Everyday lives of country folk…?

“‘An everyday story of country folk’. No, not Ambridge but Meonbridge. And not in recent times either, but in the middle of the fourteenth century. A tale covering a single year; one of twists and turns too. The Black Death has recently passed over the village reaping a harvest of dead adults, children, and infants; tearing holes in the fabric of village life, as well, of course, as causing holes in the ground – so many the old churchyard cannot take them all… …Those who tune-in with anticipation to Radio 4 at six-thirty in the evening, will probably love this book.”
From a review of Fortune’s Wheel by Alan Hamilton on Amazon on 11th February 2017.

When I first read this review of Fortune’s Wheel, I have to confess to feeling slightly put out. He was comparing TheArchersLogomy “literary masterpiece” to The Archers – a soap opera, for heaven’s sake! – although he didn’t actually call it that…

But then I recalled that, in my own blog of just a few weeks before, I had myself referred to Fortune’s Wheel as “more the ‘everyday lives of country folk’”. What I meant then was that my novels’ plots are based on social history, the stories of ordinary people, and their everyday lives, rather than high-level politics, war, or the antics of royals and the nobility.

Stories that are, essentially, much like fourteenth century versions of those in The Archers

What’s more (I told myself once I had climbed down from my high horse), I actually love that everyday story of country folk, and I’m definitely one of those who tunes in eagerly to BBC Radio 4 at six-thirty (or, actually, two minutes past seven!) every evening…

And I am not alone. Even John Banville loves The Archers. In an article in the Mail Online, on 4th September 2010, Banville “a lifelong Archers fan, explain[ed] the draw of the world’s longest-running radio soap opera”. But, he said, “soap opera is much too sudsy and urban a term to apply to this awesomely impressive phenomenon.…” He went on to say that the programme was garnering a new crop of younger listeners, and (in 2010) “a listenership of almost five million…a lot of eager ears.”1 Of course eager eyes are what authors want for their books!

So if my novel proved to be wildly popular, what possible reason could I have to feel miffed? Well, of course, I wouldn’t.

Nonetheless, I do still feel bound to contemplate to what extent Fortune’s Wheel might be a form of soap opera…

soap operaWikipedia defines soap opera as “…a serial drama on television or radio that examines the lives of many characters, usually focusing on emotional relationships to the point of melodrama.

The Free Dictionary says: “A drama, typically performed as a serial on daytime television or radio, characterised by stock characters and situations, sentimentality, and melodrama.

Oh dear – I don’t at all like the sound of “stock characters and situations, sentimentality, and melodrama”! Of course, the term “soap opera” is often (invariably?) used pejoratively, to imply something trashy and trivial – which is obviously why, at first, I was rather put out at the suggestion that my work was of that ilk. But whereas, obviously, Fortune’s Wheel doesn’t exactly fit the definitions, because it is a book and not a television or radio drama, it does have one or two of the same elements as such dramas, which I thought might perhaps be worth exploring.

cast_thousandFor example, The Archers has a large cast of characters, and the storylines alternate between them. Not all of the characters appear in every episode, indeed some don’t appear for months.

Fortune’s Wheel too has quite a large cast, which a few readers don’t seem to care for very much. Some because they find it hard to remember who everyone is, others perhaps because they simply can’t identify with any of them properly or, as my reviewer Alan Hamilton put it, find it “hard to feel particularly strongly about any of them”. But other readers love having lots of characters – or at least don’t find it too daunting as, said one reviewer, with the “list of all the important characters at the beginning of the novel… I soon acquainted myself with them all.” I too like a large cast, as long as it’s not too difficult to  distinguish between the characters…

I guess that particular preference is horses for courses…horses for courses

A major challenge of having a mega-cast, however, is controlling multiple protagonists, and weaving together their many different story threads. We are often told as writers that we “should” have a single strong main protagonist, one character for readers to identify with or root for (or indeed loathe). But I have three “main protagonists” in Fortune’s Wheel, four in its sequel, seven in The Nature of Things… And there are very many protagonists in The Archers, some undoubtedly more significant than others.

So how do readers/listeners cope with such a plethora of people to love (or hate)? Do they in fact fail to find anyone to root for? I suppose some do fail – those people, perhaps, who don’t like a cast of thousands?

But I suspect that many listeners to The Archers are simply drawn to one or more characters in particular, and follow their stories with more interest than others. That’s certainly true for me. I invariably find myself listening eagerly to the next instalment of so-and-so’s story, but switching off (my ears) when the scene changes to someone else’s story in which I’m not quite so interested.

Interestingly, in Fortune’s Wheel, if it seemed initially, from the early pages of the novel, that Alice atte Wode was the “main” main protagonist, in fact it seems to have turned out that Eleanor Titherige is the character to whom readers (or at least those who have mentioned it) have been most drawn, and whose continuing story they are most eager to discover…

relationshipsIn both Fortune’s Wheel and The Archers, storylines alternate between the protagonists. Stories in soap operas tend to be about relationships between the characters, and the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives. Occasionally, a storyline might draw on a topic of national or political importance, and sometimes a story will be full of drama and tension, even horror, as one or more of the characters has to face an extraordinary event that is beyond everyday experience. But these dramatic storylines are  interspersed between the more gentle, commonplace incidents of normal life. Some storylines are relatively short and insignificant, while others are major, sometimes harrowing – and authentic-seeming, partly because they seem to be playing out in real time – dramas that spin out over many episodes, sometimes lasting for months.

The effect is not dissimilar in Fortune’s Wheel. It is the first in a novel series, “The Meonbridge Chronicles”, where individual characters’ storylines may not be concluded in one novel, but will continue in a subsequent one. The stories are also essentially about relationships, some joyful, some troubling, others challenging and even devastating. There are of course far fewer storylines than in The Archers (if only because its scope is so very much more restricted), but certainly there is at least one, and sometimes more than one, storyline for each main protagonist. Dramatic events are interspersed between the minutiae of everyday life. Weaving together the different story threads in a way that maintains interest in the storyline that is centre stage without detracting from those waiting in the wings is one of the challenges of both a soap opera and this type of novel.

Another of the challenges of having lots of characters is, of course, distinguishing between them. Obviously, this is relevant to all forms of drama and fiction, but is perhaps of particular pertinence here…

On the radio, it is true of any drama but, I think, particularly women talking
so with something like The Archers, that one has to tune one’s ear to the different voices, and there are certainly times when I can’t distinguish between the young men – is that Tom Archer or Chris Carter or one of the Fairbrother brothers? Or indeed, between the young women – is that Helen? Pip? Alice?

For a radio drama, it is especially important – if tricky – to ensure that different characters have different, distinctive, voices. This is partly an issue of actors. But language is also a factor. And so it is in a novel.

A writer has to try and ensure that all her characters’ voices don’t just “sound” the same, with the same vocabulary, the same turns of phrase, the same intonations. And I actually think this is quite difficult to achieve, particularly if your novel does have a large cast with, say, two or three characters of the same gender and age, and from broadly the same social background. In my novel The Nature of Things, for example, two of the principal narrators, Tom Godewryght and Peter atte Hyl, are young men, essentially from the same sort of background – relatively lowly peasant stock – both of whom, in their different ways, go “up in the world” and get a modicum of education. Although their narratives are decades apart in the novel, so that they never do actually “appear” together, it still seemed important to try and make sure that they “sounded” like quite different, and therefore more distinctively “real”, people.

In the sequel to Fortune’s Wheel, I have a similar problem with two of the young women, both of whom appeared in Fortune’s Wheel but, in the sequel, are two of the four principal  narrators. Emma Ward and Susanna Miller are of similar age and both cottars, so how do I make each sound distinctively herself?

CommunicationA good test of voice differentiation is, I think, when each voice is sufficiently distinctive that the dialogue could be written without attributions. If the voices are adequately differentiated – especially when the characters are talking to each other – you should be able to “hear” which of them is speaking even if their names are not tagged on the page. That’s the theory, anyway – and certainly what I aim to achieve.

So, three ways in which Fortune’s Wheel might possibly be considered a form of soap opera: a large cast of main characters; multiple, interwoven storylines, with a mix of everyday and high drama; and the challenge of creating many distinctive and “real”-seeming voices.

It’s hardly a tightly-argued analysis! But interesting, I think.

But I still might ask, is Fortune’s Wheel a form of soap opera? And, if so, should I mind? It’s true that I might have preferred my magnum opus to be regarded as a work of “literature” but, when all is said and done, if Fortune’s Wheel ever turned out to be even as remotely popular as The Archers, why on earth should I object? As long as, I suppose – and this is very important! – it is not simply dismissed as trite or trivial or melodramatic, which, so far, is certainly not the case. Even the reviewer who sparked off this train of thought didn’t say that.

So, what do you think? If you’ve read Fortune’s Wheel, do you have a thought or two? And even if you haven’t read it…

  1. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1308908/Fresh-crop-Archers-giving-Ambridge-unexpected-sex-appeal.html#ixzz4fGM3VovU

Bringing characters to life – not quite literally…

MacbookIt’s a very strange thing, being a novelist. You give life to people who don’t actually exist… It’s a bit like being a parent except that, in that case, the person you give life to is a flesh-and-blood, breathing, demanding being, whereas the characters in your novel no longer exist once you close your laptop lid…

Except that, of course, they do. They hang around inside your head. They talk to you in the middle of the night. They even tell you what’s going to happen in your novel, for goodness’ sake!

I have written creatively on and off all of my adult life. But it was only when I started woman writingwriting seriously, in a more focussed, structured, conscious way, that I discovered how very “real” invented characters can turn out to be. I don’t know if all novelists find this, but I rather imagine that many of them do.

In my own case, the way I write my characters – or at least the main narrator characters – is very consciously intimate. I like to have a number of narrators, who take it in turn (though not rigidly) to “relate” their part of the story, so that each chapter is told entirely from one character’s point of view. This is the style I find myself falling into with each new novel. In my Meonbridge Chronicles, including the recently published Fortune’s Wheel, I write in the past tense, third person – close third person, I think it would be called.

In my as-yet unpublished novel, The Nature of Things, for the first time, I tried writing in the first person and the present tense, thinking it would bring greater intimacy. John Mullan has said that this style has the effect of  “replicating the immediacy of experience” (How Novels Work, p.72). And, in fact, I felt that, for The Nature of Things, the first person present did work well, as it seemed really immediate and engaging, which was what I wanted to achieve – capturing the characters’ voices in a way that might enable readers to feel they were inside their heads – or, indeed, were them. In truth, though, I agonised over that decision, if only because I had read so often of readers who “hated” first person present, and I feared that I might alienate potential readers. But I did it anyway, simply because – for that particular book – it felt right. Only time, and publication, will tell if it was the correct decision! But it was an experiment – one that I think worked well – but nonetheless I am sticking with the  third person past for all the Meonbridge Chronicles.

medieval women talkingPerson and tense aside, my narrative style demands that my characters sometimes talk to the reader about what they are thinking and feeling, about their anxieties and their dreams. I’m not suggesting that there is anything unusual in this sort of introspection – this “inner dialogue” – because it’s a great way of developing fully-rounded, complex characters, and writers of every genre use it, though some writers are a great deal more introspective than others. I’m sure I’m among the former. And I wonder to what extent the intimacy of the writing style an author uses actually contributes to the sense of intimacy that she develops with her characters?

Anyway, where is this is all leading? What I really set out to say in this blog post is this…

It is interesting to contemplate how it is that a character evolves from being just a name with a set of invented features and traits into a corporeal-seeming person with thoughts and feelings, worries and aspirations? And how does that person then seem to acquire sufficient “agency” to determine events in the novel that I have created?

Perhaps it’s worth me explaining how I create – no, give life to – my characters…

Once I have an underlying premise and a setting for the novel, a few characters somehow present themselves to me, although I’m not quite sure how that happens. Generally, at the early stage, they are rather vague, 2-D, not much rounded or fleshed out. They quickly enough acquire a name (although it might well change) and a set of physical characteristics, and I know their family relationships, but possibly little of their friendships or antipathies. Before I start writing a draft of the novel, alongside the broad outline of the whole story that I always write, I also flesh out my characters – or at least the narrator characters – by writing a profile for each of them. This will include obvious things such as what they look like, what they do for a living, where/how they live, their families and friends and so on. But, most importantly, also my initial thoughts about their anxieties and motivations. I do write profiles for minor characters too – my novels tend to have a large cast – although they are generally not quite as detailed, or as intimate, as for the main ones.

Medieval woman writingI find that writing a few paragraphs or more of an imagined journal for each main character works quite well too (even though, of course, most of my fourteenth century characters wouldn’t be able to write such a thing). It helps me to see those anxieties and motivations through their eyes, and also to build a picture of their relationships – good and bad – with other characters.

As I write the first draft of the novel, I consult the character profiles as often as I need to, adjusting them where necessary as my acquaintance with, and understanding of, the characters develop. I don’t set out knowing all of their innermost thoughts and feelings, but find that they emerge little by little as the story proceeds, just as you gradually learn about a real friend’s thoughts and feelings as your relationship with them develops.

Theatre stage
Image courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Douce 387, fol.3r

As I write, I do of course put words into my characters’ mouths, and thoughts into their heads, and I move them about on the stage I have set, in the role that I have planned for them.

I should just say that, right now, I am writing the first of a number of sequels to my published novel, Fortune’s Wheel. What this means for the characters is that I already know some of them quite well – including, for this first sequel, all the main narrator characters. Even so, I have still reviewed, and indeed updated, the profiles I wrote for those characters for Fortune’s Wheel. Because, although they must of course remain essentially the same people, with a new storyline, a fresh set of events, and indeed the passage of time, they will experience new anxieties and motivations, and perhaps interact with different characters. Intriguingly, new sides to their personality or temperament might even be revealed…

I’m pretty sure that, as I write the novel, for a while at least, the characters do what I say. But then, perhaps without much warning, I realise that I’m writing something that I hadn’t really planned – typically, a passage of dialogue, or one of those introspections – that will almost certainly change some aspect of the story. The characters, it seems, have become strong enough – real enough – to decide for themselves what to do or say or think, rather than simply letting me decide for them. I mustn’t overstate the case – they don’t completely take over. But they do seem to take on a sufficiently real existence to enable them to share the telling of their story. Can you believe it? Well, I never would have, had I not experienced it.

But I have read about this phenomenon many times in authors’ blogs and articles, writers who say that their characters sometimes do seem to take over and direct proceedings. So I know that I’m in good company with other novelists, although some people do insist it’s all hogwash and those authors are letting their imaginations run  away with them…

Dianne DoubtfireHowever, in her short but excellent little book of thirty-plus years ago, The Craft of Novel-Writing, Dianne Doubtfire said:

“Sometimes a character becomes so real that he refuses to do what you have planned for him. When this happens, don’t coerce him; it means you have created a real person with a will of his own and this is a marvellous moment in any novelist’s life.”

And that is what I think. I don’t really believe that novel-writing is an obscure “mystery”, so much as a craft that needs time and practice. But I do feel that, when my characters somehow become people, real enough to make their views and innermost thoughts quite plain, I have stumbled across a moment of mystery, and even magic, in my novel-writing life, and that is indeed a marvellous thing.