Tag: characters

“They’re All Dead Now”

There, and yet, not

Some reading to start your week off right, from the talented Becky Manawatu from Issue 13. We’re examining how absent characters work in stories, and how writers make them feel real to the reader, despite their non-appearance.

Becky Manawatu talks about the absent character that helps shape her narrative in ‘Abalone’, in our latest issue.

Becky is a reporter for one of the smallest independent daily newspapers in New Zealand, The News, Westport. She gained a Diploma in Writing for Creative Industries from the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology and now teaches fiction writing at NMIT part time. She was shortlisted for The 2018 Surrey Hotel Steve Braunias Memorial Writers Residency Award in Association with The Spinoff, and has had work published by The Spinoff and NMIT’s literary journal, Kiss Me Hardy. Her novel, Pluck, is to be published by Mākaro Press in May 2019. Her short story published by Headland, ‘Abalone’, was long-listed for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

“They’re All Dead Now”

You’d be hard pressed to find a novel, story or song that isn’t shaped by a dead, absent, or missing person. It is an imitation of life, really, or your coffee cup. Where would your long-black be without that empty space? You wouldn’t chug it, scalding hot, right from the machine. You’d go without.

One of the characters in my story ‘Abalone’ is a dead father. Not necessarily his death, but his no-longer-being-alive helps drive the narrative.

Most of these books in the shelf beside my bed have dead people in them. And hardly any of those dead people would do absolutely anything for anyone.

I wrote ‘Abalone’ directly after reading Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall at your Knees, which begins: ‘They’re all dead now.’

That is the entire first paragraph: ‘They’re all dead now.’

Ok. Great… If they’re all dead, why the fuck should I care, right?

But of course I did. I just had to know why, just had to know how, just had to know where and when.

But most importantly I just had to know who. Who is dead? Because knowing who is dead, is understanding the space that they’ve left behind.

And it is human nature to want to know that space. We might be secretly choosing the song that should be played at our funeral, and we might secretly hope that more than a few people will shed more than a few tears as that song plays, and we do these things partly because we are often denied a chance to understand.

I once took a selfie in the toilet following a funeral. I don’t know why, in fact I am almost embarrassed by myself, and yet here I am sharing it. I’d been sad, and I had cried, and in the bathroom mirror I had wiped away some mascara which had run a little – but then I smiled a little bit, just a little bit, and I went back out and drank a beer and ate some pāua, and doing those things when someone I’d held dear no longer could felt both very heartbreaking and very good – almost luxurious.

I wiped away some mascara and took this selfie in the bathroom after a funeral

We are interested in the space we’ll leave ourselves. This interest compels us to read, write and watch movies, and we are most attracted to those which include both loss and laughter.

Colum McCann wrote in his book of practical and philosophical advice, Letters to a Young Writer: ‘Never forget that art is entertainment. It is your duty to reflect the world, yes, but it is also your duty to bring a bit of brightness to it too.’ As Nietzsche says, we have art, so we shall not die of too much reality.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a novel, story or song that isn’t shaped by a dead, absent or missing person.

Furthermore, you’d be hard pressed to find a successful novel thick with loss and not lightened by a writer’s touch, lightened by humour – even in the tiniest detail, a flicker, a fleeting image.

The deaths of fictional characters, and their grieving survivors, are the most accessible (and abundant), because when real people die, the space they leave is quickly covered, quickly sanitised. It gets filled with words like, as Sunday Star Times Magazine editor Emily Simpson comically mused in a recent editorial, ‘He would have done absolutely anything for anybody,’ or ‘She was happy-go-lucky, bubbly, life of the party,’ and ‘She was so kind, so thoughtful.’ Dead people are most often the very, very best people that the world is so much worse without.

We can be shunned from the space by terms: ‘the investigation is ongoing and the family requests privacy.’ And, yes, that privacy must be respected.

But, it is still another closed door. It is another door that we can’t help but imagine, and wonder what is going on behind it.

Wonder would drive us to madness if it weren’t for fiction. Even if you only watch movies, it is my guess those movies – in fact all the stories that have shaped society- might have saved you from overstepping a line, from knocking on a door you shouldn’t knock on.

I mean, we’d be barbaric without stories. We’d be barbarians driven mad by wonder.

Fiction waits patiently, to answer every question and satiate any curiosity (to an extent) the real world denies us. While real doors shut, art lets us in. To listen to the aching echo, to feel how deep and desolate it might be – to watch a relative acid trip through a funeral, or to see the Happy Birthday song Bella sung for Ricky Baker before she keeled over, as she was hanging out the washing. That’s art. That’s story.

When I wrote ‘Abalone’ I wanted to explore the space a man’s dead father leaves, and exploit the way his mother tries to fill it. Her extravagant over-compensation. The compulsive way she bears down, fills the space with her excessive presence and intrusion, and desperately tries to protect her son from falling into the void his father left.

I wanted to expose that dark space, but as it is stark reality that will kill us before we’re even dead, I hoped to write something to counter it.

In ‘Abalone’ the mother fills and fills and fills the space her son’s dead father left – until the earth literally cracks at their feet.

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Read Becky’s story ‘Abalone’ in Issue 13.

Current Issue

Kehua in the Text

There, and yet not there

For Issue 13 we decided to get a couple our contributing writers to tell us a little about their absent characters. The ones that play a role in the story, are even pivotal to the story, and yet do not appear.

Vaughan Rapatahana kicks things off with some musings about the kehua in his story ‘He pahemo’:  Vaughan is widely published across several genre. His poetry collection, Atonement, was nominated for a National Book Award in Philippines in 2016, the same year he won the inaugural Proverse Poetry prize. His most recent collection, ternion, is published by erbacce-press, Liverpool, England. Currently, he is writing a further series of commentaries on Aotearoa NZ poetry, for Jacket 2 (University of Pennsylvania, USA), while he was also included in Best New Zealand Poems, 2017.

 

 

Kehua in the Text

In my short story one of the key characters is never seen, but is a nexus individual because he is a prime influence on the action. A key way to make such invisible characters somehow extant is to describe something about them quite vividly: their habits; their behaviours; or their effects on other individuals in the story, to the extent that they actually influence what happens.

In this particular tale, the character is still around, even though he is never visible. He is a kehua or spirit; someone who does not realise he is dead; someone who still seeks a form of release to depart once and for all. Thus, here, he can be felt as a presence and – more – as a sound. He strongly influences the main character, his ex-wife, even though he is deceased. This is because for us, kehua are in fact existing entities –  they are between worlds, if you will.

For us, it is no surprise that kehua are around; we accept them and attempt to place them at rest. Other characters in this story, because of their cultural belief, also induce their reality – thus the wife’s father and aunt, who both  express the requirement to karakia.  Again, the interface with others brings about the ‘reality’ of a never visible character, a character who is in many ways the ‘main’ protagonist.

 

 

 

 

Read Vaughan’s story and 11 other amazing works in Issue 13.

People Not Characters

Characterisation Part III

Ray Bradbury wrote in Zen in the Art of Writing: “plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” We believe that the destination need not be incredible, but that the characters are indeed the lifeblood of a short story.

We’re wrapping up our Issue 9 characterisation series with some thoughts from Matt Billington on creating “people, not characters”. In Part I, Craig Burnett shared his insights into creating his character Kirk in ‘Seeds’. Next, Alie Benge discussed “borrowing a rib and breathing life” into hers.

Matt’s story, ‘A Use For Everything’ appears in Issue 9. Matt grew up in Rotorua and has spent the last eighteen years playing in DIY punk bands, his current one being The Prophet Motive.  He enjoys reading Donald Ray Pollock, listening to Propagandhi, and lives in West Auckland with his artist wife Kerry and son, Jordan.

People Not Characters

A Use For Everything is my first publication. The protagonist is Jamie, and the story is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator. Both are kids.

Before this story came thousands upon thousands of hours of failed attempts at writing characters – tattooed gangsters, overbearing parents, and Double Brown-swilling punk rockers – all crashing and burning under cliché and frustration. Caricatures that sounded how I thought they should sound, and all ended up sounding the same.

A ‘character’ is a portrayal of a person. The stories I love do not have ‘characters’. They have living, breathing people who, fictitious though they may be, are people I feel I know.

Irvine Welsh’s Renton.

Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant Casey.

Craig Marriner’s Lefty.

Anything by Amy Hempel (her book Collected Stories is writing mastered. None of us will ever be that good).

So my goal is to turn characters into People. People you haven’t met, but People you know.

There are three things I did to develop the People in A Use For Everything. The first thing was to understand who was telling the story, and where and why they were telling it. I imagined the narrator leaning over the handlebars of his bike, eyes fixed on bare toes pushing gravel in wave patterns as he told this story to someone new. He has to tell it because it is something he can’t understand and he can’t digest it.

A Use For Everything is someone talking about something they don’t want to talk about. People talking about uncomfortable events will often avoid them, something us readers do not like. I got around this by using repetitive phrases:

Jamie and the time he did that thing with his penis

It is Jamie I’m going to tell you about though, really

Not long before he did that thing I’m going to tell you about.

This gives the reader a sense of the narrator’s discomfort, while assuring them that we are going to talk about it.

The second thing was language. People telling stories aloud seldom use correct English; kids such as John, Andrew, Jamie, and the narrator would not use it at all. He says, ‘That’s me, John, and Andrew’ not ‘John, Andrew and I.’

How many times have you heard one of your mates tell a great yarn, and you have repeated it and it has fallen flat? Did that mate of yours get his language technically correct, or was his timing and imagery bang on?

The narrator speeds up with longer sentences when he is talking about all the awesome stuff they get up to. He doesn’t need to say ‘this was awesome’ or ‘this really sucked’ because the reader can already tell how the narrator feels by the pace of the narration.

Also, for the first time, I disregarded speech quotations. I originally did this as an exercise to really really really nail down actions to indicate who was speaking – the gulps, the fidgets, the toes-in-gravel, etc. I kept it, because on the page it looks like the speech and actions are one thing, a much stronger visual for the reader who isn’t distracted by pesky “”””” marks and new lines for each part of dialogue. More importantly, it allows the narrator to describe the people around him through his own eyes but using their language, the way kids repeat their parents’ points of view.

And last of all, interior lives. Readers love to know where a person comes from, it explains why they act the way they do. A massive trap for writers is the dead wood of ‘backstory’ that will clutter up your writing like shoes, toys, and school bags left in a hallway. Explaining an action by describing a past experience is tempting, but it risks taking the reader away from the actual events of the story they are reading, and dulling the impact of the ‘present’.

It is more effective to show the reader a side of the Person with something physical. Here is an example, using Jamie: He lived with an uncle he spoke of in words as quiet as breath and as quick as you take a plaster off a scab.

The reader can visualise how Jamie feels about his uncle from this one sentence. It also keeps with the theme of the story (talking about something we don’t want to talk about) and uses a metaphor that relates to childhood (scabs and plasters).

So that’s what I was going for. It worked for these people in this story, it might not work for the next people in the next story. I’ll just have to keep bashing the keyboard and find out. We’re all different.

 

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You can read Matt’s story and more in Issue 9.

 

 

 

 

 

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