I think there are essentially two elements to writing: telling a story and telling the truth. Ideally, your work has both. But how do you know what’s the truth and how much of it do you need to tell?
Let’s take an issue that’s in the news at the moment, alleged child abuse by members of the establishment: MPs, rich businessmen and royals. So far, the story has mostly comprised accusations followed by strident denials. A fairly typical denial made by the establishment is in effect that a lord or a prince or a noble lord could not commit such a crime because, well, they’re a lord or a prince or a noble lord.
The police, the investigatory commission, and the press will seek the truth and perhaps eventually claim it has been found. What they mean is that it will be determined that X establishment person committed Y crime against Z vulnerable person. But there are perhaps other truths to uncover here, ones that may be of more interest to a writer.
One is tied up in the question: is a prince, a noble lord etc actually a better person than the guy who empties their dustbins? Now, you could take an answer to this direct from the characters concerned, and it would probably be ‘No’. Or you could look at the same characters’ behaviour and their setting and the way their society reacts to them, when the answer would have to be ‘Yes’. In fact, it could be reasonably argued that if members of the establishment did not deep down believe this, then there would be little point in accepting the knighthood, the royal birthright, the place in the House of Lords to begin with; or indeed to bother aiming for those things.
If a writer intends to tell stories that are founded in truth, he has to make his mind up about this kind of question. If he doesn’t, he can still write a story about say establishment types but it will lack moral foundation. Which doesn’t matter at all if the person reading it also lacks moral foundation, or wants to put it aside for the duration. There are enough readers after all to ensure that a writer with talent and no moral foundation can make a living.
Maybe the complication here is that we tend to think we are one belief, or thought, or view, and that such singularity lies somewhere inside us, in our soul say. When we need to decide about an issue – or write a character for a story – we simply open the well-oiled lid of our singular views and draw out the tools needed.
But I suspect that in actuality our beliefs/views/thoughts are only very partially inside us, and not as singular as we think. Much of what we call ‘me’ is a constantly shifting matrix that makes links to views that live outside of oneself, in a social, tribal, national ether that is actually more ancient and stronger than any individual within it. For many people, these links are not very robust, which is convenient because it means we can shift emphasis to whichever of them suits our current needs.
So it is that a politician is offered a bribe by a local businessman who wants to disguise his criminal activities. Instead of pulling on his link to what is wrong with crime, the politician instead thickens up his link to the perception that the crooked businessman’s products are actually useful for people. Or, if that isn’t possible, he’ll switch to his link to the wisdom that ‘everyone would do the same; and in my case I’m helping to protect local jobs’.
There is something of a mystery about how writers who produce great, memorable characters, do it. Or why many other writers can’t: somehow their characters are never more than story puppets.
I believe great character writers instinctively know they have to let their characters explore this ever-shifting (morally, emotionally and mentally) matrix. This risks contradictions in behaviour – something a lesser writer is terrified of, for he knows it will undermine the logic of his story. Of course it’s those very contradictions that a reader loves. But only if they make character sense; that make you think: “What did he just say? – Oh, yeah, okay, yes: he would say that.”
To be able to write this way, I believe a writer has to develop the right kind of self-honesty. Not self-effacement, for that is often too passive. He needs to feel joy at his own ignorance and capriciousness.
This is the opening to my story, ‘Big Dave’s In Love’:
I skip down the street like I got sherbet up me backside. I sweep me arms wide and sing to the pigeons and the cats and the bespectacled mice what study form under the bookie’s shop floor.
“What’s up, Jack?” says one of the cats.
I should hold back the news, at least until I make it to the public bar of The Airpod and Nanomule. Then again, everyone in Gaffville deserves to hear the glad tidings.
“Big Dave’s in love!” I shout, so loud I even gain the attention of the rebellious rooks on the multi-coloured cogni-nylon thatched roofs. Other less cynical birds whoop and coo and shake their feathers in sheer joy. And I do a leap to click my boot heels together because this is what we’ve all needed to save us, ain’t it the truth.
Gaffville’s pavements change colour from doomy brown to cheerful gold as I pass, sensing my mood of altruistic delight. In the transpods, high above the roof-tops, formerly morose citizens wave splendidly down at Jack who is no doubt grinning like a dog with jam-covered balls.
For I am Big Dave’s batman, and if I’m hopping down the street wearing a grin as wide as the boss’s waistline, then perhaps they won’t be doomed to melt away, into the general bio-electro-mechanical sludge that washes across all but a few patches of life on this poor, tired planet of ours.
You can read about the story and find a link to all of it here:
The success of this opening – for me – is what I had to do to write it. Which was to occupy the character of Jack then let his links, connections, thoughts, inclinations and above all his need actually produce the words. I should probably point out that this does not of course lead to big sales. It did win an award, though, and I was really pleased that the editor got it.
I wrote the opening passage then took a long time to finish the story. I’d written the first part by throwing myself inside the main character, taking my morality links with me. This meant I stood a chance of making some new and interesting images and language, and I had to trust that if my moral spine was strong enough it would automatically steer Jack so I and he could be free to let him go with the flow.
After a fairly spontaneous opening it can be difficult to continue. I think this is because morality and fun only get you so far. After that you have to build a story structure. And the problem with that is that any good story structure is rooted in morality. If it isn’t, all you’ve got is a house with no hearth. But it’s your own moral hearth that should be powering the main character. If you switch it to the plot, he’ll lose it and become a character without a hearth.
This, I believe, is the core of the struggle a writer can have to turn a great opening into a gripping story that not only doesn’t lose the excitement but builds on it. And just maybe the secret to doing this is to let your own moral core be split evenly between your main character and the plot, so that they drive each other.