Au revoir mes enfants, bonjour les grotesques

Musing on characterisation, and getting the right blend of child/adult and monster/alien in my fiction.

I’ve been thinking a lot about voice recently. I get criticised, when anyone cares to make any observation at all, when I write things that aren’t ‘Ivan’. Like my last post, which I had intended as an exercise, and was supposed to be about the fear that was crippling me from writing anything new, but instead turned into something darker and more reptilian. But at the same time, it became more wordy, more showy… less me.

I've got sweeties for you

And I’ve been called out for it. I understand that. I get it. There’s something self-indulgent about bringing attention to your word choices. Oddly, I think it’s not so obvious if I make words up, rather than choose an ivory-enamelled one.I need to put that toy back in the box. Or find a different game to play – by using more points of view, or introducing more than one narrator per story.

Most of my writing for the past year has been very strongly first-person narrative, with a lot of interior monologue. The thing that has most affected me as a writer recently, is Daniel Day Lewis’s monologues from There Will Be Blood. I haven’t felt such a – ooh, I don’t know, visceral is such a stupid word – but it’s a rumbly feeling in your stomach when the bass hits just right and your inner cat wants to purr while your head is trying it’s damnedest to warn the heart for lies. I didn’t explain that well, but listen to Plainview speak again when you get a chance. It’s simply brilliant characterisation, and a highly distinctive voice. Larger than life, grotesque, even, but totally believable.

Most of my stories feature a child, or child-like, narrator. Often they are around the 8-10 year old mark. I don’t really know why – perhaps I’m working something out in my head. They rarely have a nice story to tell.  And when they’re not physically young, they are emotionally immature. But if I get away with it with a child, so far, adult readers are  finding it harder to ‘forgive’ an adult character’s flaws, which they are happier to do for a child’s. Or at least, that’s what I’ve found. You can use a word that’s too old for a child, or they can be too astute or even too mute, but when I write a ‘flawed’ adult, I’m finding that my readers are much more judgemental.

I wonder why that is? Is it simply not writing believable enough scenarios or characters? Hmm. Perhaps I am asking the reader to suspend too much disbelief, to ignore too much of their own experience. I’ve never really thought about it that way, but I guess I ‘read’ crime, SF and other genre fiction with different expectations from when I read literary or commercial fiction. Is it as simple as observing more conventions?

I frequently use naivety, ignorance or plain self-absorption as the catalyst for plot and character interaction. Usually, my characters grow or learn something – become less flawed – but sometimes the reader doesn’t see them as flawed, they see them as caricatures, or stereotypes. Or doesn’t understand how such a character functions in a ‘normal’ setting. I’m writing too many aliens, and not enough monsters.Monsters can be credible, no matter how grotesque – but the reader needs to believe in them for the effect to work. Aliens are just that – alien.

And an adult who behaves like a child, after a point, becomes an alien.

Not really sure where I’m going with this thought, but maybe I need to do a little less playing with words and character, and do a little more ‘work’. If I get the believability right, then the reader doesn’t need to decide whether to come to ‘play’ or not – they’re simply there in the room with Tom, and his choices.

Did any of that make sense?

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