Monday, 9 September 2013

Spoilt for choice - thoughts on inventing character

The Balzac quote above : "It is as easy to dream a book as it is hard to write one" says it all.

When I started to plot my story for the new novel, I chose victims and their murderers without knowing why in every case, though the starting gambit was fixed (though I still don't know who did it!). A crime story needs victims. The problem was how to connect the murderers. Sane people don't kill without a motive, but where do you get motives for people you are just inventing?
Back to Sherlock Holmes, arguably the first literary detective who tussled with evidence (however meagre) to get at a logical motive. Without a motive, no crime!
I know there are lots of tactics for sorting all this out, and I make notes whenever I get a new idea or find an explanation for something I have put into a character. This invariably means retrospective writing and probably explains why this device is so common. No story can get by without looking over its shoulder, so to speak. Of course, sagas about families move on steadily, but the active characters owe a lot to the past, even if it is not really talked about. What we did in childhood, how we were treated and educated, our friends and other people in our lives all contribute to what we are now. The same applies to fictional characters. What's more, since human nature hasn't changed, let alone improved, in thousands of years - evidence in history of murder, rape, intolerance etc confirm this - humans are going to think and act as they always have, be it fact or fiction! 

So next step in the search for the guilty is to make a list of their reasons for committing their crime(s). Without that solid background, a character is not going to be believable. 

Not being about to believe or even imagine someone could commit this or that crime has hampered many an investigation. Also the fear of  being an accessory can lead people to keeping crimes committed by others a secret. A good example of this is the cover-up of paedophiles by the church and in children's homes. It has all gone on for centuries and was acceptable practice until recently - acceptable to those condoning or indulging in it, that is. Where children should be able to expect kindness, respect and protection, they are subjected to the perverse desires of criminals. In one in four private homes (a conservative estimate) the children are physically, mentally and/or sexually abused. Partners keep quiet about it in order not to lose status, financial security and - even more shocking - respectability. Innocent parties turn a blind eye to or do not even realise what is going on. Relatives are protected from the law. Children cannot cry for help because they are made to feel guilty by the guilty.

My book is a harmless village crime novel, a story about the people there. Whatever is subversive about the crimes is carefully hidden in the dialogue. I don't want to add to the debauchery in our world by celebrating it in a fictional piece of writing. And actually, I don't expect to sell the books I write. So why write them in the first place? 

I've asked myself that question many times. I think it's because nearly half a century living in a country where few speak my first language, and where my opportunities to speak it are few and far between, I need to go back to basics. It's almost like talking to myself. I've always read aloud. I remember reading poetry by Longfellow at a very young age. My father would come into my room and tell me to read more quietly. I think I declaimed everything in those days. Now I sit quietly and let my fingers do the talking - out of my head into the computer. 

Blogs are a good thing. I regret bitterly that I never kept a diary, but writing a blog brings many things to mind, and re-membering (joining together again) is part of life. Losing one's memory must be catastrophic. Where does the future go if not guided by the past? 

An excerpt from Longfellow's epic poem Hiawatha (visit the above link for more):


You shall hear how Pau-Puk-Keewis,
How the handsome Yenadizze
Danced at Hiawatha's wedding;
How the gentle Chibiabos,
He the sweetest of musicians,
Sang his songs of love and longing;
How Iagoo, the great boaster,
He the marvellous story-teller,
Told his tales of strange adventure,
That the feast might be more joyous,
That the time might pass more gayly,
And the guests be more contented.
  Sumptuous was the feast Nokomis
Made at Hiawatha's wedding;
All the bowls were made of bass-wood,
White and polished very smoothly,
All the spoons of horn of bison,
Black and polished very smoothly.
  She had sent through all the village
Messengers with wands of willow,
As a sign of invitation,
As a token of the feasting;
And the wedding guests assembled,
Clad in all their richest raiment,
Robes of fur and belts of wampum,
Splendid with their paint and plumage,
Beautiful with beads and tassels.
  First they ate the sturgeon, Nahma,
And the pike, the Maskenozha,
Caught and cooked by old Nokomis;
Then on pemican they feasted,
Pemican and buffalo marrow,
Haunch of deer and hump of bison,
Yellow cakes of the Mondamin,
And the wild rice of the river.

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