Monday, December 12, 2005

Strange moments

Playwright Harold Pinter has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His Nobel lecture - titled Art, Truth and Politics - is available online, as both video and text. It's an interesting and powerful speech. Most reports of it have focused on the political aspect - he is highly critical of the Iraq war and US and British actions - and I agree with most (but not necessarily all) that he says. However, I don't talk a lot of politics on this blog, so we won't go into that ;-)

Pinter's comments about his writing were also interesting, and I was struck by this paragraph:
It's a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author's position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can't dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind man's buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.

The logical, rational, reasonable side of me used to point out that of course the author has control over the characters - we can make them anything we like. And we can. We can give any character any attribute, any history, any talent, strength, weakness, that we choose.

However, the author in me - the humanist in me - learned pretty darn early that while that is true, it doesn't necessarily make for good characters! Yes, we can make a character do anything we choose - but will it being in keeping with the character? Will it contribute to the character's growth? Will it build the reader's understanding of the character? Will it make this character a whole, real, believeable person?

I've mentioned in an earlier blog that I tend to start with an emotional impression of a character - sometimes arising from a scene that I've dreamed. And, while I wouldn't use Pinter's terms to describe my own process of 'discovering' the character, I do relate to his comment about the 'strange moment'. Because for me, there is a character there from that first moment - an emotion, a sense of how the character is, even before I know who they are.

From there, I use both logic and emotion to discover more: why does the person have that reaction to the situation? What sort of person would be in that situation? How did they get there? What are their choices from there, and why will they choose one path over another?

As an example, I've been thinking recently about the story arc that will cover the three books in a loosely-linked romantic suspense trilogy. In book 2, the hero has been working with two others, one of whom gets killed on page 1, throwing suspicion for his betrayal on the other - a female MI6 agent. That character was created out of a logical plot process, but straight away, without knowing anything about her, (not even that she would be the heroine of book 3 at that stage), I had a sense of a character - an intelligence agent that someone who worked closely with her wasn't sure he could trust. Someone damn good enough at her job to be assigned to an important cross-agency project, but reserved and distant, so that the hero in book 2 doesn't know what to make of her. Someone tough enough to have survived ten years in international field operations.

I wondered about her relationship with the character who got killed - and knew straight away that they had been lovers of sorts. Lines appeared in my head: 'You had a relationship with Dom?' 'No, Dom and I had a war. But one night we got pissed together and forgot all the reasons we shouldn't screw each other stupid.'

It fits for plot purposes, but it also fits the characters. She's had to be hard and tough to survive; not the sort of person to allow herself the weakness - the vulnerability - of caring easily. Just the sort of person that Dom would get under the skin of, beause he's not the kind to give up easily. (Damn shame I killed him off!)

So, while I don't feel as Pinter does that characters resist me or don't welcome me - I'm pretty clear that they're my creations, not independent entities in their own right! - I do experience that process of discovering them, of getting to know them, of using logic, imagination and subconscious processes to find out who they are. But it's not a purely logical, rational process, and I do get surprises and challenges - like the small voice that said to me, a top female MI6 agent may well have been used to assassinate dangerous targets... Oh, yes, now that would complicate a character, wouldn't it? Someone whose colleagues believe is capable of killing in cold blood... someone whose lovers had died... someone isolated from others because of who she is and what she's done...
...But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.

That's the second strange moment for me - that moment when I discover something so key about the character that they become fully real, even if there may still be much to unravel.

And those are the moments when writing is really exciting and wonderful - even while I'm thinking, 'An assassin heroine? Oh, shirt, how the hell am I going to pull that off?'

1 comment:

Lyn Cash said...

She lives! I haven't blogged in so long but thought hm...wonder if Bron is back at it.

Enjoyed Pinter's comments but think I like yours better. Your characterization is quite good (this CP enjoys them anyhoo), and it's intersting to see your approach.

Hope you're having a good day/evening. Hugs...

Sunny Lyn