Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Write what you know, or not

It's one of the classic pieces of advice, 'write what you know'. What it really means is that you should use your own experience of human interaction to inform the behaviour of your characters. It quite definitely doesn't mean limiting yourself to the limits of your objective knowledge, large parts of the science-fiction genre would go unwritten if it did.

What has me wondering is that even the correct interpretation could actually be a bit limiting. I'm white fifty-something and male, and all my life experience is refracted through the lens of that. It's easy and comfortable to write from that perspective and I know from experience it can create some problems when writing. A few years ago I was working on one of many failed novels and about two-thirds of the way through the first draft I realized that all my main viewpoint characters were male. Given the cultural setting of the world I had created that was possibly justifiable, but it just struck me that I was creating this whole imaginary universe and my creativity had fallen short on simply figuring out how to create a decent role for a female character. I tried rewriting some of the plot threads, which marked the beginning of an endless loop of rewrites that eventually collapsed the book under the weight of them.

I don't know how much that potential comfort zone affects other people's writing, but I suspect that it's not that uncommon. Trying not to fall into the trap isn't about political correctness, or trying to reflect current day social values, its about stretching yourself as a writer pushing out beyond what you know and trying something unknown. Better to fail doing that than winding up writing characters who are just endless variations on yourself.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Common Knowledge

'Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it' is a maxim that makes sense on one level and turns up in a lot of fiction, the character determined to fix past mistakes only to end up repeating them in an ironic twist. Thing is did that character fail to learn from history or did they just learn from the wrong version?

This isn't based on the idea that history is written by the winners, in fact I would say that the losers have often gotten better writes up than the winners, consider Napoleon or Robert E Lee. What I'm talking about here is the chasm that often exists between the common knowledge or pop culture version of historical events and the facts of what actually happened. The Battle of Dunkirk offers a great example of this. At the height of the battle Hitler issued what has become infamous as the 'Halt Order', which suspended attacks by the German army on Dunkirk for three days, allowed the British to consolidate their defence perimeter and carry out the evacuation. There are actually two 'common knowledge' versions of why this happened. The first is basically that Hitler was a lunatic, he panicked about a minor counterattack and called the halt over the vehement objections of his generals. The second explanation is that it was because Hitler admired the British Empire and let the troops escape in the hopes of getting the British to 'see sense' and make peace.

So which version is closer to the truth? Well neither actually. The description I gave of events surrounding the Halt Order is certainly the one that most people who've heard of it would give, but reality is something else. The fact was that only the Panzer divisions halted, the rest of the German forces maintained their pressure on the perimeter. More than that, it was the frontline generals who asked for the halt. They needed to regroup after two weeks of non stop action and they wanted to save their tanks for the operation that was going to bring them fame and glory, crushing the French army and driving into Paris.

Does it matter that the general public has the wrong view of events? I would say yes, as it often downplays the contribution of those who made huge sacrifices to influence events. From a writing perspective I would say it matters even more. If you buy into the notion that 'crazy people do crazy/stupid things because their crazy' it encourages last writing. Most of the 'stupid' decisions you can point to in real history have a rationale behind them that made sense to the characters at the time, that rationale may be misguided, or yes plain insane, with hindsight but based on what the character knew or believed it made sense.

In short characters may do stupid things for stupid reasons, but there is always a reason that makes sense to them.

Friday, 5 January 2018

The Myth of Fan Power

So first off happy New Year!

Now recently it seems there's been a glut of stories about outraged fandom condemning/defending the creative decisions of those in charge of various franchises. I'm not going to discuss the rights and wrongs of the reactions, my question is should these be getting the attention the media are lavishing on them and, more importantly from a writer's perspective, should their reaction influence the creative process?

I am taking here about the kind of people who fit the profile of the true 'fanatic', those who don't simply enjoy a particular work, but have developed a sense of ownership over it. one of the earliest and best know examples of this has to be Sherlock Holmes. When he went over Reichenbach Falls with Moriarty the fans were horrified and demanded his resurrection. In the end Holmes did return, a victory for the fans! Thing is though it wasn't the endless pleas from fans that changed Conan-Doyle's mind, it was financial desperation and the sales of 'Hound of the Baskervilles' that persuaded him to go back to a character he was frankly tired of. It's a fairly safe bet that if Conan-Doyle had been financially secure then Holmes tales would have ended in death at the hands of his nemesis(BTW there is a great science fiction story about this topic called 'You See But Do Not Observe' by Robert J. Sawyer that I wholeheartedly recommend.)

The Conan-Doyle template can be applied to a lot of modern fan 'victories'. The ability of a fan campaign to change the minds of creators and corporations has a great deal more to do with cold hard cash than zealous passion. The problem is that the true fanatics don't see it that way, they are convinced they are possessed of influence that goes beyond the contents of their bank accounts. There's also the problem that as anyone who has posted work online knows the ratio of views to reactions is generally terrible, even if people like something they can rarely be bothered to give it a rating let alone actually comment. The truth is that for most people being a fan of an author simply means they will read your next book. They read or watch for relaxation, it's not going to become an all consuming obsession.

At the end of the day you can't let some self-declared fandom control your creative process, follow the road you want to take and accept not everyone will be happy when you try something different.