Keeping It Unbelievably Real

By Tania Carver

Or at least half of her.  It’s Martyn here.  I’ve just got back from a week away, working hard on things to do with writing but not actually writing itself.  I know it’s expected of authors but it’s still time consuming and takes you away from what you’re supposed to be doing.

Not that it wasn’t enjoyable.  Far from it.  You see, for the past four years I’ve been Reader in Residence for the Theakstons International Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, England (Or the Harrogate Festival for short, or just Harrogate, for even shorter).  I suppose a job description would be the go to guy for events involving and encouraging reader development among the audience and attendees for the Festival.  Part of that is the Big Read, which is what I’ve been on the road doing this week.

The Big Read is an annual event.  It takes a classic crime novel (Past books have been Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP, Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and Highsmith’s THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY) and gets readers all over the North of England reading it then coming together to discuss it.  It’s become quite successful.  The books are supplied by the publisher, the events are held in libraries.  I go along and host each session and it can be hard work.  I mean not digging ditches hard work, but quite demanding.  I have to be on top of things and know my stuff.  But it’s also very rewarding.  It’s a great opportunity to talk to readers, engage (or re-engage) with novels, to become involved with and celebrate the genre we love and live in. 

This year’s book is Reginald Hill’s ON BEULAH HEIGHT.  It’s slightly different from the others in that Reg only died this January and he was the first of the chosen authors that I knew personally.  But it’s still a classic book.  And, for an added frisson, set in the area the Big Read takes place in.  Reg was also one of the first special guests at the very first Festival and the first recipient of the Theakstons Lifetime Achievement Award we thought this was a good way to honour his memory.  I hope it is.  I hope we do him proud.

But that’s just an aside.  I wanted to talk about something that arose out of where I was for the weekend.  I was booked to do an event alongside Val McDermid, Mark Billingham and Frances Fyfield at the Astor Theatre in Deal, Kent.  Now Deal – for those of you who have never been and I’m guessing that’s quite a few – is an interesting place.  It’s a little seaside town on the Kent coast, just up from Dover, quite old and well conserved, and seems to have become a retreat for (usually rich and posh but not exclusively) the more bohemian-minded.  As a result, there are some genuinely interesting and lovely people there mixed in with some genuine eccentrics.  Think Midsommer (of ‘Murders’ fame) by the sea.  If that doesn’t work, imagine Patrick McGoohan being chased down the high street by a huge balloon.  You get the picture.  

I have to say, we were made very welcome.  Frances lives down there, as does mine and Val’s agent, so we were squired round to different people’s houses for food and drink.  It was like being invited to a party every three hours.  Consequently I think we consumed a week’s worth of food and drink (a lot of drink) in a couple of days.  And still did our event on Friday night.

And it was meeting one of the town eccentrics that got me – and Mark and Val – thinking.

We had been invited to a couple’s house for coffee.  A lovely couple, both archaeologists with fascinating stories, with a beautiful house on the sea front.  We sat on the veranda overlooking the beach chatting, drinking coffee and enjoying ourselves very much.  We were then joined by someone who I can only describe as a character.  Tall, thin, ascetic, imposing.  Dressed as if he’d just stepped out of the Weimar Republic and accompanied (or rather accessorised) by a small, dark, ugly dog.  He demanded he join us for coffee and came up.  Whereupon he, as Shakespeare once said, let loose his opinions.  This mainly involved making disparaging remarks, mainly about our clothes and professions.  Mark and Val and I were too gobsmacked to reply.  He was being quite offensive but we didn’t respond.  Not just because we were guests and therefore being polite but mainly because we were doing what all writers do in that kind of situation: filing him away for future use.  

Mark, Val and my agent eventually left to make our way to the next hosts, the next house and the next bout of eating and drinking, laughing as we went about the character we had just encountered.  My agent asked which one of us was going to be the first to use him in a novel.  And that’s when we fell a bit silent.  Because we realised that we couldn’t.  None of us could use him.  He was a larger than life character, a one off, someone who would need enormous toning down to appear in a novel.  Someone who, if presented as he was in real life, just wouldn’t be believable to a reader.  

And that was a shame, I thought, but it got me thinking.  In rather a sad way.  It’s one thing to encounter an extreme person and to use that encounter as a source for anecdotes to share with friends.  It’s quite another to use that person as a character – or even the basis of a character – in a novel.  And I’m not just talking about the morality of it.  I think all writers subscribe to Graham Greene’s statement about a writer having to possess that little chip of ice in their heart.  No.  What I mean is, how many times has a writer – and I’m not just thinking of myself here – been in a situation or encountered a person and thought, ‘There’s no way I could use that/him/her, no one would ever believe me’?  Yet the situation was experienced.  The person existed.

And in a way it’s a shame you can’t do that.  I remember when I was in drama school (I trained as an actor before I became a writer) a director told us why he didn’t have time for Method actors.  Method acting, he said, was something bad actors had to work at and good actors did instinctively.  And that a slavish adherence to the Method precluded any kind of spontaneity or surprise.  ‘How many times,’ he said, ‘have you walked down the street and seen something out of the ordinary?  Something unexpected?  And what would your response be as a Method actor?’  I knew what he was getting at.  There being more to Heaven and Earth than is dreamed off in a realist’s philosophies, as Shakespeare almost once said. 

I’ve thought about his words for years.  And when I met this character a few days ago and had a realistic novelist’s response to him it made me think of it again.  Was he right?  Should we be unafraid to present things and people that a reader may find implausible but were actually real?  Or should be temper our experiences to what a reader expects and prepare to be met with derision?

I don’t know the answer.  I’m not sure any of us do.  If anyone can throw light on the subject, please let me know. 

I’m off to the North of England for the second and final week of Big Read events now.  If I meet any more unbelievably real characters, I’ll let you know.    


6 thoughts on “Keeping It Unbelievably Real

  1. Jake Nantz

    I always tell my Creative Writing students the old one-liner, "The difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense." I agree, anyone that brash would be a post-up character, one the reader could never take seriously. About the best purpose he could serve would be a blustery death.

    Then again, what would his motivation be? If you could play with that a little, you might be able to make him the annoying middle-management/bureaucrat that sits safely in his shell he's created for himself and hypocritically chides others for something or another, but it would (again) have to make sense based on his motivations. He might make a good obstacle who becomes a reluctant good guy in the end (the kind the audience grudgingly applauds for the last good deed he did, even though he was a jackass the rest of the time).

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Martyn, I'm having trouble getting over my jealousy about you and Val and Billingham on the same panel and on an impromptu moveable feast. I'd travel halfway across the world to see the three of you go at it – knowing full well I'd be sore from laughing for at least a week after.

    I'm also having trouble picturing anyone who could stun the three of you into silence, but I do know what you mean. I wonder if this seamlessness of narrative is more a modern thing, maybe influenced by the realism of the movies. I'm rereading a lot of Wilkie Collins right now and certainly he, and in the same time frame, Dickens, never shied away from massive, larger than life characters – grotesques, really. It was a less consistent, more theatrical kind of writing, coming more out of a theatrical tradition. Lots of rough edges, but fascinating surprises, too.

    Truly great post – it's given me a lot to think about.

  3. Gar Haywood

    Martyn: I think the only time a writer should be hesitant to appropriate a larger-than-life, real-life character for his or her fiction is when that character exemplifies a time-worn stereotype. If no particular trope comes to mind, who cares if the character seems unbelievable? I do think, however, that the writer's narrative should acknowledge in some way how incredible he or she finds the character to be; a matter-of-fact description would imply that the writer sees nothing unusual in the character at all.

  4. David Corbett

    Martyn: I'm limited to my iPhone, waiting for my flight home from New York, so I'll keep this brief. I tend to agree with Gar. And though I don't think we can get away with Dickensian levels of eccentricity across the board, I think realism always has room for the real. It's all in the handling, I think. The temptation would be to make him a device, and I think Gar's right, that would reduce him to stereotype. The challenge would be to justify his place in the story without making him mere character-scenery or a plot puppet.

  5. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Martyn – I third Gar and David's responses. And, thinking Dickensian, I recall the lawyer in Great Expectations, who was truly a larger than life character, yet felt real, every bit of him. It's the author's job to anchor the eccentric character in such a way as to make him believable. I've met numerous apparently unbelievable characters in this world, and all can be captured in print with the proper cushioning.

  6. Pari Noskin

    I wish I could come up with something more original or apropos than Gar's comment, but it's not possible . . . especially when accessorized by David's and Stephen's additions.

    But I would say this: a character like that could be used in the right context if captured by the right writer. And you already made us want to read him.

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