Some Thoughts on Writing
Characterisation in any sort of fiction, it is a complex thing, and requires a balance of the author’s memory, stylised affectation and realistic responses to situations. To briefly cover these – it is not uncommon for an author to spend time embellishing a character with mannerisms, speech patterns, and thought processes at the beginning of the novel, only to forget or confuse them later on. Stylised affectation is an amusing one, Neil Tennant’s Doctor Who had a good many, and if they are used not too often, they work well – the repeated catchphrases, the hand in the hair, and so on. But the thing with balance is that you must not over-do it – I once wrote a story (King James IV set in Carcassonne) where a character nodded a lot, to show he was thoughtful, as opposed to voicing speech – it was pointed out to me that he was rapidly becoming a nodding donkey, that the nodding was over-taking the story and that it was becoming unintentionally hilarious. As for realistic responses, this is the balance factor, this is where the mannerisms and catchphrases need to be reined in, need to be subordinated to the plot.
In fact, out of character reponses are often the most realistic response to major plot events – for instance, a character who never swears is likely to explode in expletives if bombs are going off all around him, an avowed aetheist may well issue a prayer if terrorists are opening fire on his convoy, the domineering boss may fall to pieces when faced with murder on the premises. This is all fine, is indeed excellent, as long as it does not break the characterisation. What I mean by breaking the characterisation is that after the moment of high stress the character should revert in general to the mannerisms, affectations, catchphrases and essential character as was already laid down earlier in the story – unless, of course, that a nervous breakdown is intended for the character.
Two of my favourite authors are Bill Knox and MC Beaton and their stories whilst excellently plotted with engaging characters rarely go much above 250 pages. That is because THEY DO NOT NEED TO. Some authors pad their work so much that the plot is buried beneath pages and pages of twists and turns – Robert Ludlum, or what is now known as “the estate of Robert Ludlum” or “from an idea by Robert Ludlum” was renowned for this. Sometimes it worked fine – The Osterman Weekend, The Bourne Supremacy, etc but sometimes it was simply layers of confusion built upon misdirection built upon vague ideas – The Holcroft Memorandum would be a supreme case in point. Whilst an interesting original idea, and some good characters and really quite readable, it goes on and on, with twists and continuously added complications until in the experience of this reviewer it became unreadable. If you’ve read 300 pages and don’t know what’s going on, something is obviously wrong!
I’m not at all against large books – Battlefield Earth by L Ron Hubbard was huge but was excellent, and was a quick read because the plot progressed and you didn’t have to keep second-guessing what was happening. It is of course a pity they massacred it when they made the film…
What it is really, is that a book should be the right length for the story that has to be told, and that length should not be padded out with too many twists and turns.
I began reading a crime novel recently, described as gritty Glasgow noir, or some such. After about 70 pages I gave up. The author had concentrated so much on the grit, on making everything disgusting down to the junkies puking on themselves, that there was no humour whatsoever in the book, and no reason to read it.
Humour might be something of a misnomer. What you want is something that makes you smile when reading a book – after all it should not be a dire experience. The smile might come from conscious wordplay or amusing scenes, but can come equally from characters you are happy to read about, adventures that you smile at, something sweet, someone you feel you can identify with. Gritty, dark and disgusting does not do it for me.