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Authentic Storytelling: Writing the message or telling the story?

 

Writers have quite a responsibility when it comes to the stories they spin. We are constantly looking for the message, the bigger picture. If the good little girl gets rewarded in love, we feel like we must be good to get what we want. If bad characters are punished, we feel we must believe in that punishment.

 

But what happens when fear of the message takes over your storyline? What if you have an ethnic minority character who happens to be the bad guy? Are you a racist? What if your gay character doesn’t end up with a partner but your straight character does- are you prioritising who gets happiness in society?

 

Every web we create sends out vibrations, saying that our belief system sits within these words. And that’s not always true. Sometimes I don’t give another character a love interest because I don’t have time, or I don’t want to end it in a triple wedding like a Jane Austen tie up. Sometimes, the bad guy is just the bad guy, because you want to make it more interesting, and give them a backstory. Not because you’ve decided all people of a certain race are evil.

 

But people will call you on this. They will expect absolute answers for every decision you’ve made, when really, some of them are just based on the fact that they felt right. A friend of mine is currently trying to write a villain who happens to be gay. Now, is there a way to do this without demonising gay people? Yes, of course. But is there always going to be one person with a foghorn standing there and judging her for the choice? Probably.

 

People are complex creatures with endless facets, constantly changing and evolving. To represent one of those on the page clearly is pretty much impossible. But in writing (as in life) reverting to labels never helps anyone. My friend’s character is not evil because he is gay, or gay because he is evil. He is an evil character that serves a purpose of evilness in the story, and also happens to be gay because…well, because he is. Just like how people are, because they are.

 

And what if you don’t have a message? Or worse, if the message doesn’t fit the genre you write in? When coming up with concepts for my new novel, I’d just watched two awful movies ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’ and ‘Made of Honor’, both of which deal with the bullshit ‘We’ve been friends for years but now you’re getting married and I’ve realised I love you’ storyline. So I wanted to write a story where a girl and a guy live together, and are friends, and other people don’t get it, and keep waiting for them to get together. But they don’t. Because they’re friends. The message was there. Men and women can be friends, stop demonising it and making it all about romance because we all know that’s not true.

 

Except…well, no-one wants to read a story like that. Firstly, because it’s a story where nothing changes, and people want change, but also because people WANT the main characters to get together. They don’t care about the moral, or the message or what it means for society if we think our friends secretly want to shag us. If there’s a nice guy and a nice girl, and they get along, movies and novels tell us that they’re a possibility. And no amount of talking about the message will make that a satisfying read for people who have become used to the pattern of existing friendships in romcoms. I’m pretty sure we don’t do this in real life. We don’t look at a best friend of the opposite sex we’ve never been attracted to before, and suddenly decide they’ll do. And if we do, it’s more interesting to write about what takes that person to that point, where they are emotionally and how that affects the friendship.

 

My point being, we often feel like a story can’t exist without a message, but a message without a working story just feels like being hit over the head with someone else’s morality. Not fun. My chick lit books tend to work on the same theme, which is taking a chance and trusting someone. Do I do this deliberately? No, but I like writing emotionally distant and strongly sarcastic female characters, so the message comes naturally from how I enjoy writing. The message tends to reveal itself along the way, and if you’re already absolutely sure about what you’re trying to tell the world, well, just try and be careful you’re not hitting people over the head with it. Being able to enjoy a story, even if you don’t agree with it’s view of the world, is one sign of great writing.

 

Don’t forget my Writing for Wellbeing Workshop on 26th April, where we explore things like where our personal inbuilt narratives meet our characters on the page. If you want to explore how and why you write a little better, it’s the perfect opportunity! Plus, if you Quote: WORDPRESSCODE in an email to andrealmichael@aol.com when ordering, you get 10% off the ticket price! Bargain!

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On Dealing with Not Being a Special Snowflake: How the desire for originality can get us down.

I’m on my third novel at the moment, and it’s the first one I’ve ever written under a contract, with a deadline, and expectations and all that jazz. Usually, I write because I fall in love with these crazy people I’ve been having conversations with in my head, but this time round, it’s a bit like walking into a room of people and thinking ‘I have to fall in love with one of you tonight, or I’m screwed.’ A bit like starting a relationship before getting to know the other person. Suddenly we’re curled up watching TV on Sunday nights, and I don’t even know what their favourite colour is.

I’m into character driven stories, incase you couldn’t tell. I want to know about people, how they tick, why they act crazy in certain situations. And usually, the situations arise out of the crazy character. Now, I find myself desperately searching for places to put these characters, searching for drama, making issues where there are none.

 Issues always come from your character. The way they act, or how they think, inevitably causes problems for them. That’s what’s satisfying. Taking your average joe and sticking them on a runaway train, well, that’s not appealing to me. Not unless Joe used to be a train driver, and hasn’t ventured onto public transport in thirty years, because his wife died after being hit by a bus. I don’t care if Joe’s a big damn hero, I want his actions to have effects.

 

And here’s where we get stuck: There are an unlimited combination of people, problems and situations. However, after a while, they all seem to become the same. And I find myself accidentally using names other people have used, or having parts of a similar backstory. Is it that I’m reading more of the genre, and accidentally picking stuff up? Or is it that we’ve adapted to finding formulaic texts comforting, because we secretly know how it’s all going to turn out?

A writer friend of mine always used to have this issue. He’d get halfway through a truly brilliant project, and then find out someone had already done something really similar. My response was always ‘but YOU haven’t done it, your voice has value, it might bring something different to the table’, but now I get how he was feeling. When you’re passionate about what you do, and it starts to look fake, it’s hard to be enthusiastic. So what do I do? Throw away this book and start again? Remove any traces of anything that’s been mentioned in previous books? No. Impossible. Our influences define us, even if they’re unconscious.

 

All I can do is continue to explore my characters, hope that within them, in their histories and quirks, lies the answer to the originality of my story. Yes, boy meets girl, some stuff happens, everything’s fine, there’s drama, they’re together. There’s a reason it’s a cliche. But hopefully, at times like these, we trust that our voice really does have something new to say, even if we’re not sure how to do it.