Thursday, May 24, 2012

Creative Writing 101: Characters


Nothing is more important to a novel than good characters. The theme may be visionary, the descriptions exquisite and the plot breath-taking, but without good characters it “ain’t good fiction.” Period.

Nor can we, writers, really create characters – not good ones. We can create stick figures that stiffly toddle across the pages of our book, or we can cut-and-paste from other works, or even use pre-fab microsoft-like creations that everyone instantly recognizes: the beautiful seductress, the clever detective, the sensitive misunderstood child, the evil step-mother etc. etc.

Good characters are as complex as human beings, and only God can create humans.  Writers are not God. We are at best disciples and prophets, interpreting God’s word, describing his creations – inadequately.  But the better we are at understanding humans, the better we will be at describing them. And the better we describe them as unique individuals, the better will be our novel.

And just as humans grow-up, make mistakes, learn from their mistakes (or fail to do so), good characters are neither perfect nor stagnant. Good characters have flaws, and good characters change in the course of a novel. Only ancillary characters should be essentially the same at the end of a novel as they were at the beginning. While this is most pronounced in novels spanning a longer period of time (like my biographical novels), it should be true even of a novel covering only a few months – because those few months must represent a significant event for the central characters or the novel has no credible plot. 

My Battle of Britain novel, for example, only covers the months of May to September 1940, but for the characters it a pivotal period. Another novel could describe no more than the day September 11, 2001 – but it would only be a good novel about that day, if the key characters are different in a significant way at the end of it.

And good characters – really good characters – will never leave you, the writer, in complete control of the plot. They will take the bit in their teeth now and again, and run away with you. When your characters do that, when they start shaping the novel for you, you know you have a good cast of characters. From then on, your job becomes one of directing and coaching rather than dictating. It is always a wonderful moment!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Excerpt from The English Templar I


Percy felt ill. He knew he could not face the Inquisition again. He would kill himself first. He should kill himself at once, he realized, somewhat shocked that it had taken him so long to think of it. That was the only way to save Sir Geoffrey and the girl from arrest and possibly torture.

“I need a dagger,” he told Geoffrey softly.

Geoffrey went stock-still. “What for?”

“Don’t worry. I know how to use it.”

“To do what?” Geoffrey insisted sharply.

“To kill painlessly.”

“To commit suicide?” Geoffrey grasped Percy’s bony shoulders in his long, skeletal hands and shook him with a force neither of them had expected. “After all we’ve risked to keep you from dying, you would dare to throw your life away?”

Percy closed his eyes and didn’t answer. They didn’t know him and so could not possibly know whether he was worth saving. He wasn’t even sure himself – rationally – that he was worth saving. There was an inborn instinct that clung to life, but when he used his intelligence he saw only that he was a younger son, trained to arms and vowed to an institution which had been utterly annihilated. Never in his life had he done anything of sufficient value to warrant the sacrifice of others for his sake. He had not even, in the end, been strong enough to stop himself from adding his voice to the thousands who condemned the Order and thereby betrayed his brothers to further pain and endless humiliation. He had contributed to the ruin of the only thing that gave him status and purpose. Why should he go on living?

“Listen to me!” Geoffrey still grasped him in his claw-like hands, the knuckles white from the effort. “I am an old man who has lived much too long already. If I choose to die for your sake, that is my decision!”

Percy opened his eyes and looked straight at Geoffrey. “And the Lady Felice?” he whispered.

Geoffrey looked over his shoulder at his granddaughter. At sixteen, she still had soft, unfinished features and the half-mature body of a teenager, but the look on her face was not adolescent.  

Felice answered for herself. “I am neither a child nor a fool. I knew what I was doing when I sent for my grandfather. To have left you there would have been to deny Christ himself. If the Pope, the King and all the clergy of France are too blind to see that, then God have pity on their souls! I knew the risks.”

Percy shook his head. No one who had not faced the Inquisition could really imagine what it was like. But she had reminded him of something: it was as morally contemptible for them to deny him help as it was for him to expect it under the circumstances. Checkmate. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Memorium - A Review

The oldest known work of literary history is The Iliad. It is a work that has inspired works of art for more than three thousand years, and readers of this blog, dedicated to historical fiction, might be interested in a recent work, “Memorial” by Alice Oswald, a prize-winning English poet. 

Oswald attempts  in modern language to capture the spirit more than the narrative of the ancient work. Or, as Oswald words it in her introduction, her poem is “a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story.” This is an audacious task to say the least and therefore the most remarkable thing about Oswald’s work is that it succeeds remarkably well – as far as it goes. 

The Iliad is a lengthy, complex work in which Gods, heroes and mere mortals interact on a grand canvas that stretches from the fertile valley of the Eurytos across the broad Aegean to the topless towers of Troy. The names of the principal protagonists have echoed down the centuries: Achilles and Hector, Helen and Paris, Menelaos, Agamemnon, Ulysses, and the rest. The Iliad, for most of us, stands for the story of Helen’s abduction (whether voluntary or not), and the war that ensued and ended in the utter destruction of a great city. The Iliad is about ambition, hubris, pride, lust, jealousy, cowardice, betrayal, conjugal and fraternal love, heterosexual and homosexual love, vengeance, grief – and just about any other human emotion that I may have forgotten. 

Oswald’s poem in contrast is “just” 70 sparse – not to say laconic -- pages. Nor does it attempt to reconstruct a story that Oswald (like Homer himself) expects her readers to already know. The charm of “Memorial” is that reminds us that the Iliad itself was intended as a verbal memorial to the dead. Oswald draws the reader’s attention to the Greek tradition of “lament poetry.” This was burial ritual of the ancient world in the mourners remembered the dead in verse composed specifically to remember the deeds of the deceased. The Iliad is littered with the laments for individual combatants. Oswald’s poem makes us stop and consider these men – Protesilaus, Echepolus, Elephenor, Simoisius. Never heard of them? That is exactly the point. These are men, mortals, not the demigods, the kings the heroes. Yet they too gave their lives. Oswald’s poem reminds us of them. 

Oswald’s images are brutal because she has translated the original, which was famous for its reality. Thus “Diores.. struck by a flying flint, died in a puddle of his own guts, slammed down into the mud he lies, with his arms stretched out to his friends….” Or: “Pherecles… died on his knees screaming. Meriones speared him in the buttock and the point pierced him in the bladder.” 

Yet this poem is anything but an orgy of blood and guts. On the contrary, rather than glorifying the violence and brutality, it makes it all the more horrible by directing it at individuals that are – sometimes with only the barest, outline – a mere brush-stroke in words -- nevertheless given individuality and humanity. Thus Pherecles was “brilliant with his hands and born of a long line of craftsmen,” while Pylaemenes had a heart “made of coarse cloth and his manners were loose like old sacking.” Harpalion was “not quite ready for life, not quite solid, always shifting from foot to foot, with his eyes sliding everywhere in fear.” Yet another woman’s son “was the tall one, the conscientious one, who stayed out late pruning his father’s fig trees.” Or simply: “Koiranus…of Crete was a quiet man, a light to his loved ones.” 

And their families too are brought to light with vivid urgency: “The priest Hephaestus, hot-faced from staring at flames, prayed every morning the same prayer, “Please God respect my status, protect my sons Phegeus and Idaeus, calm down their horses, lift them out of the fight…Hephaestus heard him, but he couldn’t hold those bold boys back, riding over the battlefield too fast they met a flying spear….” Or: Laothoe, one of Priam’s wives, never saw her son again. He was washed away. Now she can’t look at the sea She can’t think about the bits of unburied being eaten by fishes.” 

Yet even this might have been too much blood, guts and grieving if Oswald had not interspersed her laments with sublime similes that are so evocative they are breath-taking. "Like winter rivers pouring off the mountains, The thud of water losing consciousness, When it falls down from the high places…." Or: "Like fawns running over a field, Suddenly give up and stand, Puzzled in their heavy coats." Or: "Like thick flocks of falling snow, In winter when god showers his arrows at us, Pouring them down putting the winds to sleep, Until the hills the headlands the grassy lowlands, All the ploughs and crops fo the earth every living twig, Is wiped out white with snow it goes on and on, Falling and falling on the grey sea, Blotting out harbours and beaches, And only the breakers can shake it off, endlessly rushing at the shore.

Other images, however, evoke more than nature itself. Like a flash of lightning, they briefly illuminate scenes from the age of Homer, or offer vignettes of everyday life in the age of Achilles. For example: "Like a good axe in good hands, Finds out the secret of wood and splits it open." Or: "Like two mules on a shaly path in the mountains, Carrying a huge roof truss or the beam of a boat, Go on mile after mile giving it their willingness, Until the effort breaks their strength." Or: "Like a goatherd stands on a rock, And sees a cloud blowing towards him, A black block of rain coming closer over the sea, Pushing a ripple of wind inland, He shivers and drives his flocks into a cave for shelter."

Memorial is a poem, not an epic poem, novel, play or history. It’s magic is in its ability to evoke an image and an emotion with the minimal use of words. As such it is both laconic and Laconian. I recommend it.

Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad, by Alice Oswald, faber and faber, London, 2011.