Learning to Write XVII
When I was at college, too many years ago now to recall coherently, I remember an essay assignment which prompted me to write a portrait of an old guy who used a piece of rope to hold up his trousers. It was an objective depiction of the character, done in almost the same way that an artist might make a quick sketch with a pencil. There was no dialogue and no developing narrative. The tutor asked me later if she could keep the piece, as it would be useful to use as an example in other classes.
I remember little more about it but I remember that it worked at least as an introduction to a character. It set a mood around a man and it left the reader the freedom to elaborate and to ask questions. What was the history of the man? How had he come to this position in society. It may even have prompted a mood of compassion in the reader, but if not quite that, it certainly gave rise to some feeling of empathy.
This portrait was not of someone I knew or someone I was acquainted with. There was not then and there isn’t now, anyone I can name who might have served as a model for the portrait. I certainly knew people who were poor. Most of my friends and relatives at that time would have fallen under that heading. But I didn’t know anyone who couldn’t afford a belt.
I can’t tell you exactly where the portrait of this character came from. But I’m certain that he wasn’t, like Adam, created from a handful of dust. I’m a writer; I’m not God.
I believe that writers know their characters before they are created on the page. The character we all know best is our own self and it is often alleged that the characters in a novel are merely representations of the varied facets of the writer. There is at least a little truth in this, but most writers use some common sense to transform what they know about their own self and filter it through their every day experiences.
We make collages. From what we know of our own self and of our grandparents and parents and siblings and our children. We take parts of people in the street, someone we see on public transport or hear of on the news. We lift snippets from biographies or histories or films or from the fiction of other writers.
Sometimes this acquisitive process is conscious. Sometimes it is subconscious. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it results in a coherent whole. In a portrait that has the ability to move and talk and breath and maintain a credible psychology throughout the length of the fictional tale that he or she inhabits.
Our characters are given depth and enhanced credibility, perhaps a certain empathy by those who meet them in our pages, by their actions, and by their attitudes and by the way they use language. Later in this series we can look a little at the mechanics of how these facets of character might be handled by an experienced author.