Sunday, 2 March 2014

For Sublime and Meaningful Writing... Tips from an Old Master

Copyright: Janet Cameron
One of the first exercises we undertake when we begin to write is the art of creating three-dimensional characters, perhaps a composite of people we know, a little from ourselves and something more from our imagination. Ideally, the result will be a character the reader can identify with. The human personality is a mish-mash of ambiguities and idiosyncrasies that make our characters real and sometimes endearing.

Involve your Reader

Most writing tutors advise against hijacking a whole, real person as a model for a central character, as it seldom works. If you have a specific motivation for your central protagonist and s/he is based on a real person, this might inhibit you from developing your character in the way you have planned. Whatever method you use to people your fiction, remember that without that all-important sense of recognition, your reader may not become emotionally involved. We need at least one character to root for. Also, remember, the reader becomes more involved when left to make his/her own judgments, rather than being told what to think.

Write About What Hurts says Ernest Hemingway

There's a postcard on my kitchen wall bearing my favourite writing quotation: "Write Hard and Clear about What Hurts." The author of the quotation is the incomparable Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), whose novella The Old Man and the Sea remains one of my favourite reads. For me, this book changed the way I viewed my life.

In simple prose, it explores what is most meaningful and painful about the human spiritual journey. Its central character, the fisherman Santiago, develops a relationship with another creature, the enormous marlin, which he hold in great respect for its courage, endurance and beauty – while trying to hunt it down and destroy it. Eventually, Santiago's central purpose shifts and the great fish's destruction is more about Santiago's pride than his hunger.

Hemingway has been quoted as saying, "I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough, they would mean many things."

Certainly, they are good and true. The fish represents religion, while the struggle between man and marlin is symbolic of the struggle for faith and meaning as the two central protagonists become strangely attracted. Although Santiago, metaphorically speaking, reels in his prize, by then it is no more than a carcass since the sea, representing life, has sent sharks to consume the beautiful fish. Santiago's greed has been punished, although his courage and spirit remain triumphant.

Interesting as the allegorical levels of this book are, it is the simplicity of Hemingway's prose that makes the characters, man and fish, especially real. There are several methods you can use to empower you to create real people to inhabit your fictional world.

Hemingway Gets Real with Body Language

Body language can suggest what a person is thinking or feeling and can be used to show how your character operates. People say one thing, but mean, think or feel something quite different. Observing body language is a more accurate barometer of human intention than speech, as explained in Body Language by Allan Pease, and although most of us subconsciously recognise and react upon these mannerisms in others, we're not always able to define them. Surf the Internet for a book about body language to help you make full use of it in your writing. Besides Body Language, Allan Pease has written other excellent books on closely-related subjects and can be found on Amazon.

Forget About Upsetting Your Mother

Making your characters deal with real-life uncomfortable, embarrassing, painful or confrontational situations presents a different challenge, often demanding a degree of personal bravery. On a Diploma Course in Creative Writing held in my home county, students were told: "Write for yourself, without restraint. Forget about upsetting your mother." (Actually, I think most mothers cope reasonably well, contrary to what their children believe.) You cannot write to the best of your ability and the depth of your understanding if you are constantly worried about who you are upsetting with your emotional honesty. It's restricting to feel you cannot choose a confrontational voice.

Emotional honesty helps promote human understanding. If we never acknowledge dark forces at work in our psyche, our sense of awareness becomes diminished; we are less rounded as people, as writers. Issues can be highlighted and opened up for discussion, helping us to know we are not alone in our anxieties.

Examine all motives from an informed viewpoint, avoiding what is contrived or self-conscious. Whatever your personal writing goal, it will always work better if it strikes the reader as sincere, real, written straight from the heart and devoid of restraint or false sentiment.

Authors you might like to read (or read again) are Harper Lee, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy, Nick Hornby, Ian McEwan.

Pease, Allan, Body Language, Sheldon Press, London (1988)
Hemingway, Ernest, The Old Man and the Sea, Scribner, (1952)
Postcard, published by

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