Other People



Yesterday, my daughter felt ill and stayed home. ‘I’ll need to write,’ I said. ‘I’ll sleep late,’ she promised. At 7:45 am she arrived downstairs, despondent and wanting my company. That was my writing over for the day – we ended up going junk shopping and getting things to finish off her new room. Last night, I went out to dinner with some colleagues. It was absolutely lovely, but I didn’t get an early start this morning. At lunctime, I’m off to see Robbie Williams at Wembley, with my dear mate, who loves Robbie’s songs. My husband won the tickets at work. If I get an hour in on the ms. today, I’ll be lucky, and I can’t carry my laptop into Wembley (to get good seats, we’re going there straight off the train), so I won’t be writing tomorrow morning, either.

Other people are hell in a writer’s life. But what can you do? Being interested in people, being curious about them, is often what gets you writing fiction in the first place. And people who wrote really amazing characters – your Mark Twains and Jane Austens and Charles Dickenses – were intensely social people. They wrote so well about people because they knew them.

I know lots of writers, so I know lots of different kinds of people who write. Some are the kind of writer I grew up thinking I would be; aloof, self-sufficient, rather austere. One has a very bright, brittle intellect. She writes very bright, brittle novels where everyone is either bright and brittle or very stupid and socially clumsy. (I’m sure if I were one of her characters, I would fall into the latter group.) I think this often happens to the austere ones…they end up writing everyone as themselves, because that’s the only person they really know. 

Sometimes (though of course not in a writers know) characterisation is very thin. Men who don’t think about sex and women who have no demands on their time from friends and family, people who only think about work when they’re at work, people who have no wishes or dreads, whole populations of people who are prepared to listen to long speeches from the main character…

It’s a lot easier to write that way. You get your plot. You get your main character. And you move the latter through the former. Job done. But it’s not good fiction and it’s not a believable world. 

People always have their own hopes and dreams. People always want something and are trying to get it. People have complex lives and motivations. Even the security guard who is taping the crime scene at the mini-mart is thinking about something. When the police officer arrives, and says, ‘We’ll take over, now. You’ll be wanted for interview,’ he can reply, ‘Yes, Ma’am.’ Or he can reply,  ‘At least somebody wants me,’ or, ‘Can I go pick up my daughter first?’ or, ‘I knew it. I’ll never get to go on my fishing trip,’ and become a real person. The police office can then react, deepening the characterisation of the protagonist as well. ‘You’ll need to call someone else to get her, I’m afraid,’ she can say. Or she can give the security guard a long look and just say, ‘Wait over there.’ It doesn’t take up much space or slow down the pace, but it enriches the story by making the world deeper and more real. 

Which is exactly what my daughter, my husband, my colleagues and my mates do for me. I can’t write a real world without living in it…living in it with real live people with their own hopes and dreams…some of which include me. But then again, if I never have time to write about it all…

I’m going back to work, now.  


2 thoughts on “Other People

  1. Universal dilemma … I wonder what the equivalent of going to see Robbie Williams was for Dickens, Austen and Twain.

    1. For Dickens, the Music Hall, for Austen seeing Keane in a touring production of Shakespeare Speeches and for Twain…Twain’s whole cultural experience was largely very Robbie Williams…

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