Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Why Writing Needs to be Real

It was the first time workshopping the new students on my courses yesterday. They're all new-ish to writing, and I think weren't quite sure of what was expected of them. But they had a go and turned in work and we workshopped. One comment was duplicated on several pieces: if it had been more real, it would have been funnier/scarier.

Writing needs to be rooted in reality. If it isn't real we can't project ourselves into the situation and it becomes distanced, rather like watching a television through a window. If the situation is real, however, we can put ourselves there. Then we can find it funny, or scary, or romantic.

So, if you take the characters on Friends, Monica is a control freak. She's more of a control freak than anyone I've ever come across, but it's an exaggeration of a tendency I see in others (not me, of course). I'm a fan of programmes like Time Team, and give me something about Ancient Rome and I'm there, but I can see that Ross takes his dinosaur enthusiasm too far, or rather, into the realms of comedy. Joey is dim, Rachel is vain, Chandler is Mr Beige, Phoebe is irritating - I mean fey. It's all normal human behaviour, but exaggerated.

Conversely, I didn't find Black Swan that scary - and I'm so easily frightened, I thought I was going to have a heart attack during Misery and had to leave the cinema. But it was about a world I knew little of, and the characters didn't seem grounded in any normality I recognised so it was harder for me to care about them.

John Irving said in an interview once that he writes the first draft full of normal people, then in the second draft he exaggerates them to make them funny. It's normality on superdrive. But it needs that kernel of truthfulness to work. Perhaps that's why I don't 'get' Phoebe - her character is the furthest away from my reality, and therefore she seems contrived rather than real.


Karen said...

I screamed twice during Black Swan (to my daughter's shame) but I'm VERY easily scared!

I totally agree about Phoebe in friends, I don't think many people could really relate to her character.

I do try and get my characters down first, flaws and all, then go back and make them funnier, though I made the mistake starting out of making them do 'funny' things rather than have the comedy evolve naturally through their behaviour and attitudes. I know the difference now!

Jim Murdoch said...

The good thing about Friends is that it went on long enough for us to get the back-stories of all the characters so that they stopped being quite such caricatures. You might find Lisa Kudrow’s latest project of interest actually. It’s called Web Therapy and the premise is that she’s an unaccredited psychotherapist who does three-minute sessions online. Some big names have supported her too. She begins as a caricature but after a few sessions we finally get to learn a bit more about her. She’s a monster. My wife and I watch three webisodes every day – they come in sets – and at first we weren’t too sure but she’s grown on us.

badas2010 said...

Thinking about my stories, they all seem to come under the heading of "Ordinary people in extra-ordinary situations".
The characters don't seem to develop much but the situations do.
Am I approaching things wrongly?

Sarah Duncan said...

Karen, that's a really interesting point about making characters do funny things, rather than having it evolve.

Jim - yes, Friends is v instructive on how as characters develop and deepen you don't need to contrive so much. Which brings us back to Karen's point.

Badas - I think ordinary people in extra-ordinary circs describes many (most?) books. It depends on genre re character development.

My own genre, contemp women's fiction, is mainly about the character development. Tolkien's, for example, is more about the world the characters are in and the characters don't change much. Horses for courses...

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