Monday, July 24, 2006

Gene Genie

The traumatic furore over Susie the tortoise’s near-death experience (she’s fine, btw – I saw her at the weekend, savaging a melon) and miraculous recovery got me thinking about what we inherit from our parents.

And I’m not talking about Nanna’s Delft vase, or the antique bread board (pretty please, Mum).

We’re a product of our upbringing, of course, but what we inherit from our parents isn’t always obvious.

It wasn’t so much Susie’s trauma that distressed me, it was Dad’s devastation. Because I totally understood and empathised with it. From Dad I inherited my sense of responsibility towards animals, my joy in them, and my fear for them.

But the way I responded to my distress was straight from Mum – tears and reassuring words. Real, natural, honest emotion, sympathy and mothering. From Mum, too, I have a sense of animals that are ‘true to themselves’ (Mum’s mantra), animals as separate, natural beings with intrinsic value beyond the enjoyment or products we get from them, not just as furry humans, and not restricted by our expectations.

So, all very interesting, I’m sure, but so what?

Well, consider this:- What do your characters actually inherit from their parents?

I think about the books of friends and contemporaries – Kate Walker (The Antonakos Marriage, for example), Julie Cohen (how about Delicious?) and Michelle Styles (Try Gladiator’s Honour spring to mind – and can easily spot the influence parents have had on their offspring, whether those parents are an active part of the story or not.

Less so in my own books. In fact, so much less so, I’m cringing. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

(Some of the characters are double counted if they fit more than one category)

2 of my heroes feel they have nothing in common with their parents (one has nothing in common with his dead parents)
4 heroes can count five dead parents between them
3 out of 4 of my heroines are orphans (although they weren’t orphaned as young children)
1 hero has a mother he’s very close to, but she plays no part in the story
1 heroine is in violent conflict with her father, and her mother is dead
1 heroine is only in touch with her dead fiance’s mother.

In my defence, I can also pick out where the parental inheritance is clear and part of the motivation… but it’s still true to say that for some of my characters, I know next to nothing about their parents.

So what does this mean? Does it mean I had a childhood I’m trying to forget?

No. I had a lovely childhood, thankyouverymuch.

It means I’m a lazy writer.

It means I’m writing parents out of the story so I don’t have to deal with a complication, like having complex action happening ‘off-screen’ to avoid difficult descriptive work (which I DON’T do, thank God – writing action is one of my strengths).

This has got to stop.

To help it getting stopped, I’ve developed a short list of questions. I should say, though, that my attitude to character questionnaires is that asking them – thinking about them – is more important than answering them. Answers are a bonus, but awareness is key.

1) Who are her/his parents?
2) What did/do they do?
3) How is he/she the same?
4) How does she/he try to be different – do they succeed?
5) Does he/she owe their physical appearance their parents? (In other words, who has whose nose???)
6) What creeds and codes have they inherited?
7) What fears and insecurities have they inherited?
8) Are there any circumstances in which they’d want their parents’ advice, or would think, “what would they do?” What are they?
9) If his/her parents are dead, when and in what circumstances do they miss them?
10) If they’re alive, do they meet? How often? Where and when?

For me, I’m never going to have this information lined up at the start. I’ll ‘discover’ it as I write. But unless I’m looking out for the answers, I’ll never find them.

Go and have a play with your own characters, and see if you've avoided this particular pitfall.

Oh, and phone your Mum for a chat. You know she likes that.


At 11:05 pm, Blogger Anne McAllister said...

In other words, Anna, it's all about backstory -- the people in our characters' past who helped to make them who they are.

My current hero is trapped in a hell of his parents' making, and until he can break out of the mold and realize he is NOT destined to repeat it, he will not get his happily ever after. I love those backstory bits. It's the REST of the book that I bang my head against.

Glad to hear Susie is thriving. I've been thinking about her. Now I can think of her savaging a melon!w


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