An accomplished novelist and short story writer, and a professor of creative writing at the University of Warwick, A. L. Kennedy understands the perils of relying on real life to draw your fictional characters. In this extract from On Writing, Kennedy describes the responsibility of invading a reader’s space, and how not to fill your fiction with the ghosts of your past.
It would hardly be fair if a reader was asked to expend mental energy and invest their interest in a fiction inhabited by characters who seemed unfeasible and frankly less interesting than the genuine, human people they could be meeting and interacting with, if they weren’t suffering through this or that dreadful book. Hopefully, the effect of a finished character will be convincing, involving, idiosyncratic, natural – in short, real. There are, of course, schools of thought which maintain that providing fully formed characters is just pandering to the reader.
And it should be.
We, as writers, are intimately intruding upon the reader. We set our words inside their minds. Whatever else the reader could have been doing with themselves – the daydreams, plans, happy memories, erotic fantasies, all the fun a person can have with their own head – we want them to leave that and read us instead, listen to our voices, our stories, meet our people. It’s not unlikely that, in addition, the reader will have paid for our work, or at least have gone to the trouble of stealing it from a shop, finding a library that still contains books, or picking up our volume from where it would otherwise have been languishing, perhaps under a vandalised bench, or stuffed down the back of something with a back. The reader deserves our best attentions; without them we would simply be indulging in extraordinarily florid episodes of self-love. We need the reader. The reader needs to be convinced. So we should surely try to offer them illusions that convince.
As readers ourselves, we can appreciate these illusions as something wonderful: an opportunity to do the impossible, to see through another’s eyes, experience another’s world. Perhaps because of this very sense of wonder, the process of creating characters can seem mysterious, if not a little miraculous, even to those who have already begun to write. Consideration of any working narrative makes it clear that a character’s identity and psychology will almost invariably influence tone, voice, imagery, the whole fabric of a piece, so it’s clear that the stakes are very high, that a grasp of character is essential for an effective writer. Nevertheless accessing, exploring and then making a character manifest can appear to be an overwhelmingly difficult task. It need not be, but a number of misconceptions and misunderstandings may stand in our way.
Personal experience may, for example, be suggested as a handy source of authenticity, perhaps because of the tediously repeated ‘advice’ imposed upon new authors: ‘Write about what you know.’ Many people are still unacquainted with the unabridged version of this advice: ‘Write about what you know. I am an idiot and have never heard of research, its challenges, serendipities and joys. I lack imagination and therefore cannot imagine that you may not. Do not be free, do not explore the boundaries of your possible talent, do not – for pity’s sake – grow beyond the limits of your everyday life and its most superficial details. Do not go wherever you wish to, whether that’s the surface of your kitchen table or the surface of the moon. Please allow me – because I’m insisting – to tell you what to think.’
Rather better advice – should it be absolutely necessary to offer any – might well be: ‘Write about what interests you. Write about what excites you. Write about what speaks to you. Write about what obsesses you. Write about what you need to. Write about ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼what outrages you. Write about what alarms you, but won’t leave you be. Write about what you love. Write about what you feel you may come to love. Write about what you can come to know.’ All suggestions that can be useful when we begin to work with characters.
A few readers – and a percentage of journalists and academics – believe that a character’s reality comes from a type of theft. They feel that the writer must wander about, stealing the attributes of relatives, friends, lovers and so forth and then passing them off as inventions, or – indeed – parading them about as comments on relatives, friends, lovers and so forth. Of course, there are such things as romans-à-clef and they are a very good reason for never marrying a writer. Then again, the fact that they have a special, French name might suggest that they are in some way unusual and that there is a method of building fictional personalities which does not rely on a variety of body-snatching, followed by some more or less ugly sewing and patching, à la Victor Frankenstein. As writers, we must all make our own personal decisions about how safe the secrets of those close to us will be, how private others’ privacy will stay, whether we want to keep our relatives, friends, lovers and so forth, treat them well and not utilise them as subject matter.
We may also consider how merciless we will be with the material of our own lives. I would suggest it might be a good thing if – forgive me for being frank – the choices we make don’t mean we eventually become soulless and rapacious shells, pumping all and sundry for sordid incidents, the centre of our personalities and experience translated into no more than material. There’s a fine line between paying attention, being stimulated and inspired by reality, and simply using it as something to cut and paste. Naturally, whether any of us is always absolutely on the right side of that line is sometimes questionable. There may well be days when you catch yourself staring inappropriately, noticing.
And then there’s non-fiction – but we’re not dealing with that here.
On Writing by A. L. Kennedy, (Vintage) is out now.