Monday, June 26, 2006

The Creative Process

The Washington Post periodically offers a column called "The Writing Life." Yesterday Monica Ali was the guest columnist.

According to her bio on the British Council of Arts, Ali is the daughter of English and Bangladeshi parents who brought her to live in the UK when she was three years old. Her first novel, Brick Lane, was published in 2003 and explored "the British immigrant experience." That novel was a finalist for the 2003 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

Ali was asked to discuss how she creates her fictional worlds. She began by talking about the two extremes of authors' relationships with their characters. She quoted Harold Pinter who said, "characters . . . are not easy to live with. . . You certainly can't dictate to them."

At the other end of the continuum is Vladamir Nabokov who said, "My characters. . .are galley slaves."

So which one is it? Do your characters control the story, dictating what they will do, and where they will go? Or do your characters obey your every whim, mindlessly diving into danger or a sexual tryst without hesitation?

I have often described myself as a "pantser," meaning one who writes by the seat of her pants. My ideas for novels are almost always plot-driven. I will have an idea of a situation into which I callously dump my characters. At the outset, I usually have only a vague sense of my characters and their GMC. Part of the fun for me in writing is to watch the characters come to life and begin to dictate the shape of the story. Frequently, my intention will be to have a character do one thing only to find, when we reach that point in the story, s/he could not possibly do that thing--it would be out of character.

AN ASIDE: One of the marks of a newbie writer is dialogue that includes, "As you know, Bob." The character then gives an lengthy explanation of something that all the characters already know. The only purpose for that stilted conversation is to impart knowledge to the reader. "As you know, Bob" is a perfect example of the writer imposing his/her will on the character and forcing the character to do something that does not make any sense at all.

As for Monica Ali, she said, "I approach writing through character." Her column suggests that she falls between the two extremes of Pinter and Nabokov--sometimes driving her characters and sometimes being driven by them.

In an interesting commentary on the issue, J.K. Rowling was interviewed Monday on television in Great Britain. She explained that she is well into writing the last book in her Harry Potter series. She wrote the last chapter of that book in 1990 before she had even sold the first book in the series. iWon News quotes her as saying, "The final chapter is hidden away, although it's now changed very slightly. One character got a reprieve. But I have to say two die that I didn't intend to die."

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