Saturday, 12 April 2014

Writing for love

"Yes, but do you love your characters?'

It was my mother asking the question, over breakfast . I’d returned home for a weekend, just before my first book came out.  I’m not very sharp at answering direct questions over breakfast, so I think I mumbled something into my boiled egg about “I mean I like some of them, if that’s what you mean…”

But I don’t think it was.

Now my second novel has just come out, and I’m starting a third, her question has made me reflect on a broader point about writing.   

Of course I love my characters.  It would be much harder to write if I didn’t. I love the heroes, I love the villains. I love the characters that are a pleasure to write, the characters that take more work. I even love the characters that ultimately don’t quite cut it on the published page and the total failures lying lifeless and rejected in my draft folder.

The reason I have to is that, whilst I’ve brought in elements of observation from remembered encounters with real life characters, friends and strangers, real and fictional, every character I write is – in the end – only as revealing or engaging to a reader as I can make them. They are all, ultimately, nebulous and circulating thoughts deep in my subconscious given bones and clothes made of type.

So if I don’t love them, I don’t love my work.  And whilst I’m sure this view will change and evolve the more I write, I’m find myself more and more convinced that loving your work – is the only true motivator to sitting down in front of the screen each day.  Especially when you’re under pressure. Or not feeling remotely inspired. Or hungover.

And by that, I don’t mean a narcissistic self-absorption – although of course, a degree of that is almost impossible to avoid when you sit alone in front of a computer for hours with only Twitter and your thoughts for company.  I am also trying to avoid queasy self-help territory.

What I mean is that I’m learning to authentically love my work for itself, and not because of its subjective value for others. Love it when it's easy,  love it when you think you will never ever finish writing this book.

I want my books to be published and read. I want readers to enjoy them and critics to acclaim them. I want the ideas in them to provoke debate. Staying in print, on library shelves, hopefully inspiring or entertaining lots of young readers –  of course those things matter deeply.

But I've realized that ultimately I need to love my characters - the work of creating them -  as writing is the means to an end, that goes beyond all that.

Continued  publication  in some form permits me – just -  a daily existence where I have the freedom and time to work out what I think about the world. To read and read till the shelves collapse. To go for a walk in the park when I want.  To occasionally, just very occasionally, entirely escape from this world and lose myself completely in a fictional one of my own making.

So yes, Mum – I do love my characters. Because they allow me to do all that.

Piers Torday


Sue Purkiss said...

I find as a reader that I really want to love at least some of the characters. I find it very difficult to read a book where none of the characters are likeable. There was one about the financial crisis, for instance; the main character in that was a real stinker...

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

This was a lovely post and I hope will be read by many new writers as well as 'seasoned' ones because you captured something some writers lose as they get further down the track.
'So if I don’t love them, I don’t love my work...' is something we should all be thinking about. What sets us alight as writers, will set our readers alight. We can't hope to reach everyone but the energy that you put out there, will come back to you. And thats what writing is about.
Did you ask your mother if she loves her children? ... of course I'm only joking... being the mother of two adult sons!

Piers Torday said...

Sue - I agree, if there are no sympathetic characters at all it can be a tough read, even if that's what the writer intended. But a worse crime than that in my view is a book where the characters just merge into one indistinct cacophony of voices.

Dianne - thanks, so pleased it connected with you. No, I didn't ask my mother that... would never hear the end of it! :)

Elinor Nash said...

Oh yes, I've broken my own heart tormenting a character I really love! I think all art has to involve love in its creation as well as its appreciation otherwise really, what is the point?