On Writing Autobiographically

During last night’s crime writing class at the City Lit we discussed characterisation. I told the group I was intent on making the protagonist of my latest story as unlike me as possible. Why? Because I’ve realised that, all too often, I write characters as if they were, in fact, me, and whilst Polly Courtney said at last week’s Writers’ & Artists’ conference that most people write their first novel autobiographically (“because they have something to get off their chest”), in my case I fear it might be more to do with laziness than self-expression. I worry that in writing characters who are based, no matter how loosely, on me, I’m closing myself off to a host of far more interesting and complex characters. Not only that, I’m failing to examine their personalities thoroughly enough to be able to fully inhabit them, as I’m assuming they would have the same thoughts and feelings as I would, when this isn’t necessarily (and indeed shouldn’t) be the case.

After a written exercise, wherein we were encouraged to introduce our characters by name (“My name is X…”) and elaborate on how they felt about that name, whether it had any connotations/associations etc., we had a group discussion. One of my fellow students said she didn’t like the character she had written about in the exercise – in fact, more than that, she actively disliked her. The teacher was concerned about this, and said that if a writer is unable to empathise with their protagonist they must at least be able to foster a sense of curiosity about them. For example, what experiences have shaped them into the person they are today (or at the time your novel is set)? Why do they hold certain viewpoints and like or dislike certain things?  

A useful exercise in characterisation, we learned, is to take your main character and write about them both ‘from the inside out’ and ‘from the outside in.’ In other words, write one paragraph ‘as’ them (a letter to a loved one, for example) and then answer a series of questions ‘about’ them (e.g. what is their favourite colour/food, what do they like/dislike etc.). One particularly pertinent and often revealing question is ‘What does he/she dislike most about him/herself,’ as it often gives rise to useful insights into their inner psyche.

The lesson, I suppose, is that if you don’t completely identify with your main character that’s fine, so long as you like them sufficiently to be curious about who they are and what makes them tick. What is certain is that during the creative process you’ll be spending a huge amount of time with this person, so it has to be someone you’re happy to hang out with – or you’ll likely have a pretty miserable time writing it!

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What makes you tick?

Recent “research” from the folk over at Facebook posits more people see our posts than we might think. I put the word research in speech marks because this comes at a time when Facebook is being criticised for limiting the reach of peoples’ posts to force them to pay for promoted posts. The research in question, therefore, could be taken to be a poorly disguised and somewhat unscrupulous attempt to generate positive PR in response to the media backlash.

But whatever the reason, the research has got me thinking about the reach and impact of my own posts on social media, and indeed my blog. I must confess to feeling a sense of deflation when I see the number of views on my posts declining, and a rush of excitement when they begin to climb again. When someone new follows my blog I beam from ear to ear. Why? Because it means there are people out there who actually like what I write and who, rather than briefly scanning posts before deleting them, want to read them with some degree of regularity.

But who are my followers, and those who like to read my musings frequently? What drives them? What makes them tick? And what is it about my writing that keeps them coming back for more? It strikes me now I think about it that thus far in my writing experiment it’s been almost entirely one-sided. What I’d love to know is what my readers would like more of, what they’d like less of, and generally how I can write in a way that’s more agreeable to them.

It’s fair to say we writers crave acknowledgement, and the best form of acknowledgement – to my mind, at least – is feedback. But the online world operates in a similar way to the real world when it comes to levels of active involvement. Humans fall roughly into two categories; introverts and extroverts. I say roughly fall into, because it’s rare to find someone who would claim to be entirely introvert or entirely extrovert – we usually all exhibit both persuasions from time to time.

This brings me back to the Facebook research. I think it’s probably true that we engage more people than we think when we post things on the internet – because a lot of those who read it aren’t inclined to comment or to actively engage with the content. They are passive observers, perhaps because they’re introverts whose nature isn’t to wade in and shout about their thoughts and feelings but rather to consider them and process them privately. Them not engaging may not, therefore, mean they aren’t enjoying the content, but rather that they prefer to enjoy it from afar.

This rationale (irrational as it may well be) makes me feel better about not having lots of feedback on my writing. What it fails to do is make me any less curious about who my readers are and what they most like to read.

So if you’re reading this and feel inclined to drop me a line about what makes you tick, I’d really love to hear from you…

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