Sunday, 5 February 2017


     In a recent interview Alan Bennett defined a good playwright as someone of whom an audience member could say 'he/she is someone who knows what it's like to be me'. Those words can also be applied to novelists, biographers, historians and anyone writing about people. It's easy when we set out on a story to get into the mindset, 'What do I want to say about this person, situation, event.' Mistake! Our characters and plotlines should never be vehicles for our own ideas, prejudices or beliefs. Michelangelo described carving a statue, not as imposing an image on the stone, but as releasing from the stone an image already within it. The writer, also, starts with what is there. This is obviously true if our stories are about real people, but the products of our own imagination also only work if they have the reality which stems from close observation and understanding. We must know what went into their making - where did they live, when did they live, what kind of a family did they grow up in, how well educated are they, what tragedies have scarred them, what difficulties weigh down on them, how much self-worth do they have? This may sound very obvious and it's certainly the sort of advice you will find in any 'how to' authors' manual but it's surprising how many of us struggle with it. In biographical and historical writing (fact and fiction), the field I know best, some authors start with a theory and set out to prove it. They are intent on demonstrating that X was a maligned hero or Y a virtuous, put-upon woman, instead of starting with research and following it wherever it leads.
     We are truth-tellers or we are nothing. We owe it to our characters to tell the truth about them and to our readers to tell the truth to them. We are intermediaries, introducing one group of people to another. We want our readers to believe in our characters, to be enthralled by them and - it is not fanciful to say it - to be open to being changed by the encounter. To misrepresent is not only poor, ineffective writing, it is immoral. If I was doing a biography of a contemporary subject and if, as a result of slipshod research or actual malice, I misrepresented that subject I would lay myself open - quite correctly - to prosecution for libel. The same holds good if I am writing about someone long dead. In fact, the offence is worse because the maligned individual has no redress.
     You might argue that, while that is obviously true for factual books, it doesn't hold for novels. We can make our characters do whatever we want, can't we? Well, we certainly create the situations they have to face but we must not make them jump through hoops just for the sake of the plot. Some writers of fantasy or romance ignore that restraint, making their heroes and heroines perform impossible feats or experience emotional traumas in the hope of thrilling the reader but the reaction they achieve will only be ephemeral. Any suspension of disbelief will not last because the shallow characters carry no conviction, evoke no deep response. When we turn the last page we should feel something of what Raymond Chandler meant when he observed, 'To say goodbye is to die a little.' That will only happen if, thanks to the author's empathy, we have really engaged with his dramatis personae. The greatest satisfaction I get is when someone tells me, 'After reading your book about X I went and read more about him' or, 'I didn't like Z but I understand why she did what she did.'
     How do you 'get empathy? Well, it certainly isn't taught in any creative writing course. No literary agent or publisher's editor can tell you where to acquire it. Reading the best authors may inspire you but their genuineness will not rub off on you. Even putting other lives under the microscope of your probing intellect won't get you very far. Involvement is the only tutor. We have to get out of our ivory towers and become vulnerable to the loves, hates, joys, fears, disappointments, sorrows and petty meanesses of others. That's why writers, including me, find it a constant challenge.

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