It’s a function of fiction to tell truths…Documentaries don’t tell truths…they show you what is there, but they don’t mediate it through the truths of all the complications, all the inner subtleties of why this person is like that, why that person is like this. What drama is for [is] to tell truths.
Dennis Potter, p11, Potter on Potter
Ah yes, Dennis Potter, remember him? TV dramatist, master of the lip-synch drama, where actors mimed along to popular songs as part of the plot. His plays were neither classic musical, nor standard play format (is there one though?). The Potter works I remember best are The Singing Detective, Pennies from Heaven, Lipstick on Your Collar, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus. In different ways, I found each of them magical.
Want to know why we write? Watch a Dennis Potter play and see where it catches you: if it does. He was considered controversial, so you don’t have to ‘get’ him, but it’s worth thinking about what he did and how.
To ‘tell truths’ was no idle boast for him. Much of his material came from his own experiences, and he didn’t mind us knowing that. Sometimes it was uncomfortable watching, often humorous, occasionally sentimental. He didn’t stick closely to events for fiction, though, that’s the thing that struck me when occasionally someone from his past would appear in a newspaper with the ‘real’ story of what had happened. Potter said, ‘The way you think you know about the past is like the way you remember a dream on waking’.
It’s a useful idea to hold on to, for those of us who create fiction from the stories of our pasts, and these days there seem to be an increasing number of faction writers. It might help keep us from getting stuck in the rut of, ‘Yes, but that’s the way it was,’ justification when someone queries a story event. That’s never happened to you? Well done. For the rest of us, at some point, haven’t we found ourselves in a workshop situation, defending a story rather than looking at why it hasn’t worked?
When you’re writing, it can be tricky to see what’s wrong. After all, you know what happened, because you were either there, or told about it by someone who was. You would seem to have a framework to write to, and that’s what most of us wish for, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no. Sorry to be so imprecise, but it really does depend on the writer. Some are mappers, plotting things out on postcards or computer programmes and writing easily within the framework we create. For others, following structure rigidly can lead us astray. Why?
I’m going to be audacious here, and make a sweeping diagnosis of characterisation problems. Because when our focus is too firmly on touching each event on the way to a given goal, we risk losing sight of who we were writing about, and most stories, even those that are full of action, are really about character. Each of the Potter titles I’ve mentioned involve complex characters interacting with each other. The technical term is, fully rounded.
Fully rounded characters are so well formed that you can find yourself writing something other than the well planned plot you thought they would fit into.
‘Hang on,’ I think I hear you say, ‘isn’t that thing about characters taking over their stories a writing-fairytale?’
Not for me. I’ve had it happen both on the page and when I did a story performance. And I found that second incident by far the scariest and most rewarding to recover from, but that’s another story.
I think most successful stories build from a fully rounded character. So we’re not just thinking physical details here, height, weight, colourings, clothes, these are superficial descriptions. If you’re writing about something that really happened, chances are you’ve built a character based on a real person. But, how much do you really know about anyone else? I believe that we need to know our main characters at least as well as ourselves, perhaps better.
Do you know what you would save if your home was on fire and you had two minutes to grab something? Do you know why you’d have chosen that thing? Do you know what you would do if that thing became lost to you?
A lot of the time we work by instincts, don’t we? Somewhere in our subconscious there is probably a logic to what we do, but we don’t always need to chase that up.
I’m not advising that you should start psycho-analyzing your character either, but if they are going to act and react naturally in the story, they need to be rounded enough to have their own instincts. What would they save? It might not be the same thing that you would, and if you’ve based your character on a friend, I doubt whether you’ve picked the same item they would name, no matter how close you are.
So it stands to reason, surely, that if your fully-rounded character cannot be quite the same as the person who was your inspiration, they might act differently at some point, and therefore, re-direct your neatly arranged plot. That’s a good thing, honestly.
Here’s another thought too, could it be that those writers who plot everything out in advance don’t necessarily stick rigidly to the original plan?
Keep writing and it should happen.