Monday, 9 February 2009

People and Writing

The best thing in my life is the people. Including you. I love people, I'm fascinated by people. I studied social psychology for my first degree because I find people so interesting. I adore my job as a researcher because I speak to all sorts of people I'd never otherwise meet, and ask them all sorts of questions that I wouldn't be able to ask in everyday life.

Of course I don't love every individual person. I'm generally well disposed towards my fellow human, but I'm also perfectly capable of anger, resentment, hatred etc etc. Some people I dislike; others I distrust. But of all the people I've ever met, I've liked the vast majority - at least in some respects - and many of them I've loved.

This is also the best thing about writing. When I write a story it usually starts with an idea or a prompt. That generates a chain of 'what ifs'. For example, I was recently playing with ideas for a story on the theme of 'conflict', set for a writing competition. My first association with conflict was war zones, but I decided I couldn't write a story set in one because I don't have enough experience and the research would take too long. Then I thought of a married couple arguing, but that seemed too boring. My next thought was of the conflict between teenagers and parents. That started to spark ideas. I remembered stories from friends with teenage children, thought of my own teenage experiences, remembered how it felt when I worked with teenagers.

These ideas were interesting and useful but still quite abstract. They needed populating. So I began to build some characters in my head. The thought process went something like this: a mum, a single mum, yes, that would make her life more difficult. Not a bad mum, but not brilliant; loving, insecure, hard-working, a bit inconsistent. Two children, a girl of 16 and a boy of 14. Both kicking against the restrictions she tries to impose. Bullying her. Yes, that would work. They could tell her she's a crap parent. Maybe one of them bunks off school, she says they're grounded, the youngster goes out anyway. The girl, probably. Pushes past her to get to the door, bruises her in the process. The boy, he tells lies, is careless, has a skanky bedroom. Perhaps the girl could have a horrible boyfriend, charming in person but he's done something criminal, mugging maybe, he's due in court, will probably get a custodial sentence. Ooh, perhaps the dad could be in prison too, for something really vile, I know, he killed their younger sibling when it was a baby because it wouldn't stop crying. Mum has been trying to cope with her grief and make it up to the other two ever since.

I love this bit, because it's about the people. The hours I spend playing with imaginary people in my head are so enjoyable. It's hard to convey the pleasure it gives, although I think other fiction writers may understand. A non-writer friend recently asked me to explain it, and I did my best to demonstrate how much fun it is to invent people and then make them have a really bad time, torture them, ensure they really suffer. I was in full flow when I caught sight of her face, open-mouthed in shock. She has always known me as a reasonably kind-hearted person and I think it was a bit of a revelation. Plus she's a trained counsellor, so she has her own ways of making stories about people.

In real life I don't want anyone to suffer. One of the colossal flaws in my early writing was that everyone always got on well and had a lovely time, and as a result, although well written, my stories were very boring to read. With a little help from a good friend, I've been able to get over that, at least to some extent. But how far can I go? I don't think I'll ever want to write like, say, Stephen King, who is a master of the bad time/torture/suffering aspect of writing. I don't enjoy reading suspense/horror so it seems unlikely that I'd enjoy writing it. I do, though, think I could take this aspect of my writing further. And writing stories on the theme of 'conflict' seems like a good way to explore.


JJ said...

Oh I totally understand what you mean. I have a bit of a thing about killing off characters with diseases that seem just and fair.

I once asked a girl at art college who'd she'd put 'on her 'plane' and she said she didn't understand. I told her it was a game where you could name x number of people to go on an airplane that would crash ... Mr Blobby for instance, but essentially anyone in the public eye.

She looked at me in absolute horror and said she really didn't think it was a very nice game and would feel terribly uncomfortable putting any human being on the list!

I did feel a horrible person for having quite a number of people I'd put (happily but in theory) on the 'plane!

HelenMHunt said...

It is interesting how different people go about creating fiction, so thanks for telling us about how you do it. I also used to make the mistake of having nice stories full of nice people with only nice things happening to them. And for ages I wondered why they were so boring. Then I went the other way and wrote lots of stories that were really dark. I think how dark you go depends on the market you're aiming for. As I'm aiming for the womag market at the moment I am trying to control the dark side.

KAREN said...

Interesting stuff :o) I've been accused (if that's the right word!) of having characters that are too reasonable, and I still have a problem with conflict. I'm trying hard to nasty up my writing a bit!

Queenie said...

JJ: that's a great story - I bet we could fill that plane between us! Helen: glad you were interested; glad I'm not the only one; am now very intrigued about your dark side! Karen: go stab some people, and make them have horrible accidents, and misunderstand each other and hurl insults. It's loads of fun.

PI said...

I think writers may be wired differently. Ages ago I was telling a member of the family the plot of a play I was writing and had decided to kill the heroine at the end because I felt like it - just a random road accident. Her face crumpled with dismay and she caused me to change my mind.
I'm wondering if you plot whilst doing something innocuous - like ironing - or just sit?

Queenie said...

PI: when I'm working on a story, it kind of goes on in the background of my brain whatever I'm doing. If I have a plot problem I need to work out, I find that thinking while walking is often very helpful.