Fine Young Cannibals

by evseymour

Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not going to blog about the above titled band even if Roland Gift’s cover of the Buzzcock’s ‘Ever Fallen in Love’ rates as one of my personal favourites.   The clue lies in one word:  ‘Cannibals’, not of the Hannibal Lecter variety, but the methods writers use to create characters. 

I’m often asked:  ‘Do you base your characters on people you know?’  Short answer:  No.  Extended answer: I might ‘nip and tuck’ odd characteristics.  Honest answer:  all writers cannibalise to one degree or another, mostly not from friends and family, (if they value friendship and smooth family relationships) but from themselves and their own life experience.   And you don’t have to be old to qualify. 

Observation of, and empathy with, others are two key attributes for ‘getting inside a character’s skin,’ and yet, in my day job with Writers Workshop, I sometimes read work where the writer fails to allow a character to have a voice, or even breathe.  Consequently, they become pale representations of what the writer intends.  In worst case scenarios, characters become stereotypes or parodies.

How to fix it?  Most of us know what it’s like to fall in love, get angry, be deliriously happy, sad, resentful, isolated or frightened, maybe even terrified.  (There are dozens of permutations.)  Stating the obvious, the writer has a ready fund of experience on which to draw, but it only provides a base, for the writer’s ‘story’ is not the same as a character’s in a novel.  

Depending upon a character’s unique attributes, skills and background, those emotions mentioned above may be felt and experienced quite differently to the writer’s.  What I’m gently trying to say, beware ripping off your vile divorce, run-in with the council, spat with your next-door neighbour, or next-door neighbour’s dog in a blind attempt to convert it into dramatic gold.  If, in fact, you become the main protagonist in your own novel, characterisation is destined to be thin.  There’s only so much  ‘writing what you know’ or ‘it happened to me’ that’s worth filleting and serving up to a reader.

Where does plot figure in tales of cannibalism?  One might think that there are two camps when it comes to creating a story.  ‘The character comes first’ camp versus ‘plot comes first.’  If you think about it, a story will only develop in a certain way, given an individual character’s idiosyncrasies.  Had Walter White taught geography, instead of chemistry, in ‘Breaking Bad’, it’s doubtful he’d have become a meth producer.  As important, the seeds of Walt’s resentment against his lot in life were there right from the first early scenes, depicted in his bust-up with his colleagues in ‘Grey Matter’.  Vince Gilligan and the entire writing team were genius in the way they took ordinary people, individuals we have come across and with whom we can identify and care about, and drilled right down into what made them tick.  In a sense, Walt’s story is a modern morality tale and, like most morality tales, it’s rich in characterisation.