. By understanding my personality type (and there are lots of esoteric tests you can do if you want to get really technical), I know what situations cause me stress, or pleasure, or intellectual stimulation, or tiredness, etc. And I can rationalise how those situations would affect different types of people. This means I can put my characters in situations that elicit a particular response from them (usually stressful ones in my work, if I’m honest).
I read an article yesterday about world-building in sci-fi and fantasy. You can find it here. The bit that struck me the most was point 4 – that a common mistake in sci-fi is that every denizen of every world thinks, believes and acts the same. It’s almost as though the aliens that live on Rigel VI would never go down the pub and argue about UKIP’s political agenda – they just all vote the same way. But humans, of course, are as diverse as they come.
Another thing all this introspective navel-gazing has taught me is that it’s actually dangerous to be an author with controversial beliefs and put those beliefs into your fiction. L Ron Hubbard, for example, ended up seeding his religious ideology into his sci-fi novels (some people call that sort of thing ‘subversive’, you know. Watch out for that). I read some old Richard Laymon stories recently, and because the treatment of his female characters is pretty much universal across his books (and hard to read), it starts to raise questions about the man’s beliefs – ‘Is he accidentally expressing his core beliefs about women, or is he doing it deliberately to make a point?’ As soon as you start asking that question, suspension of disbelief is broken, and you start to wonder about the author’s agenda. Art and ideology should be considered separately to an extent – I reserve the right to write a Catholic character despite not being terribly religious, or even a well-rounded racist character, without being labelled a racist myself (though if he goes on to become a hero without learning his lesson, the work may well be labelled 'problematic', and rightly so). Then again, some writers come from the opposite angle, and make it really difficult to justify buying their books, however hard they try to hide their agenda. I digress. Let's keep it light...
Hopefully, amid that waffling and sidetracking, there’s some useful musings, based entirely off my own experience over the last 12 months. A lot of this stuff boils down to empathy – understand yourself, and empathise with others. That way, simply through day-to-day interactions, you’ll end up with an infinite bank of characters and character types that you can draw on when writing your characters.