Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Lists and Things

There's something wonderfully personal about lists. Not To Do lists, although they are probably more revealing of character than I'd like to think (speaking as someone who has been known to add things she's already done just for the pleasure of crossing them off the list), but lists of our likes and dislikes.

Lists feature heavily in The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon. Written around AD 995, they are a collection of her writings about life in the Imperial Court of the Heian Dynasty Japan. Here are some of her lists:

Embarrassing Things:
A man whom one loves gets drunk and keeps repeating himself.
To have spoken about someone not knowing that he could overhear.
Parents, convinced that their ugly child is adorable, pet him and repeat the things he has said, imitating his voice.
A man recites his own poems (not especially good ones) and tells one about the praise they have received - most embarrassing.
Lying awake at night, one says something to one's companion, who simply goes on sleeping.
In the presence of a skilled musician, someone plays a zither just for his own pleasure and without tuning it.

Squalid things:
The back of a piece of embroidery.
The inside of a cat's ear.
A swarm of mice, who still have no fur, when they come wriggling out of their nest.
The seams of a fur robe that has not yet been lined.

Things that make one's heart beat faster:
Sparrows feeding their young.
To pass a place where babies are playing.
To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one's gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival.
It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of rain-drops, which the wind blows against the shutters.

Another list maker was Mary MacLane of Butte, Montana at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. On March 8th, 1901, she wrote a list of

Irritating Things:
the kind of people who call a woman's figure her "shape"
hips that wobble as one walks
persons with fishy eyes
tight garters
insipid sweet wine
men who wear moustaches
unripe bananas
wax flowers off a wedding cake
fools who tell me what I "want" to do
some paintings of the old masters which I am unable to appreciate
people who don't wash their hair often enough
a bed that sinks in the middle

These lists reveal characters vivid enough to reach out across hundreds and thousands of years. Characters with opinions and likes and dislikes. Characters we want to read about because no one wants to read about wishy washy people without anything to say for themselves. Try making some lists for some of your characters, and see how strong their opinions are.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/


Liz Fielding said...

I love these lists. I especially loved the baby birds and the gentleman arriving in the carriage. Must think of a way to use raindrops...

Totally agree about unripe bananas. I wish Tesco would get that. Really. When I order bananas to be delivered to my house, I want to eat them This Week!

redwriter said...

will you be running the course (the writing one) again later on in the year? I'm so tempted by the May one in London but it's not an ideal fit time/childcare wise. Saw you speak at Hatfield, and it was absolutely great. Jane

Jim Murdoch said...

Never tried getting a character to write a list but I did have one sit the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment to make sure I had her personality right. She was a list writer as was her dad before her:

    I pulled a sheet of paper out of the printer and began making a list.
    Dad was big on lists, to-do lists, pros and cons lists. He liked to see the problem in front of him:
    “P.O.S.E.C., Jennifer: prioritise by organising, streamlining, economising and contributing. Do what you have to do before you do what you want to do.”

badas2010 said...

Raindrops on the shutters, love it.
I used to write lists a lot when I was particularly busy in life, but now I'm more relaxed about things I've stopped doing it. Might start again though.

P.S. Just received some good news - no big C around this island!

Sarah Duncan said...

And they were written over a thousand years ago...we're really not much different, are we?

I've had my characters take one of those tests - not sure if it's the Myers Briggs - just to see if I knew them well. It was an interesting experiment. Think I did it for Nice Girls Do.

Badas - I'm so pleased to hear your good news. May all your lists be life enhancing ones.