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The wise woman and the fool

The wise woman and the fool

This email is something of a follow-up to last week, so if you didn’t like last week’s missive, I strongly suggest you ditch this one IMMEDIATELY before you LOSE ANY MORE OF YOUR LIFE to what I can only honestly describe as PURPOSELESS NONSENSE. If that means you aren’t sure how to spend the next four minutes, let me offer you:

Right, then.

Knowledge and ignorance.

We all know that it’s important to give your characters character. So, we think about:

  • Physical appearance
  • The way the person dresses
  • Their close relationships
  • Their job
  • Their childhood and family background
  • Their special skills (riding? Martial arts? North Siberian dialects?)
  • Their memories
  • Their objectives
  • Their values
  • Their personality

And so on.

And good. All this is good. It’s necessary. If you haven’t done this good, patient, multi-dimensional work, you need to do it. The more you know the character, the more that knowledge will flood your writing.

Some of the things you know about your character will almost certainly enter your writing directly. (Your protagonist had a hideous car accident on a level crossing when a teenager? An accident where he was at fault? Where others were seriously injured? You’ll almost certainly want to let that life-defining incident seep into your story somewhere.)

Other things may not directly enter your writing. Your character grew up in a Wiltshire village? He can still remember the blue curtains with yellow flowers? The lumpy bed? The low cottagey ceilings? The hens from next door who used to invade their summer games of cricket? Well, some of that might get into your book, but a lot of that knowledge is simply there if you need it. It’s on hand, accessible.

The simple guideline is: Your knowledge of a character is sufficient, when anything you care to reach for is immediately present.

To be sure, there’s a sleight of hand involved here. It’s not that you create a stock of knowledge before you start to write and are limited to that stock as you proceed. On the contrary, it works more like this: you develop your imaginative knowledge of your character to the point at which the thing you need (the memory, sensation, response, clothing choice, observation) leaps to mind the moment you need it. It’s as though you reach up to get a cup from a shelf and the act of reaching creates the cup.

The thing that’s key here is simply: is the option supplied by your imagination right for the character? For the story? Has a specificity that seems personal rather than general? So there are plenty of people, for example, who grow up in English villages, but there’s something unique feeling about the exact blue-and-yellow curtains / lumpy beds / cricket ‘n’ hens combo.

OK. All this is good, wholesome stuff. But what I really want to talk about is ignorance and uselessness.

When I made a list of character traits above, you won’t have balked at my inclusion of ‘special skills’ on that list. If you made some kind of character inventory before starting to write, you almost certainly ticked that box.

But what about ignorance and incompetence? No one is a genius at everything. No one is even ordinarily competent at everything. The great philosopher may be a dullard in the kitchen. The martial arts ninja may have terrible taste in clothes. Or (to think of a character close to my heart) a genius detective may well also be:

  • A terrible cook
  • An underwhelming girlfriend
  • Forgetful of extremely basic facts about her own life
  • A very undependable cleaner
  • Unnervingly unpredictable in conversation
  • As infuriating as she is brilliant
  • And so on

The gaps are at least as interesting as the superpowers, and perhaps more so. If you create a character with one or two superpowers (a martial arts ninja who is also an acclaimed sushi chef) that character will inevitably seem a little flat if there are no deficiencies to offset the accomplishments. Your character will always have an air of fantasy about him or her, and that air of fantasy prevents proper connection with the reader.

Another issue is the loss of the opportunities for humour that idiocy offers. There’s a particular joy in relishing a character’s idiocy just a page or two after you’ve relished their brilliance.

And –

Really, the secret of good writing is to force a reader to engage deeply. The deeper that engagement, the more attentive the reading, the more fully that book will satisfy its audience. And if a story keeps tacking between “Wow, how did they accomplish this?” and “What kind of an idiot would do that?”, the engagement is more or less guaranteed.

Now, to be sure, I work with a highly coloured character and these things are more visible with such characters. But still – an illustration may help make the point, even for people who run with more everyday characters. So, I once wrote a fight scene that had Fiona in ninja mode: breaking a bad guy’s jaw with astonishing speed (and after astonishingly little provocation.)

Those kind of fight scenes are standard thriller-fare. But then Fiona gets incredibly shaky. Walks to a bus shelter. Has an inane conversation with the only other person there. (Him to her: ‘Are you all right?”. She to him: “I don’t know.”) Then she walks smack-dab into the Plexiglass wall of the shelter and bruises her forehead. Goes home, has a bath. Smokes a joint. Does some real detectiving (phoning round hospitals to see if she can find the man with the smashed jaw.) Keeps pressing the bruise on her forehead because it reminds her that she’s real. Then calls her boyfriend and has a flirty conversation with him, which she knows is somewhat fraudulent (she’s only high because of the fight and the shock afterwards.)

It’s just not possible to steer an orderly path through this lot. You can’t just go, “Oh, Fiona’s great at everything” or “Fiona will certainly behave like X”, because the truth is that she’s just not predictable that way. The deficiencies in Fiona’s character keep setting potholes in the way of a more orderly progression.

It’s the same with knowledge. Fiona’s knowledge of the law and police procedure is exemplary. Her knowhow around certain sorts of law-breaking is alarmingly high. She knows plenty about cannabis cultivation. She has pockets of surprising knowledge – history, geography, books – but there are huge gaps too. She knows not the first thing about cooking. She’s ignorant of anything mechanical. She has no dress sense and no interior design sense. She doesn’t know anything about popular culture. (In a very early tale, she had to puzzle out, slowly, that Clint Eastwood was a movie star.) Her grip on office politics and gossip is erratic at best.

The result of this is that the reader can’t predict my character’s journey. Not from the start to the end of the book, but not even from the start of the page to the end. That means the reader has to pay close attention, or they’ll miss something. The more predictable your character is, the easier it is for the reader to start skimming.

And skimming is death.

That’s more or less it from me, except that – while we’re on the subject of death – please do read the PSes below before you start setting any part of yourself on fire.

Oh yes, and it’s Good Friday next week, which is an actual holiday, so I’m going to take an actual holiday. That means no email from me next week. Normal service resumes the week after.

Til soon.


PS: That setting yourself on fire thing? It’s real. I have set my arm on fire and it’s fun. I can’t advise you to have a go – in fact, please don’t do it, because it’s obviously unsafe. But if you are fool enough to do it, then do it outside. Make sure your arm is thoroughly wet (with ordinary water, not butane-spiked water) before you start. And have a plunge bucket (again, ordinary wet water) ready for emergencies.

But, yeah, better not to do it at all.

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  1. I’ve just finished writing an article on how Charles Dickens made his characters, so this hits my buttons. One thing that Harry doesn’t mention is language. Nearly all Dickens’s characters have a distinctive idiolect – a manner of speaking, or a catch-phrase. Think of Joe Gargery’s ‘Wot larks, Pip! Wot larks!’ D. isn’t known for understatement, and sometimes (especially in the early novels) it becomes tedious, but giving a character some eccentricity of speech can be very effective. It seems to be rare in modern fiction, however, and I wonder why. People don’t all speak the same. Could be an interesting experiment, and it would surely liven up passages of dialogue which are often depressingly FLAT.
    Happy hols.