Monday, 4 December 2017

"I want to learn how to write stories. Can you tell me how?" – David Thorpe

"Excuse me. I want to learn how to write stories. Can you tell me how?"

"You must first have a terrific character – or three – to make a story about."

"Must I? But why?"

"All stories are about people."

"What if they're about animals? Or things?"

"They're characters too, for the purposes of the story. So, okay, all stories are about characters."

"Not about ideas?"

"Sometimes they are idea-led. But really, people read stories because they like to care about the characters in them, so you can't have a story without characters doing things. And so you need believable characters."

"I see. Hang on. How do you make a believable character?"

"Let me tell you a story, and perhaps at the end of it you might have a clue...

"Once upon a time there was a man who wanted to be a writer. But whenever he sat down to write a story he was struck by the artificiality of what he was doing.

"Surely," he said to himself, "if I set out to construct a character, it would be obvious to any reader that the character has really been created by a writer to seem convincing, and therefore the reader will see right through any of my paltry attempts to make a character realistic. How can any self-respecting, intelligent reader bring themselves to care for a character that has been made up? For they will tell themselves at every point – like when I make something bad happen to that character – 'Pah! He's not real anyway. What does it matter what happens to him? I've enough on my plate worrying about my sick mother – who is real.' I'm doomed before I even start."

"This writer had a point. For him, the apogee of good writing was represented by novels such as 'At Swim Two Birds' by Flann O'Brien or 'Breakfast of Champions' by Kurt Vonnegut, wherein the authors openly acknowledge that their characters are mere artifices and satirically play with this joke.

"Needless to say, this writer's early attempts at writing a successful novel came to nothing. The only thing he seemed to be good for was writing comics, which, as everyone knows, are not literature, and contain only two-dimensional caricatures for characters."

"Hang on–"

"But then a funny thing happened to this writer. You see, all his life he had suffered from cerebral palsy, but only in a minor way. Nothing dramatic needing a wheelchair or anything. In fact, people often would not think there was anything physically wrong with him beyond a certain awkwardness, a jerkiness, a lack of coordination.

"But when he was a child this had led other children, who can be very cruel, to pick on him, to call him names – or perhaps worse. This had made him defensive, even aggressive, to others, and unable to trust them not to hurt him, and this shell he had made around himself made it hard to make friends. He could never admit anything was wrong for fear of being hurt.

"He did not understand what made people tick. He could not be open and honest. He even forgot the words 'cerebral palsy'."

"Poor man."

"What, are you saying you care for him?"

"Well, of course! He must have been lonely."

"Hmm. Let me continue my story.

"One day his condition worsened. He developed a limp. A limp was something he could not hide. So he found people he knew stopping him in the street and saying things like, "You are limping. What's the matter?"

"Now he could no longer pretend there was nothing wrong with him. He had to answer honestly. And, to his surprise, his friends did not turn on him. They did not laugh or insult him or walk away. No. Instead, they began to tell him about their own health issues. They began to open up to him. And in return he began to open up to them. It was difficult at first but after a while he found that it transformed his relationships with people. He developed deeper friendships and was no longer lonely.

"He was amazed."

"What's this got to do with his writing?"

"Patience. I'm coming to that.

"A few months later he heard about a competition being run by a big publisher to find a Major New British Children's Writer. They gave a whole year to write the novel so he thought, "Why not? I'll have a go."

"This time he wouldn't write what he thought a publisher might want. This time he would write for himself. And he would put into the main character all of his feelings about his body (but disguised, of course – it's fiction after all).

"He wrote about loss and love and pain and longing and reconciliation and fear and confusion.

"He forgot that this was a fictional creation because it wasn't (for him, although it appeared to be). And so it did not feel artificial or forced. It felt real.

"He sent the novel off to the competition and forgot about it, because he was convinced this would not be the type of writing they were looking for. 

"So no one was more surprised than he to get a phone call a few months later from the publisher's Head of Children's Fiction saying he was in the top three. And then a week later that he had won.

"The novel was published and received fabulous reviews from both children and adults.

"And they loved the characters.

"Do you see what I mean now?"

"I think so. You mean I have to walk with a limp."

"Whatever it takes, bro."

[I am the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels Hybrids, Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller. My writing course, called 'Making Readers Care' can be taken online. Contact me if interested.]


Steve Gladwin said...

Really appreciated your blog here David which had a lovely combination of honesty and rock solid common sense for the writer. Thanks.

Anne Booth said...

I really liked that blog post. Thank you. What is the name of the book which won the competition?

David Thorpe said...

Hybrids, @Anne.