Why is it that so many novelists experience a compulsion to express themselves through creating characters and putting them into action, rather than simply regarding writing as a job or a hobby? Were we born this way? Or did something awaken that desire? Are we desperate for attention, for approval? I can’t believe we’re simply a mob of showboats who want to prove ourselves to the world by creating something people will pay money to read. Although I must admit, for a time there I suspected I was from planet “Look at me! Look at me!” When I was three my mother would play Teddy Bears Picnic on the piano and I would dance for visiting relatives and friends, a Shirley Temple wannabe. But I thought I outgrew that when I decided to write. Twenty years ago you didn’t have to blog and be a social media whiz, or even do writers festival panels if you didn’t want to. You could be a hermit. And yet… something was still driving me to write, and if it wasn’t self-aggrandisement, what was it?
Years of mentoring other writers has shed some light on the subject of why it is that when we start to write (even late in life), we find it difficult to stop. Self doubt can push us away, harsh criticism or lack of time, but for some reason we keep coming back like a dog circling a bone that’s been chewed dry. We just want to gnaw again to see if that magical marrow might come out for us. We know it’s in there, and we can’t help persisting in the hope that we’ll find it.
Many writers have gone to their graves without ever having published a book, perhaps never having shown their work to another soul, which sounds terrible and tragic, and it would be if they’d tortured themselves about that. But that only matters if the showboat part of us is the important part. What if the thing that counts most is the creation of the story, the liberation of the characters from whatever pocket of imagination they’ve been hiding in, out onto the page or the screen?
We talk about the characters “coming to life on the page”. But where do they come from? A back corner of your subconscious? Wherever it is, the fact that you’re typing the story means those characters are parts of you. You created them, and even if they’re based on someone real, you chose that real person to base them on – something about that person resonated with you. Harry Potter is a piece of JK Rowling. Atticus Finch is a part of Harper Lee. And Balthazar Wilson, haphazard hero of my current WIP is part of me. He’s the ‘me’ I would be if I had been born into that family in a male body and with the sensitivity I’d like to be able to express and a lack of common sense I’m terrified of.
I believe that every human (including writers!) has personality traits that don’t get expression in their lifetime, and non-writers appear able to live with that. But what if we writers can’t? If we can’t bear to have those parts of ourselves go unexpressed, we could be making up people who can embody them for the number of weeks/ months/ years it takes us to write the manuscript. Then we can laugh at their silliness much more easily than we laugh at our own. We’re more understanding of their mistakes and we accept them, flaws and all. Tellingly, a lot of writers will say that when they’re drafting a novel they feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves, perhaps something bigger than the personality they’ve allow themselves in their normal life.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about a person’s ‘shadow side’, the part of us that we hide from others, that we don’t even want to acknowledge exists, the part of us that would happily run away from our children and our responsibilities if a glamorous movie star wanted to sweep us away with them. It’s far more comfortable to focus on our good thoughts and actions and deny that we even have bad thoughts. But what if we’re creating characters because what we really long for is to accept ourselves – all of ourselves, even the bad bits – and the only way we can do that is by creating people who embody different (often unexpressed) parts of us, and accepting them? Could the compulsion that keeps pulling us back to the keyboard be a drive to express more of ourselves than we can comfortably do in the persona we’ve carved out for ourselves among family, friends and colleagues?
I believe (and feel free to disagree with me) writing isn’t just about making money, it’s about making ourselves known and accepted, even if only to ourselves, through the characters we create, both dark and light.
The upside of our catharsis/self-acceptance process, is that readers get the opportunity to imagine those choices and those actions themselves while they’re living the story through the character’s eyes. And that’s a gift we give them, allowing a reader to understand what might motivate a villain to kill, or a wife to cheat on her husband, or an otherwise respected pensioner to steal from a supermarket. These characters helps us see real people with compassion and not simply judge them according to our own set of arbitrary values. It doesn’t mean we have to condone anything, but understanding helps us live in a world full of colour, instead of only seeing the black and white of personal judgements. In his article “Why Fiction is Good for you” psychologist and author Keith Oatley who is also professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto discovered during tests in which subjects are asked to choose the emotion expressed in a photograph of a person’s eyes, a measure of empathy developed by the British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, who studies autism, fiction readers scored higher.”
It’s a gift fiction writers can share, and while it’s often a difficult one for us to construct and deliver, I believe it’s worth the effort.