Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Visitors From the World Called Imagination - Ellen Renner

‘Where do ideas come from?’ It’s the one question you’re bound to get during a school or library visit. I’m always truthful and say I don’t know. Oh, the disappointment in the eyes of that future author in the third row who sits, pencil poised, hoping to be gifted with the secret of story. I offer comfort in the form of tips on how to generate ideas and catch them before they fly away, like Roald Dahl’s BFG scooping up dreams in his net and bottling them, and the child is satisfied.

And, for me, there is a sense of disaster averted. I truly hope that no clever, obsessively inquisitive neuroscientist ever cracks the mechanics of creativity. I don’t want to know where my ideas come from, I just want to spy them fluttering past my eyes at unexpected moments, like translucent, technicoloured butterflies. Actually, I have a superstitious fear that if the magic process is examined too closely, it will wither away under the white hot glare of intellect. Some things grow best in the dark.

The origin of characters is even more mysterious to me. There’s a wonderful, darkly funny story by Diana Wynne Jones called Carol Onier’s Hundredth Dream. It should be required reading for all writers, especially those whose characters have a habit of hi-jacking the story.

I remember typing the last words of the final scene of my second book, City of Thieves, and feeling an overwhelming sense of bereavement. I had spent a white-hot six weeks glued to my computer, writing sixteen hours a day to get the story out. Not because of editorial deadlines but because Tobias, the main character, refused to get out of my head until I told his story. And it is a good story. Compelling and heart breaking. And although I know I created that story and remember long sessions working out the plots and reveals, it still feels as though Tobias told it to me.

When I’d done the deed, and written the last word, I lifted my aching fingers from the keyboard, looked round my extremely untidy study and suffered real grief that these characters I had lived with so intensively for a month and a half did not actually exist somewhere … in some alternative world. I believe I actually cried.
I always tell that story with a slight worry the men in white coats will be sent to talk with me by kind well-wishers, but I’ve come to believe that, for me, it perfectly illustrates why I write. It’s all about the characters.

Oh, you do need plot. And pacing. And themes … and all the other lovely mixture of ingredients that are so much fun and make up the craft of writing well. But characters are the heart, the soul, and the ‘why’ – at least for me. But where do they come from?

Some writers (I know, because there are whole chapters in ‘how-to’ books and entire units in creative writing courses dedicated to the subject) draw their characters directly from life - observing people they know and those they don’t; taking notes, adding, subtracting, rubbing out and re-drawing, until they have the characters they need to populate their plot.

I don’t do it that way. I start with a concept, an idea, a theme. After that, the characters form a casting queue outside my mental door. Of course, they must also be drawn from life – from a lifetime of observing people, of reading books obsessively, of watching television and film. But I don’t have to build them mechanically. They seem to create themselves as I put the first chapters down, and tell me their stories as I write. It truly does seem a form of magic.

I’m in that delicious, tantalising stage of a new book. A book I’ve been waiting nearly six months to start. As the time approached when I knew I’d be clear of other writing commitments and able to begin this new project – a shiny new strong idea that I don’t want to mess up – I was torn between anticipation and fear. I was wracked with the classic anxiety: had I forgotten how to write my own stories? Would I be good enough to tackle this big idea? Would the words come; the plot? And – especially – the characters?

A few weeks in and anxiety is easing. I’ve become caught up in my own storytelling web. Or, to put it more accurately, I’ve fallen in love with my characters. They have arrived, wholly-formed and real, from some hidden part of my mind, and are living their lives on the pages as I write. I’m enjoying their company tremendously. They’re teaching me about their world, about pain and strength and courage. This time, I do have a deadline to meet; I know how long I have to be in their company, and am already dreading the day that I will type that last scene and raise my head to look around a strangely lonely study.

16 comments:

karen said...

Achingly beautiful blog post, Ellen. My god, woman, you can write! I totally agree about characters. Time and time again, I have the most fun and enjoyment with my secondary characters. They don't have to carry the bulk of the story so they can be all sorts of things - usually naughty and with a decent amount of back chat, in my writing!

Stroppy Author said...

This is lovely, and so resonant. It's like those weeks after birth, isn't it, when you feel lonely in your own body?

Savita Kalhan said...

There is simply nothing like breathing life and soul into your story, with all it's agony and joy! Great post, Ellen.

Abi Burlingham said...

I loved this post Ellen, because it immersed me in the feeling I get when writing - that enthusiasm you feel for a new project and for the characters who will bring it to life. I can relate to your reluctance to let the characters go too - it is a sad moment and I think possibly the best thing we can achieve as writers, is that our readers feel the same way.

Luisa Plaja said...

Wonderful post, Ellen. Thank you.

Penny Dolan said...

And it' so hard to explain that you're grieving for an imaginery person too! Lovely & thoughtful post.

Ellen Renner said...

Thanks so much for these comments. When you write something this personal it's good to know it resonates with other writers.

Thank you, Karen! You made my day very sunny.

And Abi, yes, I think that is what we aim for - our characters living on in readers' heads after they finish the last page. I'm sure that alternative universe exists somewhere.

Alex Milway said...

Lovely post! I tend not to feel much grief at the loss of the characters. I suppose I feel more of a sadness that the characters (if they're not all dead) are off to have adventures without me. Unless I decide to write the rest of their life stories.

Does anyone do that actually - write a full biography, up til their deaths, of their characters? Maybe JK Rowling!

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh, Ellen, I know so well what you mean.. it is so wonderful to inhabit that fictional world, and also, there is little in life that can match the joy of being in what my son-in-law calls 'the Zone' when you are utterly focussed on the novel, a state that usually comes upon me within about forty pages of the end. I have so often grieved for my characters, after leaving them behind. The answer, of course, is to find a new set of characters...

Enid Richemont said...

I have felt, sometimes,like a medium. And so many of my characters are friends, and I miss them (but no, I don't, because they're still there in some kind of indefinable form...)

Yvonne Coppard said...

I am writing a novel with domestic violence at its heart at the moment (not for children), and have the opposite problem - my character is someone I want to leave behind and forget about, but he stays in my head and makes me prone to reinterpret my husband's suggestions about what to eat for dinner as an attempt to control me...fortunately, he is a bit of a saint and quite easily appeased with football and beer.
Lovely post, Ellen, and good to know we're not all nuts.
Yvonne C

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I loved your post Ellen but especially loved this... 'I don’t want to know where my ideas come from, I just want to spy them fluttering past my eyes at unexpected moments, like translucent, technicoloured butterflies.' Brilliant!

Ann Evans said...

What a beautifully written post Ellen.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Agree with everything that's been said but just had to leave a comment and say so!! Well done Elen, beautiful post.

Bridget Strevens-Marzo said...

Yes another just had to leave a comment - agreeing with everyone above but also a question. Ellen - did you do that lovely suggestive drawing of...is it Tobias?

Ellen Renner said...

Sorry, Bridget, I've come back to late for you to see this now, but yes, I did. I usually do character sketches as I write: it's a great form of procrastination! Actually, you get to know them better as you draw.