Writing against the grain

New writers are often told: ‘Write about what you know.’

It’s a fair point – except that it doesn’t leave much room for the imagination. And isn’t imagination at the root of all creative writing?

I guess the central characters of most novels have more than a little of the author in them, as do many of the lesser characters. Some readers assume that writers often take a real person, someone they know, and pop them scarcely altered into the novel – presumably because they haven’t the imagination to ‘invent’ their own characters.

It has been known to happen, of course, especially when an author sets out deliberately to write a ‘roman à clef’, perhaps satirising an aspect of contemporary life. And I myself have sometimes used a tiny bit of someone I’ve met – a character trait, a mannerism, something about their physical appearance. But that’s all.

Mostly we invent our own people – though I don’t feel ‘invent ‘ is the right word. I’m not sure where they come from, but in my experience the characters in a novel have a life of their own, an existence that has nothing to do with anything outside the author’s head and yet is real enough to be sometimes – often – beyond the author’s control.

Many of the characters who inhabit my books are also nothing like me. In writing about them, I am writing utterly against the grain of what I am, trying to imagine what it is like to be that person. Oddly, I’ve often found myself rather liking them. AThreadOfGold JPEG thumbnailCharles in ‘A Thread of Gold’ is a case in point. He’s a slow-witted, devoutly Catholic and thoroughly reactionary aristocrat. Yet the person who emerged as I wrote is somehow good, admirable and (to me anyway) completely likeable. I hope my readers feel the same when they meet him. I’d hate them to feel otherwise.

Then there’s Rowland in ‘The Last Ballad’. Before writing that novel I had a rough outline of the story, knowing where it was going, where it would end and who the characters were.  I began to write. I got to the end of Chapter One, having introduced all my main characters – Jenny, the heroine, mourning her lost love; her dying father, her lead miner brothers; and Edward, the well-to-do Anglican curate, coming to Weardale for the first time and not much liking what he saw. He was to fall in love with Jenny, and she with him, causing immense disruption in her family. So far so good.TheLastBallad2

Except that it wasn’t. I sat down to begin Chapter Two – and found I just couldn’t write a word. Until I realised that I’d missed someone out of Chapter One, someone I had not even dreamed of until then. So I had to go back and bring him in – Rowland Peart, marching into the book and completely changing the story. So much for all my careful plotting! What emerged at the end was a very different book from the one I had initially conceived.

It’s a strange world we writers inhabit, where our heads are crowded by many diverse individuals, some of them completely alien to what we are. I’ve often wondered if writers are in fact ‘normal’ people at all. But I suppose that’s not for me to say.

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