Every year I intend to go along to lots of events at the Manchester Literature Festival, and every year I completely fail in my task. This year, at least, I did make it to one.
Along with the new(ish) Creative Writing Meetup group in Manchester, I went to the Fiction Debut event. The festival showcases three new writers (or at least, new to novel writing). This year they featured Marli Roode, author of Call It Dog, Gabriel Gbadamosi, author of Vauxhall, and James Wheatley, author of Magnificent Joe, in discussion. The writers introduced us to their books and read from them, then afterwards the host put questions to all three authors. It was a fun event, and while none of the books sounded hugely up my street, I felt that all three writers had very interesting and distinct stories to tell.
Something one author said, however, I did find quite troubling. When asked if he had done much research for his book, James Wheatley said that he hadn’t felt it necessary. In many cases I’m lenient when it comes to research. I don’t like doing it myself unless I feel it’s really important and will have a strong impact on what/how I write. But in this case, it felt a bit callous. The book in question features a man who, as the writer put it, ‘is just a bit funny in the head’, but we assume he has learning difficulties.
I felt bad for the author, who accidentally sent us away with a bad taste in our mouths. I’m sure (or I hope) he was caught off guard by the question, but I couldn’t shake the sense of apathy I got from his assumption that he didn’t need to research that character, because it was based on an acquaintance he’d known as a teenager. His defence, that it wouldn’t feel right to have clinical definitions and explanations coming out of his working class characters’ mouths, felt like a flimsy excuse. I haven’t read the book so I cannot comment on the characterisation in it, but it made me think a lot about when research can be important, or even essential, in the process of writing a novel.
As I said, I don’t like to research, while some authors love to do it. I know some who spend so much time researching that they never get around to writing down their ideas. To me, research is much more about the world-building and character-building than the actual words that make it into the novel. If I were to write about an alcoholic, I would research alcoholism and people’s experience of living with it, because it’s outside my own frame of experience. If I were writing about a character with a disability, I would want to know exactly what was affecting them, why, and how, even if it never came up in the book. It might be a passing mention, but I think a writer needs to know everything possible about their characters.
The thing is, I don’t think you can start out knowing everything about your character (and if you do, it’s rare), because they will always surprise you in the writing. The more you write, the more you learn about them. But that doesn’t mean you can just sit back and expect them to tell you everything. All characters come from an author’s imagination, and one person’s imagination can only tell them so much.
I’d be very interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this.
Borrowed from the incredible Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant. (If it’s possible you haven’t yet read this, please do).