Tuesday, 7 July 2015

It's reality, Jim, but as WE know it... by Bill Kirton

Novels always carry the careful ‘any resemblance to real persons, places, or events is coincidental’ disclaimer but, as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t really needed. I may borrow how someone looks, or copy what he/she wears, but using a real person as a model just doesn’t work for me. I've only tried it twice. For the woman, it sort of half worked, but when it came to the man, I found that my awareness and knowledge of the actual person prevented my character from growing and being himself.

Presumably (and it was certainly true in my case), a writer ‘uses’ a real model because there’s something special or unique about that person – he/she is wonderful or despicable. The real man I chose to copy was the latter but he wasn’t my character. In the end, I had to free the character and let his nastiness develop in the way he wanted to express and live it. The result was that, even though he’d begun as a clone of the real nasty, he turned out to be more charismatic (in a horrible way, of course). But they were different, and I wouldn’t want to spend too much time with either of them.

One of my novels, Shadow Selves, is set in and around the fictitious University of West Grampian and an equally fictitious teaching hospital. When they heard this, some of my friends assumed that, because I used to teach at a university, the people and things I described would be based on personal experiences. They’re not, except insofar as I know the general academic atmosphere, the demands and privileges of working in such an institution and the (small p) politics in which some teachers and researchers delight. But anyone reading the book and expecting to recognise x, y or z will be disappointed. What I hope they will get, though, is a sense of the strange world of academia – a rarefied place where high culture and low cunning co-exist and some individuals continue to be blissfully unaware of how privileged they are to be safe in their ivory tower. (Incidentally, by way of a plug, I should add that they’ll also get a couple of corpses, a stalker and a case of sexual harassment.)

A little (relevant) aside next. If I asked you to name some nice writers, i.e. writers who are nice people, I bet that, in the UK at least, Alan Bennett might be at or near the top of the list. And yet, a few years back, in an interview about his play The History Boys, he said ‘no writer's entirely nice, otherwise they wouldn't be writers. It's quite a sneaky profession really’. The implication in his tongue-in-cheek remark was that we use other people’s experiences as our raw materials, distorting or otherwise exaggerating them to suit our purposes. In other words, we exploit people. Well, we do, but I think our excuse is that we do so for a reason.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
At one point in Shadow Selves, as part of his investigation, my policeman goes to watch an operation. The description and details of that operation are all taken from a visit I made myself to an operating theatre to watch a thoracic operation at close range. The surgeons delved about inside a woman’s chest cavity, shoving lungs and other red and white bits out of the way, chopping lumps out of tubes, and, at the same time, chatting away about a concert one of them had been to the previous evening. The patient’s head was concealed by a suspended sheet and the surgeons’ entire focus was on the small area of flesh with its big hole, into which they were dipping their hands. In a way, they weren’t dealing with a person but with a sort of anatomical puzzle.

Despite the fact that their manipulation of the various organs that were in their way seemed a bit cavalier, no one would seriously suggest there was anything ‘inhuman’ about their actions. They just needed to be objective and think in terms of the mechanical aspects of what they were doing. So, while chatting about music as you grab a pulsing organ and push it aside may seem disrespectful, intrusive, it’s actually the reverse. The fact that they were prepared to take responsibility for such extreme interventions to improve the lot of a fellow human was an affirmation of their humanity. They cared. They were doing all that so that she’d survive. And she did.

I hope you can see where I’m going with this. Scalpels, pens – same thing, really. (Except that very few of us use pens any more.) Yes, we pick up news stories, snippets of conversation, fragments of real lives, aspects of real people, and we steal them and shape them to suit our subjective purposes. If you like, we don’t treat them with much respect. But usually, these purposes are positive, affirmative things – we want to add to people’s enjoyment, make them laugh, offer them new perspectives, enlighten them, highlight threats to their security/happiness/culture, and a host of other things aimed at lifting them out of the humdrum or the painful.

Of course there are writers who are definitely not nice – political and religious apologists and/or propagandists, individuals with a personal vendetta against society or one of its groups. Such people thrive on distortion, reductionism, cynicism and a dedication to their own cause which shows little respect for those outside its concerns. But I prefer the glass to be half full and the writers I know and celebrate, famous and unknown, are those who write to make other people’s lives better. Like Mr Bennett, they’re nice.


Chris Longmuir said...

Interesting post, and I share your experience about using real people. a friend of mine begged to be the new DI in Missing Believed Dead, and I did try, but like you, the real character got in the way of the fictional character to the detriment of being able to develop the fictional one. I had to apologise to my friend and say I couldn't do it.. I have an army of fictional characters in my head, and they are just that, fictional.

Dennis Hamley said...

Yes, a thought-provoking post and one which ties in with my own experience. I too think it's nonsense to say that fictitious characters can be portraits of real people. Of course there are prototypes because we live in a real word and interact with other human beings. But we can't see them as a painter does. Aristotle was right. Character issues in action. We don't know who they are until we see what they do and the author doesn't necessarily have power over that. Stories are demanding things and if they are limited to what our models are likely to do as we read them in real life then we are fatally hobbled. Sooner or later, our characters become their own people. Out of the Mouths of Babes was intended to be a sort of healing novel, until the characters themselves got together and told me I didn't know the first thing about them and I'd better change things or else...

Mari Biella said...

Very interesting, Bill. Like you, I often take real people as convenient starting points, either in terms of their appearance, mannerisms, way of speaking, or whatever. That's where the similarities end, though. If I tried to reproduce a real person in fiction I wouldn't understand that character, for the simple reason that, even if I knew the person, I couldn't really get inside his or her head. A truly fictional character allows you that particular insight; it allows you to see who this person really is. This is, perhaps, why I've never been able to hate any of my characters, even the less lovely ones; I understand them too well for that.

Reb MacRath said...

Only lately have I come to accept that family, in particular, are likely to see themselves or other family members in anything we write. One younger brother saw himself in any character within three inches of his diminutive stature...or anyone who worked in advertising...or anyone who had an older brother as handsome and charming as I am. Though our characters are composites, such deluded fools fix on bits and pieces.

Well done, Bill!

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks, all.

Chris, it’s interesting that your friend should want that. How bizarre it would be to read a novel knowing that you were one of the characters.

Dennis, glad you’ve experienced the feeling of being put in your place by your creations too. Weird, isn’t it?
To your observation that we don’t ‘necessarily have power over’ what our characters do I’d add that readers may (probably will) interpret those actions in different ways too. So it’s back to the multiplicity of truths that has come up in previous AE blogs.

Mari, no room to develop it here, but your comment reinforces the notion that fictional characters are more ‘real’ than ‘real’ ones because we ‘know’ them. They make sense, are comprehensible, fit into patterns and schemes, whereas the people amongst whom we’re living are elusive, erratic, unknowable.

On the other hand, Reb, your comment about family makes me confess that the ‘me’ perceived by my brothers and sisters is frequently a different me than the one I assume myself to be, and I don't really know whose version, mine or theirs, is the more legitimate one.

Where on earth would we be without the reassurances of fictional people?

Lydia Bennet said...

I have occasionally based the original 'idea' of someone on a real person, but as you all seem to agree, they grow away from that once they get going, the little scamps. And yes there's nothing wrong with nice, Bill, bring on the nice say I!

julia jones said...

Yum yum, another Jack Carston novel - have stacked that up for my summer reading

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks, Lydia and Julia. Reassuring, as always, to learn that my experience is shared by others. And, Julia, it's so long since I wrote a Carston novel that I wonder what he's been getting up to in the interim. I hope I don't find that Kath has divorced him and that he's been sleeping rough and drinking too many cider and sherry cocktails.

Dennis Hamley said...

I've been thinking further about your blog, Bill, and all the comments so far and they've emboldened me to say something quite personal. My books often have at their centre girls/women - Alys and Gyll in the Joslin de Lay medieval mysteries, Lyndsey in Spirit of the Place, Grizelda in Out of the Mouths of Babes and Ellen in Ellen's People and Divided Loyalties - who are all very different (character does issue in action) but share qualities of strength and integrity, high intelligence and wisdom and physical and emotional bravery. I don't want to sound foolish but I have ended each book almost half in love with them! I wondered if such paragons existed. Well, they do because I found her.

Bill Kirton said...

I know what you mean, Dennis. I hope that all my main, and even secondary, female characters – and there are plenty of them – resist stereotyping and have strengths and flaws equivalent to those of the men. A reviewer once accused me of being ‘rather sexist in that two of the four main female characters [in Material Evidence] are decidedly strange, DC Mcneil is a cypher and Kath Carston is a chauvinist's dream wife’. Since Kath does, I confess, share some (but only some) characteristics with my own wife, I can say with confidence that that assessment of the character is as far from true as it’s possible to be. Like all of us, readers see what they expect (or maybe want) to see. (I should also admit that I’ve no idea what constitutes ‘a chauvinist's dream wife’ – sounds like a very dull creature.) As for falling in love with them - that happened to me when I was a teenager and first read Madame Bovary. The flame still burns (in spite of Jan's disapproval).