Andrew Miller, the author of Casanova, and Oxygen (which was shortlisted for both the Booker prize and the Whitbread novel award) wrote his thoughts on How to Write Fiction in The Guardian Newspaper this Sunday, 16th October 2011.
This is a condensed version, the notes I put into my writing journal.
Andrew said it is important not to slice fiction into separate categories such as "plot", "voice", "point of view" or "character" because that is alien to the way the writer and the reader experiences it.
He says stories come in organic gobs gouged out of the living fabric of world – character tangled with plot, plot with setting, setting with scraps of language embedded.
Because strong characters are at the heart of all great literature, Andrew Miller asserts that:
• A writer who does not create convincing characters will fail.
• A writer who creates thrilling, troubling, seductive, insistent characters need not worry too much about any other aspect of writing.
• You do not need to know how to spell.
• You do not need to know much about grammar.
• You do not even need any huge sensitivity to language, though this is the other quality that really matters in writing; it is also, perhaps, the most resistant to any kind of formal teaching.
How is it done?
Andrew says that, luckily, the raw material is close to hand. Every writer is the focus of his own research. And when he wants more – other bodies, other thoughts – he simply looks up at those around him.
You could keep all the members of your family in a kind of mental aquarium, sketching them into stories all your writing life. After changing the details you can supplant them from one town to the next.
But a writer – who wants to remain on good terms with their family ;) - is not confined to such a tactic. The great majority of Andrew’s characters are "inventions."
No one writes for long without understanding that they are entering mystery and will never leave it.
Through unnamed processes, writers secrete these figures who will loom and mouth off in our fictions. It is a "natural" process, that we are, all of us, geared up for it.
Without the ability to generate characters writing would be impossibly complex. We could not do it.
There is, Andrew reminds us, another great reservoir of characters: those ready-made for us in books.
It is not that we intend to steal Mr Tulkinghorn from Dickens or Ursula Brangwen from Lawrence, but that such characters show us the dimensions of the possible.
A painter who wants to paint a tree needs to do two things: look at trees and look at paintings of trees. The first task shows what trees are like, the second shows the possibilities of the medium.
Likewise, as a writer, it is by reading that you learn how, in language, a character can be presented:
• through dialogue,
• through action,
• through physical attributes,
• interior monologue etc
When you have absorbed these methods creating characters will become a reflex.
At its simplest, its barest, characterisation is about a writer's grasp of what a human being is.
When we set out to write we do not set out saying: "The world is like this." But asking: "How is the world?"
In creating characters we are posing to ourselves large, honest questions about our nature and the nature of those about us.
Our answers are the characters themselves, those talking spirits we conjure up by a kind of organised dreaming.
And when we finish, we are immediately dissatisfied with them, these "answers", and we set out again, bemused, frustrated, excited.
An odd use of time! An odd use of a life. But there's a courage to it. Even, perhaps, a type of beauty.
Andrew Miller will be teaching a nine-month UEA-Guardian MasterclassLevel Three: How to Complete a Work of Fiction, beginning January 2012
1 Grab your current read.
2 Let the book fall open to a random page.
3 Share two (2) sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
I'm going to share the title of the book this “teaser” is from so, if you love the section I've posted, and you've been drawn into the world the author has created, you can find the book too.
Characterisation is deeper than face, form, or colour, in this MG story: Alien Escape by Guy Bass.
Hex-37 is the unluckiest space invader on Planet X.
Like many of us, Hex never gets anything right
When he discovers his long-lost father is on Planet Earth he decides to give up space invading and escapes.
The only problem is Hex still can’t fly a space ship.
From page 8 of Alien Escape by Guy Bass
Whether it was good luck or bad, from the moment Hex started space invader training, the Hex Effect had changed his life forever. Despite being years ahead of his classmates when it came to technology and robotics, Hex had the worst luck with anything to do with space invading.
Are you currently reading for pleasure or to learn something from the author?