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Are the Best Characters Bad?

This Week’s Bit of String: Kindergarten boyfriends

I fell in love with a kindergarten classmate, pretty much because he helped me out of my smock in Art class. He played rough at recess and made fun of the other kids sometimes. Still, for the next couple of years I proudly let him haul me to a back corner of the library or under the slide for a kiss.

Once I tried to explain something to him in class, and he rolled his eyes and cut me off: ‘Shut up, dear.’ I thrilled inside, that he’d called me dear.

See, I didn’t like him because he could be uncouth and unpleasant. I liked him despite those things.

I believe it’s that way with characters too. This week marked the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone being published. As the series developed, Snape —‘Professor Snape, Harry’—and even Draco emerged as fan favourites among many beloved characters. However, I doubt many readers liked them in the first or second books.

My theory is, we enjoy reading about unpleasant characters because they’re different from ourselves, and they thicken the plot. But most of us only love those characters when they’ve got something else going for them. What do you think?

After all, ‘badness’ comes in different shades. So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce…

The Scale of Badness
  1. The rehabilitated
    These characters are recovering from terrible pasts, but often end up being quite good, out of guilt. Think of Magwitch from Great Expectations; Sonia from Crime and Punishment; Cassie and maybe St. Clare too, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Adam and (later) Cal in East of Eden.
Rose
‘Roses have thorns, they say…’

2. The cheeky buggers and grumpy gits
They’re not particularly pleasant, but they’re funny about it. They may be a little tortured inside, trying to hold the world at bay, or they may just be too cool for school. I’d put Yossarian here, and Rhett Butler.

3. The rebels
They have a bad reputation, but they aren’t really hurting anyone. A lot of the girls from Girl, Interrupted would be here. Anna Karenina, Holden Caulfield, Hester Prynne, Elphaba, Kevalier and Klay.

4. The bullies
They’re mean, but usually ignorant of, or indifferent to, their effect on people. When forced to confront the consequences, they may make excuses and shy away from remorse—but they’ll probably also stop. I’ve got one of these bullies in my book, and I believe through most of JK Rowling’s books, this is the category for Snape.

5. The desperate
These characters are in the opposite trajectory to Category 1 characters. Instead of powerful guilt moving them to be good, aching need moves them to be bad, possibly very bad. Raskolnikov starts out here, before moving throughout Crime and Punishment towards being a 1. Most villains probably fit here, too: Francis Davey in Jamaica Inn, Bob Ewell in to Kill a Mockingbird, Lady Macbeth.

6. The sadists
It’s rare to find characters who actively enjoy inflicting pain. They’re more commonly found in genre fiction. We’re talking Voldemort, or various serial killers from psychological thrillers.

Tipping the Scales

These categories aren’t distinct; their borders are fuzzy and crossable. And we writers have tools to tinker almost any type of ‘bad’ character and endear them to readers.

First, we give them backstory. Let’s face it, who isn’t a sucker for a character who’s had a tough life?

Second, we can give them a sense of humour. A little banter can help someone get away with a lot. (Joss Whedon is the boss of writing dastardly yet hilarious villains.)

Sunset-lit chapel
Even churches love sinners. They’d be pointless without them.

Third, give the character a degree of self-awareness. If they’re doing something hurtful, let them be conflicted about it or feel badly afterwards.

Finally, let them love. Love is the ultimate redeemer; all is forgiven once we know a person is capable of it. Sure, Snape was brave, but it’s his ‘Always’ that weakens readers’ knees.

‘Give Me Your Misfits, Your Rejects…’

These tricks manipulate readers to accept characters’ unsavoury actions, even if they don’t ameliorate the consequences. We need all the tricks we can get because chances are, we’ll keep writing about people who fall somewhere on The Scale.

There’s nothing wrong with good characters. They can be nuanced too. But we deal in accessibility and believability, and those require imperfection.

My novel Artefacts tackles religious differences. During a brief conversation, the Christian character (by no means perfect), argues for his beliefs:

              ‘Jesus actually was human, and divine, so that’s as accessible as it gets, right?’
              But He never sinned, Helen thought. Being human would be a cinch without guilt.

The guilty—whether that guilt is perceived, exaggerated, heavy or nagging—they are the ones whose stories beg to be told.

As I think this through I picture something like the Statue of Liberty. A writer stands at the foot of a giant, formidable yet beckoning Muse that guards vast frontiers of story. There at the entry point, we hold signs like Emma Lazarus’s poem: ‘Give me your misfits, your rejects, your hunched and shamed yearning for redemption.’

Do you see it too?

Leading While Female

This Week’s Bit of String: A Question for the Prime Minister

The interviewer narrowed her eyes studiously, and barely moved her mouth as she asked the question, conveying a sense that this high-stakes question was just between girls. ‘What’s the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?’ (Video here.)

In the midst of general cheering as Conservative leader Theresa May moved one interview further toward a sub-optimal election performance, I squirmed at the question. I don’t know how I’d answer it, as a ‘normal’ person. If I were the Prime Minister, I would not expect it. What bearing does it have on defending the nation from terrorists, reviving the economy, negotiating Brexit?

I doubt anyone’s ever asked the masses of male politicians about the naughtiest thing they’ve ever done.

I don’t agree with Mrs. May’s government or party. Sharing a gender does not necessitate political affinity. But as a writer I advocate, and try to practise, empathy for any other person, female or male, public figure or not, and as a feminist, I believe we should push for empowerment of every woman, regardless of her political affiliation.

Many of us notice more blatant forms of sexism against women leaders. Donald Trump’s remarks about rival presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, for example, or the threats made against female game writers. But sometimes it takes slightly more subtle forms. What are the main forms of verbal sexism women encounter in leadership roles, and how might they be more covertly manifested?

Are You a Good Witch, or a Bad Witch?

To me, the question asked of Theresa May and the subsequent backlash that apparently the leader of the country isn’t ‘naughty’ enough, reflected a Madonna-whore complex in society. If women can’t be utterly perfect, they must be objects of scorn. Or perhaps to a portion of men, women are mere sexual objects beneath it all, and these men justify the idea by portraying women as bad or dirty.

A Woman’s Place
Field of wheat while green in spring
Future wheatfield. I can’t blame the Prime Minister for wanting to run through it.

Then of course there’s the grumbling about who’s going to make men’s sandwiches and iron their shirts if women are busy doing politics. Hillary Clinton faced such heckling remarks during various campaigns.

I’ve seen men default to their idea of women as housekeepers. When I worked at a sizeable secondary school, the headteacher happened by the SEN rooms and encountered two of our specialist teaching assistants catching up between student appointments. ‘Since you’re not busy,’ he joked, ‘I’m sure the toilets need cleaning.’

Not something he’d say if he found a couple of male staff bantering in the corridor.

The S-Word

A Year Ten student once complained to me about a meeting being cancelled when our SEN Coordinator was on sick leave: ‘We couldn’t have it ‘cause Miss wasn’t in. That slut.’

My supervisor’s attendance had nothing to do with her sex life. But most insults for women do. JK Rowling recently Tweeted against the prevalent method of sexualising a woman the second she disagrees. ‘Every woman I know who has dared express an opinion publicly has endured this kind of abuse at least once,’ she noted.

Although there have been efforts by feminists to remove the sting from these insults by embracing sexuality, continuously high rates of sexual abuse and harassment mean they are triggers to a huge portion of women in some way. And you don’t get that kind of demeaning language about men, because it doesn’t really exist.

Those Women and Their Damn Feelings

In last week’s U.S. Senate hearings investigating Russian interference, new Senator Kamala Harris questioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions persistently about his refusal to answer. Later a male commentator—with equal persistence—called her hysterical. To me, her voice was level, her facial expression calm, if disappointed. I saw no emotional imbalance (although the political situation in America can understandably rile people of any sex or party).

Stencilled graffiti of a vulture atop a scribbled tree, the Conservative party symbol.
Election graffiti 2017. Mrs. May’s appearance is sometimes likened to a vulture, a type of critique I’m not happy to participate in.

Women’s comments, no matter how they’re delivered, can be easily dismissed as overwrought nonsense. When I Googled the story about JK Rowling’s Tweets, one headline read: ‘JK Rowling Goes Off on Twitter…’ The phrase going off on one indicates an overreaction. So Yahoo’s writers and editors were, however subtly, encouraging readers to ignore Ms. Rowling’s actual argument.

Men’s impulses are often a societal and even legal excuse for everything from ‘locker room talk’ to rape. Women’s feelings, apparently, provoke ridicule and disqualify them from leadership.

Clothes Make the Woman

Any public figure should expect criticism for how they look and dress. Ed Milliband eating a bacon sandwich, Barack Obama’s jeans, Trump’s ties. But while men get mocked in extraordinary moments, women are assessed for their clothing, it seems, in every appearance. Theresa May’s shoes are always drawing comment.

Of course, she may like that. She likes her shoes. Bryce Dallas Howard could run through Jurassic World in heels, and there’s no reason a prime minister shouldn’t have them. But when Mrs. May claims her shoes actually inspired another woman to get into politics? I confess it seemed a petty reason to me.

Then again, if this anecdote is true, and the woman made that comment to Theresa May in Whitehall—she’d have faced all the above challenges, and more, to get there. Either she really loved the Prime Minister’s shoes, or there’s a lot more sustaining her.

So whether they’re Tories or Green, in stilettos or trainers, let’s eschew these subtle disparagements and encourage fair and intellectual discourse about our politicians. Particularly about female ones—because who else can they count on for that?

The Most Important Things

This Week’s Bit of String: X marks the ballot

On election day last week, a diverse crew of Labour supporters gathered outside our office, wearing red and waving signs, grinning and rallying the passing cars to vote Labour. Their children picked wildflowers from the abundance sown alongside our building, and adorned the letters of the company sign. Some drivers responded with quick, ecstatic bursts from the car horn, while a few leaned on their horns for the whole of the roundabout, sounding more angry than excited. Tories, perhaps.

It was a high-stakes election, and all sorts of communication went into it. Politicians prepared statements and debate answers; reporters wittingly or not, justly or not, influenced the result. I was riveted by satire writers, meme tinkerers, and ordinary people who composed heartfelt social media posts or acerbic ripostes, finally culminating in a single cross on a ballot.

In the grand scheme of world events, that x could be the most important letter they ever wrote. Even after the votes are counted, we can’t be certain how the outcome will colour our local and national politics.

Labour supporters in Stroud during the general election
Rallying support

I didn’t get a say in this election. I’ve lived here almost thirteen years but haven’t purchased citizenship yet (it doesn’t come cheap). However, I did plant my x on absentee ballots for the American primary and election last year, and although it’s sometimes tempting to feel voiceless in that result, too—who can say? The current American president, the supposed leader of the free world, lost the popular vote by millions. Our x’s must be eating away at the administration, necessitating defensive action from the start.

We can’t possibly realise the full impact of what we write. So how do we judge its importance?

Defining Importance

Firstly, we don’t have to. Our writing doesn’t have to be important, or epic, or historically significant. We can write whatever we want, a vast array of things that can be anything to anyone, or just to ourselves.

But I think we are driven, as human beings and not just creative people, to impact the world, or our immediate circle, in a positive and lasting way. The striving for significance, or ‘generativity,’ is the pinnacle of various psychological theories on personal development. I tell myself, maybe my writing will foster empathy somewhere, will convince a few people to listen to each other and be slower to judge.

I may never know if that’s the case. Still, I’ve come up with four qualities of importance:

Longevity: The piece of writing has lasting consequences, and/or invites repeated readings.

Believability: The writing expresses something we can connect to and accept as truth—even if that truth becomes outdated, e.g. a love letter from an ex. You know it was true once, and that gives some comfort.

Motivation: It induces reader(s) to change, or gives them the strength to keep holding on.

Possibility: An important piece of writing will at least hint at hope. It’s the foundation for all the rest.

* Things an important piece of writing doesn’t have to be: long, formal, or public. *

What About You?

What’s the most important thing you’ve ever written? I started a little Twitter discussion on this, and loved reading people’s answers. Please do comment with more!

Sunlight shining onto woodland path
Illuminating the path

YA and SciFi writer Kathryn Alton wrote a short story about postnatal depression. ‘It was the only way to bleed the darkness out of my head and battle the demons in the light.’ She has kept it private for the time being, proof that the written word’s power does not depend on publicity. Sometimes the process influences us as deeply as the result.

Stephen McGrath, author of Enso and Bound in Neon, mentioned his personal statement for law school as his most important piece of writing, because it was ‘a rare time when I was unapologetically me.’ The paper asked him to write about a personal journey, and he took his chance. ‘Did it affect anyone? Me. One hundred percent.’

These answers take me back to why we write. We write to make sense of the world and clarify our path in it. There’s nothing selfish in writing something personal. It could be the work which strengthens us to write something that changes other people’s lives down the line, but it all starts within.

Andrea Stanford is Twitter’s ‘c00lestmom,’ and I can personally vouch for the accuracy of her handle, which is reflected in the incredible coolness of her kids. She considers her speech for her sister’s wedding the most important thing she ever wrote. ‘I’ve never poured myself into anything like that before or since.’

What a coincidence. Giving a toast at my brother’s wedding three weeks ago occasioned the ponderings that led to this post. I mentioned last week it was one of the most important things I’d ever written. Not because of trying to teach some kind of lesson, but because it was a chance to convey an inkling of what someone dear means to me.

When each election seems explosive, leaving us drained and slightly adrift, maybe the result we most desperately want from our writing is to illuminate where we stand on the issues confronting us, or to assure our loved ones of their value.

What’s the most important thing you’ve written?

Satisfaction: Friend or Foe?

This Week’s Bit of String: A plugless bath and cellophaned TVs

‘We only bought this place a month ago, so we’re just starting renovations,’ the inn owner tells us, through an American accent so thick it sounds as if she’s chewing something. The three-storey building smells of paint and the rooms we’ve booked have nothing apart from mismatched beds and dressers and a sole, tiny framed picture of the inn on the wall.

She points out the smart TV, and the whisper-thin curtain around the claw-foot bathtub with shower fixture. After we’ve wandered up the sparse street to the general store for a dinner of grinders, and eaten whoopie pies over a travel-sized game of Trouble, we unwrap the telly’s protective plastic to find there’s no antenna or cable so we can’t watch anything but YouTube. We can’t use the bathtub because there’s no plug or drain cover, anywhere.

White Mountains down the road, beyond the trees.
The White Mountains

But we are on an adventure; we’ve just driven through New Hampshire’s White Mountains in a thunderstorm, watching lightning pounce from black clouds, attempting to pierce a slope’s heavy leafy coat.

We’ve been wondering as we travel: What were these bedrooms used for before last month? Who forged the paths through these mountains and started it all? As my husband pondered, ‘Did they think the rest of New Hampshire was too crowded?’

As a species we require a certain amount of dissatisfaction to spur us on. As writers we need to be perpetually on our toes, slow to satisfaction with what we create. Perhaps it’s a gift to get no satisfaction. What sort of goal is satisfaction, anyway?

‘A Toast to the Groom…’

We’re visiting slightly off-season time because my brother got married at the weekend. We’ve partied and I’ve delivered one of the most important things I have ever written: a wedding toast. It was a huge honour. But how do you make a wish for two people that will apply to the rest of their hopefully very long lives?

Our Adventure Begins, wedding sign
‘To marry would be an awfully big adventure…’

In Hamilton, a wedding toast song wishes that the couple may always be satisfied. But I’m not sure about that. It seems simultaneously a low bar and an unrealistically high one. Maybe I’m scarred by the term satisfactory, which thanks to OFSTED school inspection standards sinks year by year from a backhanded compliment to an ever closer neighbour of ‘Needs Improvement.’

Recent Education Ministers clearly haven’t noticed the Latin root of the word. Satis means enough, a fact which Dickens trolled in Great Expectations when he named Miss Havisham’s home Satis House. While blessed with enough materially speaking, Miss Havisham suffered a severe deficiency in her love life. After all, while dissatisfaction sometimes motivates us to seek something better, at other times it slithers into hopelessness, enticing us to curl up and let the cobwebs take over.

Staying Hungry

Sated means an appetite has been filled. It’s supposed to be a good thing, but I associate it with the stupor following midday Sunday roasts. The sun might shine outside, my child would run around wanting to play, and everyone would just slump in front of a Formula One race. Sated but deeply unsatisfied at spending a day thus, I often ended up walking a long, three-mile circuit with my son instead.

This is Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the daytime hours. Other religions use fasting too. When we willingly deprive our bodies, it can help direct our souls and minds to seek deeper fulfillment. (Willingness is key; Maslow was on to something with his Hierarchy of Needs. If physical needs are completely disregarded, one can’t truly develop other aspects of his or her being).

A prick of hunger, a germ of dissatisfaction, may motivate us to improve, seek, experiment. How often do we feel moved to create a great work out of contentment? It’s usually need that drives us.

Writing While Hungry
The happy couple, surrounded by forest
A big world to explore.

In my latest Twitter poll, I asked writers if they’re ever truly satisfied with their work. Forty-one percent responded with Never, twenty-six percent said Not quite, and twenty-nine percent ticked the box for It’ll do. Only four percent—I think that’s just one person—chose the option Sure, why wouldn’t I be?

I’m currently pushing on through edits on a novel. There are parts I’m not sure I’ll ever be satisfied with. But instead of discouraging me, it usually thrills me to know it’ll get better. Ideas will keep popping up, characters will continue to speak, to scratch their heads and change their minds and pivot in their paths.

It would be anticlimactic to write a perfect first draft. Where’s the adventure and rewarding effort in that? There’s a line I love in Browning’s poem Andrea del Sarto, about a Renaissance artist who laments his work as being soulless despite its unblemished form. ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’

I think relationships are similar. Being satisfied by someone is great. But we don’t always have to be satisfied with them. We’re allowed to want more, to explore our partner further, to grab their hand and haul them out to explore with us. I paraphrased a line from my novel The Wrong Ten Seconds in my wedding toast: ‘May your love be at once a shelter and a quest, a safe place from which to journey forth and discover more great things.’

We need hope in our lives, and choice, and inspiration. If they’re around, I’ll take adventure over satisfaction; stormy mountains over baths with drain covers. How about you?

 

Stories on Buses

This Week’s Bit of String: Stagecoach Route 65

If you’re going to commute to work on rural buses, you need a bus buddy, or at the very least a placeholder.

I have a placeholder for my morning commute. She’s in Year 11, and we’re going to call her Ella. When I approach the bus stop in an inevitable rush, she’s already there. Through the hedges I see her bleach blond hair and baby blue hoodie over her tight-winched school uniform and I know I’m safe. The bus hasn’t been five or six minutes early instead of the three or four I make sure to give myself.

We don’t generally speak. We listen to our headphones and make polite, wordless gestures insisting the other board the bus first.

This is normal, of course, not speaking to strangers. Maintaining boundaries, erring on the side of giving extra distance because this seems more polite. Last week I posted about eliminating distance in our writing, about creating immediacy and manoeuvring the characters as close as we can to the readers. How often do we try, these days, to eliminate distance in real life? And is this a good thing, that we allow them to exist?

Case History

Here’s the thing with Ella. I’ve known her since she was in Year 2; I know her family. Not well, mind, but a few pages’ worth of stories out of her autobiography.

She was the first girl to have a crush on my son. She drew a little love note. I remember her standing near us at pick-up and drop-off times, watching, hopeful and expectant with an open-mouthed half-smile.

Hilly sunrise view from the bus stop
View over the hills from the morning bus stop

A couple years later I got a job at a nursing home where Ella’s mother was a Senior Carer. She did night shifts, and we hated starting a day after she’d been on duty. Oh, she could give sound updates at handover, but she did very little overnight to physically assist any residents.

Later, when I worked in the local comprehensive, I helped in Ella’s registration group, from when she was in Year 7, to her Media Studies GCSE class in Year 10. Her attendance was spotty. She didn’t speak much in registration, but detentions added up. Her uniform was never acceptable. She changed schools before the end of Year 10.

Hence her 40-minute, £4 bus ride every morning.

We acknowledge none of this. I don’t know if she remembers the love note she sent my son, or if she knows I worked with her mother. Maybe she’s reinvented herself at her new school and doesn’t wish to remember the old. Would we find it less necessary to maintain a respectful distance if we didn’t have that tiny bit of history?

In the last couple weeks she’s taken to fitting a cigarette in before the bus comes. The other day I saw her setting off from our last stop with a grown man who had kids of his own in tow, and I recognised Ella’s hopeful half-smile.

Going the Distance

We’ve heard about different cultural interpretations of personal space. People from certain countries might be more comfortable with closer approaches, even from strangers, that a lot of us Westerners are.

This discomfort seems to be linked to the amygdala, part of the brain relating to emotional responses, survival instinct, and memory. Tests show amygdala activity spiking when someone approaches too close, probably reflecting a deep-rooted warning system for potential danger.

On buses, though, we can’t avoid proximity. Just having a stranger in the seat behind and in front of us is closer than our amygdala would normally tolerate.

Maybe that’s why we use books and phones so prodigiously on buses and in other crowded scenarios, as this article suggests. We’re subconsciously putting up emotional barriers since we can’t put up physical ones.

The 17:25 Bus Alliance

My commute home in the evening is different. An elderly gentleman on the 17:25 Stroud to Dursley Stagecoach service has rocked the barriers we unwittingly put up.

It started with the odd comment from him: ‘Still reading that book, then?’ ‘Oh, you’ve got a different one today!’

Then he suggested charity shops where I might find more books. He

Pink umbrella floating in a drainage canal near the bus station
Umbrella caught near the bus station. I wonder who finally gave it freedom.

shouted the bus driver to a stop when he saw me running for it after lingering too long after work. I’m not the only one he looks after; if the young man with the red sweatshirt and impressive moustache doesn’t turn up for the 17:25, he gets a ribbing the next day, as do I if I’ve found alternative transport.

‘Where was you yesterday? You skived!’

‘My family met me for dinner and gave me a ride back,’ I tell him.

‘What’s this? But we were starving, you should have brought us along, too!’ The old man indicates himself and young Mr. Red Sweatshirt.

One day the weather attempted a semblance of warmth. Our elderly friend stepped onto the bus and scanned the group. ‘Where’s the other fellow? Can’t leave without him.’

Mr. Red Sweatshirt had removed his jumper. ‘He’s in disguise,’ I explained.

‘You almost had me there!’ More jolly banter ensued.

I don’t know their names, I don’t even know what they go to Stroud for. I’ve learned that the elderly gentleman likes to write little rhymes that publicise services on behalf of local doctor’s surgeries, and sometimes it even gets him in the paper. A part of me wants to know his story, but mostly I like him as he is, on the 17:25 Stagecoach 65 bus, and I’m reluctant to follow the string or turn the page in his tale.

Or am I just being lazy? I do get tired, especially by the end of the week. Friday afternoon I kept nodding off, finally giving up on the pages I was editing. At the penultimate stop, while the driver had a stretch, a smoke, and a fiddle with his phone, the old gentleman laboured from his seat and, gripping each available handlebar, walked back to see me.

‘Not reading today?’ His eyes are deep, almost fluid brown.

‘I’m just so tired.’

‘Never mind, you’ll soon be home. But you won’t put your feet up there, will you?’

‘Not exactly.’ I had a treadmill run to do, the dusting, washing up, two loads of laundry…

‘You rest for now, and I’ll make sure you’re awake before your stop.’

I’m glad he had the courage to disregard our distances, since I wouldn’t have done. Do you think we miss out sometimes by abiding by common etiquette? Should we try taking a few steps closer to each other and see what we can get away with?

Immediacy Now!

This Week’s Bit of String: I’m real, you’re real…we’re all real here.

When he was eleven my son philosophised, ‘Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who exists, and everyone else is just in my head. But then I think, everyone else must wonder the same thing too!’

I think we’ve all wondered that, particularly at the pre-pubescent and adolescent stages. Some, I suspect, never fully grow out of it. It’s hard to fully acknowledge the reality, the depth and immediacy of other human beings. While we strive to make our actual selves acknowledged in real life, how can we ensure our fiction comes across as real, too?

Making the Impossible Possible

I’ve been jousting with my novel lately. I gallop backward, take a dramatic tilt at it, assess the damage, then try again to strengthen it, shove it into a more powerful form.

Books are wondrous. Consider this quote from Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus: ‘You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of your words… There are many kinds of magic, after all.’

Sculpture, 'Some Days are Like That'
‘Some Days are Like That.’ Sometimes art encapsulates reality and makes it easier to swallow.

A book’s power, to teach, transform, or enable escape, all derives from one source: its believability. We must first believe. Readers should think they’re there, not just in the story’s setting, but in the main characters’ heads. So once I’ve made a first pass through the rough draft, tightening the plot while clarifying the story arc, then I go through aiming to eliminate distance between story and reader.

Rejecting the Passive

We’ve all been told to purge passive verbs as much as possible, to help our readers feel they’re in the midst of the action. ‘He walked’ replaces ‘he was walking;’ ‘she lay awake’ might replace ‘she couldn’t sleep.’

Apart from these usual suspects, I cull ‘flagging’ words: to think, to feel, to realise, to see… I say flagging words since they cause the narrative to flag a little, plus they mark the distance between character and reader. But they’re commonly known as filter words, and there are some good posts about why/ how to avoid them.

I’m writing in third person limited point of view, so the character dominating each chapter is clear. Any thought shown belongs to him or her, without specification.

We also have to be careful with point of view because a character is unlikely to describe their own facial expression to give clues to their feelings. Instead, I put in the visceral details of that emotion. (Here’s another article about conveying emotion more vividly.)

For example,

Draft 2: Placing the incriminating photo face down on her desk, Phoebe frowned at it and tapped her foot. It made her feel a bit sick.

Draft 3: Phoebe placed the incriminating photo face down on her desk. She fidgeted her hands in her hoodie sleeves, the cuff seams rough against her wrists, her stomach squirming too.

Don’t ask me about Draft 1.

This round of edits makes the difference between reading someone’s thoughts, rather than just reading about someone thinking.

Immediacy vs Serenity

Almost twenty years on, I see the Seinfeld mantra ‘Serenity now!’ appear sometimes on social media. When I’m editing (or writing), I don’t want serenity. We write and edit to shake things up, to jolt people awake with an extra dose of reality. The phrase sticking in my head while I work is, ‘Immediacy now!’

Southern View from the Empire State Building, including the Freedom Tower
All I kept telling myself at the top of the Empire State Building a couple of years ago: The millions of people down there are as real as I am…

Why immediacy? Immediate means ‘without delay.’ The story shoots into the reader’s bloodstream. It means ‘very close’, e.g. your immediate family; the story provides a direct connection.

The Latin origins of the word Immediate can be interpreted a couple of ways. There’s the root medium, meaning ‘middle’, so it means putting something in the middle. It also breaks down to mean ‘not intervening,’ using the prefix im as not, and the root mediate: to intervene or negotiate. Making our work immediate makes it uncompromising, clear, smack dab in the middle of the reader’s path.

As Wallace Stegner’s somewhat autobiographical main character toasts at an impromptu picnic in Crossing to Safety: ‘Let us be unignorable.’

It takes a lot to achieve believability. I’ve outlined my method later in the process. Do you have any tricks to share? Do you have different priorities altogether when editing?

My son summed up his musings on reality thus: ‘The only person who can prove your existence is YOU. But you can only really prove it to yourself.’

The first part of his concluding statement reminds us how high the stakes are. The second part… well, as writers, we have to believe that isn’t strictly true. We have to think we can work magic.

Inclusion Versus Appropriation

This Week’s Bit of String: A thriving literature festival in a tiny Cotswolds town.

Hawkesbury Upton hosted its third annual literature festival last week, featuring among many other events a panel on ‘Writing About Difference.’ I went along to hear seven people who had written about firsthand experiences with disability or chronic illness. They were carers or had disabilities themselves, writing in fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, for children or adults.

The Inevitable Appropriation Question

Someone asked the panel how they feel about other writers with less personal experiences, writing about characters who have disabilities or illnesses. Concerns over appropriation and mainstream publishers’ sidelining of ‘Own Voices’ are prominent, particularly following Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech at Brisbane Writers Festival last year.

The panel generally responded that it’s necessary to have some knowledge. If you don’t have it, get it. If you’re not sure, ask someone to check. Moderator Dan Holloway emphasised the importance of sensitivity. ‘If you see no risk that you will offend, then you’re not the right person to write this.’

House up for auction in Hawkesbury Upton
I couldn’t resist taking a few photos while in Hawkesbury Upton.

We need to be aware of our characters and the resonances they carry. We may think we’re being grand and inclusive, but assuming that we’re portraying something correctly could be arrogant. If we’re taking the time to fully consider what our characters have gone through, if we’re getting to know and love them as we should, we’ll be aware of the risks and take precautions to avoid them.

A couple panelists seemed dazed by the question, and it occurred to me that in a way, making this an issue is selfish of us. Some of the speakers care for children with disabilities and parents with dementia, and spouses with mental illness, all at once. They don’t have time to assuage our artsy worries. We must ensure we don’t see them as potential plot devices, existing only to provide feedback on what we write about their difficulties.

‘Help us…’

The Hawkesbury Upton session got awkward when a prim older woman in the front row posed directed a question Jo Allmond and her grown up daughter Jess Hiles. Jess writes children’s stories based on her experiences living with learning disabilities, and gives educational talks. Despite these achievements, Jo had just told us that sometimes when she accompanies Jess to appointments, the professional will take one look at Jess, assume she can’t communicate, and speak solely to her mother.

‘But why shouldn’t they assume she can’t communicate?’ the front row woman asked. ‘She looks different, you’ve said as much yourself. If I were to approach any of you others on the panel,’ she addressed Dan and Thomas Shepherd, who’s written a novel called Mr. Tumnall and also happens to have Aspergers, ‘and speak to you as if you were normal, you’d take offence, even though you look normal. It seems to me that people in your situations almost want to be offended. Obviously we can’t expect you to wear a label informing us of your capacities, but how can you expect us to know them? Help us, we need you to help us.’

Rustlings from the audience, fixed smiles from the panel. I immediately detected the acute, uniquely English fear behind the woman’s question: For the love of God, don’t let me embarrass myself by offending somebody. I felt for her a little bit. I know people enslaved to that fear.

However, she neglected to think, even in the presence of these exceptional people facing terrible struggles, that worse fates can befall someone than embarrassment. In obsessing over her desire not to be perceived as offensive, she was genuinely offensive.

Tulips in Hawkesbury Upton
Tulips in Hawkesbury Upton.

While the speakers reassured her that basic, respectful communication (Good morning, isn’t the sunshine lovely today?) probably won’t bother anyone, the woman decided her point hadn’t been fully made. She wasn’t getting the help she wanted.

‘But you’re communicating for your daughter right now!’ she informed Jo. ‘She’s clearly not able to respond without you.’

Now, that’s crossing a line. I could see where the first question came from, misguided though it may have been. But how can someone insist that a person right in front of them is unresponsive, after being told that’s disrespectful and untrue? Jo and Jess had been answering in tandem, and let’s not forget that there are nonverbal means of communication.

‘Everyone’s Disabled’

So there was more backlash to that one. The panel kept impressively cool. Another lady in the audience, pink-cheeked and breathlessly earnest, stated, ‘I would like to suggest that we’re all disabled, we’re all restricted in some way.’

The audience liked this, and murmured assent. I wish I’d caught the panel’s faces at that moment, because the well-intentioned sentiment bothered me, and I imagined it might have bothered them.

Certainly, we all have problems. That’s why we need empathy! But a disability or chronic illness is a specific type of challenge. We wouldn’t say to a widow or widower, ‘Well, we’ve all lost somebody.’ We wouldn’t tell a refugee, ‘Well, we all have to relocate at some point.’ Okay, a few people might. But I don’t think that lovely woman would say those things.

So let’s not appropriate other people’s problems in perhaps an effort to diffuse our embarrassment or sense of survivor’s guilt.

How Can We Actually Help?

Buy and read books from all sorts of writers and listen to their Own Voices. Jo Allmond worked with another of the speakers, Joy Thomas, to publish Silent Voices, a wonderful volume of poetry from often overlooked people coping with disability. Thomas Shepherd’s book Mr. Tumnall sounds clever and intriguing. Check out Dan Jeffries’ memoir of coping with a rare medical condition, and don’t miss the children’s series Jess Hiles created, Jess the Goth Fairy. Follow Dan Holloway’s incredible Dandelion Project. Read Debbie Young‘s blog and books to see how a talented writer with first-hand experience depicts the journey of her family members with Type 1 Diabetes.

Stone pig statue and milk bottle outside Hawkesbury Upton door
A small town still life outside a Hawkesbury Upton door.

And as always, when we write let’s use well-rounded characters, and let them drive the story rather than be single-issue flagposts. LISTEN, observe, research. We should be doing that anyway, with any issue.

In my stories a few people happen to have mental illness or disability. Those are just parts of them; they have completely unrelated experiences that delight and move them. Because I’ve spent so much of my working life close to amazing people who cope with these challenges, it’s inevitable they’ll appear in my writing.

In The Wrong Ten Seconds, for example, the main character’s wife, Harriet, is paralysed and speechless after a stroke. He and his daughter struggle to care for Harriet’s physical needs while treating her mentally if nothing has changed. It’s a difficult balance, and one that writers about difference try to carry out. As the daughter says: ‘If we keep pretending Mum’s not in the state she’s in, don’t we risk minimising what she’s going through?’

Finally, let’s not seek a simple answer or a quick reassurance on this issue. Disabilities are tough–thankfully, the people who cope with them are often tougher. The balance between including diverse characters and appropriating those experiences from diverse writers never should get easy, so we need to maintain high sensitivity, and keep listening.

 

Liberal Arts: Where Do All the Bleeding Hearts Go?

This Week’s Bit of String: Crosses made of sliced cheese

For Easter when I was in kindergarten, my mother cut slices of processed cheese and bologna into crosses, chicks, and egg shapes to share with my class. The school found this contribution offensive. I remember her crying over it, as she hung up laundry. We lived in a very small, seemingly homogenous New England town, but it couldn’t accommodate her humble gesture of religious expression.

As writers, we hate feeling voiceless, we hate for minorities to feel voiceless, and we should hate for religious communities to feel voiceless. I’m not endorsing the narrative of the American ‘War on Christianity.’ There’s no comparison to what a lot of BAME or LGBT people have suffered. But have you noticed a dearth of well-rounded religious characters in literature? Could this absence be feeding the fear we ‘liberals’ have of conservatives? Could it be curtailing our empathy?

Perpetuating Literary Stereotypes
Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral, October 2015

I’d like to see characters like my mother in literature. Someone with unparalleled patience, raising the four children she gave birth to in five years, and working for over two decades with special needs students, often at least sixty hours a week—while dutifully living out beliefs some might view as intolerant. Someone who believes abortion is murder but who was devastated by Christian leaders’ support of a racist President who condoned sexual assault.

Instead, it feels as if religious characters in fiction are generally incarnations of Archdeacon Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo’s villain, tormented by hidden lusts, was probably a shocking revelation at the time. I’m not sure the prototype still is. In films and books, do we not at this point expect the Republicans and evangelicals to be baddies?

Admittedly, there have been appalling religious figures throughout history. One can understand the rage against clergy in, for example, Irish fiction such as The Glorious Heresies, or The Secret Scriptures. And in America especially, Christian culture, perhaps partly out of a sense it’s not welcome in the mainstream, has isolated itself to produce its own books on its own presses.

This isolation becomes cyclic. The church is the kid on the playground who has to keep his clothes clean, so he doesn’t join in football. The other kids assume he doesn’t want to play anyway—especially if he tells them they’re getting too dirty—and he resents them carrying on without him, and the gulf widens. So mainstream literature and heavily conservative, Christian literature may seem to prefer the separation. But if we consider ourselves liberal, should we ignore a whole subset of our culture?

Studies on Liberalism Versus Conservatism

Before justifying the alienation by saying Republicans are ignorant, are overly attached to their beliefs, and probably hate us too much to engage, consider these intriguing studies.

Research shows that conservative minds are more attuned to fear. Is this a cause or a symptom of conservatism? Scientific American describes how mounting scientific evidence of conservative risk awareness could explain their stereotypical attachment to rules and even nationalism.

St. Cyr's Church on Stroudwater Canal
St. Cyr’s Church on Stroudwater Canal, Palm Sunday 2017

It also explains their tendency toward idea-driven storytelling. While some conservative commentators like this one on The American Conservative website remind their fellows that using literature to mould public morals ‘leads to art becoming a mere tool, a means to an end, rather than an end in itself,’ a group will find that irrelevant when they perceive themselves under threat. Republicans (who got eighty percent of evangelical support in the presidential election) are completely in control of the American government, but fundamentalist Christians believe in Heaven and Hell. The majority of people they meet are eternally damned. If they have any compassion, they’ll try and save them with everything they do, every word they write. How could they care about trivial things like character development and artistic expression?

Here’s another surprise from a wonderful study described in The Guardian, in which literature professors researched thousands of Goodreads profiles and found over four hundred books which conservative and liberal readers frequently liked in common. Encouraging, but when they looked at the reviews, they found conservative readers were ‘more generous’ and used ‘less negative or hateful language’ than many of the liberal reviewers. We liberals can be snobby and cynical—who would have thought?

In Twitter discussion, science fiction writer Grace Crandall observes that we tend to detect biases against us: liberals see conservative bias, while conservatives see liberal bias. We’d all rather be wronged than in the wrong. But we have to rise above that as artists, and try to understand each other, as she suggests.

What is Conservatism, Really?
Church and phone booth
Juxtaposition in Dursley, Christmas 2016

Everyone’s conservative about some things, and liberal about others. We all have things we don’t want to change, and things we seek to explore and improve. Micah Mattix, in the American Conservative article, reminds us genuine conservatism is ‘deeper than a political orientation; it is a temperament, one that looks to the past with reverence and the future with trepidation, and which believes that human nature is not easily changed or improved.’ Skepticism of contemporary culture is not exclusive to Republican-leaning authors.

Indeed, when we write we should examine any stereotype, even the idea that Republicans are always grouchy old white men. We write to conquer fear, perhaps our own fear of being voiceless, and it’s always worth finding characters to give voice to. There are Republicans and/ or evangelicals who strive valiantly to live up to their own standards, even if these standards manifest themselves in ways that look strange to us. In my book Artefacts, two of the protagonists are Christians, trying to establish friendships outside the church despite being convinced their acquaintances are hellbound. Religious characters don’t always have to be so dramatic; I liked the pastor and the churchgoing protagonist in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. They were portrayed as normal people, with normal family and livelihood struggles, who happened to have a bit of faith. That’s incredibly rare in a current book, and why should it be? We’re writers. We can take on anything.

How to Write a Classic

This Week’s Bit of String: Risky book rescue

Induction week at my new job. We’re told to introduce ourselves with quirky facts.

A woman who immigrated from Russia once ran into a burning building to rescue a book. It was a rare, century-old encyclopaedia of horses.

Of course, my quirky fact is that I’ve written a novel (or two or three…). I practise my elevator pitch on them. The youngest newbie among us, who’s apparently won baton-twirling competitions, says, ‘I’d definitely read that.’ I assure them it’s worth saving from an inferno.

There’s a man in the group who’s never seen a single Star Wars film. I wonder if he feels left out because of the constant references to it. I’ve been wondering the same about people who have never read the classics. Is foundational knowledge of literary classics worthwhile? Does it help one better appreciate other arts and literature? What does it mean to be a classic, anyway, and might we write one ourselves?

Defining Classics

With help from Merriam-Websters, we can construe classics broadly if we choose. A classic sets a high standard in a particular form—any form. Therefore, Star Wars might not be a classic like Citizen Kane or Casablanca, but it can be a classic Sci-Fi film, and books from any genre can be classics, too.

Brighton hotel on the site of Dickens' favourite inn.
I’m the sort of classics nerd who photographed this monstrous Brighton hotel just because its Blue Plaque told me Charles Dickens enjoyed staying on this site.

The strictest definition applies to literature of ancient Greece. These works influenced Shakespeare, who arguably enabled the evolution of most fiction. They are more pervasive than some might realise, frequently revived in cinema and even young adult books, plus forming the basis of our vocabulary with phrases such as siren, Oedipal complex, and Achilles heel.

In the Twittersphere, Leslie Scott gave me this wonderful definition: ‘If I instantly think “I want my kid to read this” … it’s a classic. There has to be a life lesson I need to share with my child.’ This allows classics a personal nature: we choose our own individual canon.

It also brings up another necessary quality: Classic literature conveys, often with impressive (if intimidating) scope, its originating time period. The Iliad tells us about political and religious alliances of ancient Greece. Bleak House portrays socioeconomic Victorian issues, even lampooning religious charities, and depicting the plight of women to an extent.

When contemplating which books we want out children to read, we also consider what we want them to learn from the times in which we’ve lived.

Updating Classics

So what books do we read today that might become classics of the future? Claire King, while admitting classic literature can be interesting from an ‘art history perspective,’ feels contemporary literature is more resonant. I agree there is a more accessible, sincere vein in today’s literature (including Claire’s gorgeous book The Night Rainbow). But do they resonate only with our contemporaries, or humanity throughout the ages?

With an increasing push for literature to be inclusive of social class, sexual preference, and ethnicity, today’s great works could have more staying power. The lack of diversity in some classics makes them seem ‘dull and patriarchal,’ Rita Gould tweets. Classics should be broad enough to at least acknowledge all aspects of a society.

Classic Features:

Characters: The protagonist should be particularly memorable, strong, and the perfect messenger. Elizabeth Bennett, Harry Potter, even flawed Miss Havisham or Macbeth are unforgettable because their roots are clearly mapped, forcing us to wonder if we, too, could be swayed.

'Nevermore' Jack o'Lantern inspired by Poe's The Raven
I’ve also been known to nerdily base jack o’lanterns on classics.

Setting: A classic boldly recreates its location. It will devote pages, almost give the setting its own voice. The Congolese jungles of The Poisonwood Bible; Arundhati Roy’s portrayal of Kerala in The God of Small Things, shown through children’s eyes without glossing over political unrest.

Message: It’s tricky to balance with character, and is perhaps what puts people off the original classics. A classic must convey an idea. In my opinion, Romeo and Juliet’s characterisation suffers for being idea-driven, but the message about love’s (or infatuation’s) power lives on. More contemporary writers like Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, etc, better strike the balance.

Scope: We may groan at their size, but classics use their heft to diligently represent their culture. It enables Tolstoy to follow up on characters of various social status in Anna Karenina (although I’m still miffed he barely bothered mentioning the eponymous heroine in the last section). It enables Michael Chabon to interweave characters of diverse races and proclivities in Telegraph Avenue.

Detail: While covering broad topics and sweeping settings, a classic also offers telescopic detail rendering its populace and landscape vivid—including cultural landscape. Contemporary writers aren’t shy about teasing references to society’s peculiarities, and nor were traditional ones.

A bit of string: Most classics take their great shape from the slightest twist. Modern examples—the discovery of an unsent letter in Byatt’s Possession, the demise of a cheeky parrot in Love in the Time of Cholera—are slimmed proportions of ancient Greek ones: Paris falling for Helen, Jocasta heeding a prophecy about her infant son.

There are more options for defining classics, as listed in this excellent New York Review of Books article. Put together, by writers of any time period, they make books we hope our children will cherish, books worth saving from the ravages of time—and fire. What are the classics of your life?

 

Writers with Day Jobs, Part 3: Goodbye, Post Office

This Week’s Bit of String: Letters to Putin

If you were a cultivator of stories, working in a post office, would you find yourself quite curious about what you were helping people send? I’ve always been quite numb to the letters and parcels—professional or perhaps just zombified—but sometimes my curiosity is truly piqued.

‘I need to send this letter to Russia.’ The soft-spoken piano teacher puts the envelope on my weighing scales. His thick, square glasses glint in the fluorescent lights.

I stamp the letter. It’s meticulously addressed to the Minister of Justice in Moscow. ‘I keep seeing these today,’ I tell the piano teacher. ‘What’s going on?’

Letterbox near Park Gardens in Stroud
Letterbox near Park Gardens in Stroud

He informs me Russia has begun proceedings to label Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists. So the steady stream of polite, earnest customers posting letters to Russia’s Foreign Minister, Prime Minister, Justice Minister, and even President Putin himself—are attempts to reason with the enormous state.

I had no idea. And that’s just one thing I’ve learned working at the post office. I shall take my leave with a little mess of weird but possible story threads.

Grief, Observed

A pale old man collects his pension from the post office every Monday, his fingers trembling as he tries to remember his PIN. One week he told me his wife had cardiopulmonary disease, and a bad car accident a couple months before while returning from a hospital appointment certainly didn’t help. But he smiled as he said, ‘I know all about being a woman now, since my wife’s laid up. Running about doing all the work! Tell you what, if I have to come back as something when I die, I hope it’s not a woman.’

Monday comes around again. ‘It’s beautiful out today.’ The man says as his fingers jitter, uncertain, an inch above the card reader’s keypad. ‘The sun was so warm in our garden.’

I ask how his wife is doing.

‘She passed away yesterday morning. Sixty-three years we were together. I used to call her my little ray of sunshine…’ His voice is hoarse.

I’m nearly moved to tears myself. I’ve worked in a nursing home; I’ve seen bereavement and death before. But it’s different seeing it ‘in the real world,’ watching someone stricken so recently go through the necessary motions. At the post office, I’ve had to tell relatives we can’t ship human ashes to distant loved ones (apparently it’s a fire hazard). I’ve certified copies of death certificates, and helped bereaved parents close their late daughter’s bank account—the mother quietly explaining what she needed, the father sitting in the waiting area staring straight ahead.

Stories aren’t just big moments; they’re little ones. They’re how we drag huge burdens through each tiny step.

Beyond School Doors

Likewise, I’ve seen disability before. I’ve supported secondary school students with all kinds of difficulties, who worked tremendously hard to get through the schoolday. Once again, the post office showed me a different perspective.

Village Post Office and shop
This is not the Post Office I worked in. But I wonder if their mini-dramas would be so different from ours.

A girl in her late teens or early twenties comes to my counter, taps her ear, and utters ‘Deaf.’ She slips a note under the heavy glass partition of my ‘Fortress’ (that’s literally the Post Office terminology for the secure cubicle). She needs a box for posting a jacket to the USA, the note explains. I take her to the stationery and show her what the shop offers for packaging. We communicate with hand motions and the odd inarticulate noise. She seems pleased with the selection.

I think about how it must feel, forced to introduce oneself in such a way; to be immediately distinguished by what some might perceive as a deficiency. What bravery and resourcefulness surround us, and we barely even realise.

My previous jobs have inspired a great deal in my stories, as I’ve gotten to know students, colleagues, and nursing home residents very well. In the post office, interactions are fleeting, but still colourful and informative. It’s a lesson in efficiency. If my imagination can be so fuelled by a two-minute encounter, maybe I could shoehorn my observations into a flash fiction piece. My notebooks bristle with label-backs and till roll fragments scrawled with funny place names: Bald Knob Ridge, North Carolina. Thistley Hey Road, Liverpool. Runaway Heights, Jamaica. Thanks to these, I could still feel, despite being locked alone in a ‘Fortress’ at the back of a perishing shop in a town classed as a ‘Rural Area of Deprivation,’ that the world was at my fingertips. Not just geography, but the realm of words, with its truly infinite possibilities.

What windows does your job allow on the wider world?