Tag: NZ Writing

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Borrowing a rib and breathing life

Characterisation Part II

Following on from Craig Burnett’s post Kirk , and continuing our characterisation series, we hear from Alie Benge on crafting a believable character.

Alie’s story ‘No Church in the Wild’ appears in Issue 9. Alie has lived in Tauranga, Ethiopia, Tauranga again, and Australia, before finally ending up in Wellington. She is an editor for Open Polytechnic, and divides the rest of her time between writing her novel and trying to end modern slavery. Both feel equally difficult.

 

Borrowing a rib and breathing life

You know who a character is when you know what you need them to do. When you know what they’ll do, you’ll need to know why. Create the psychology that leads them to their action, then add some contradictions in their personality, and you’ve done it. You’ve borrowed a rib and breathed life into character.

Strangely, the first glimpse you get of a character is so often their hair colour. I don’t remember too much about the books I read as an 11-year-old, but I can tell you all about their hair; Jessica and Elizabeth’s blonde hair (read: pretty, popular, girly), Kristy’s brown hair that was always in a ponytail (read: laidback, a tomboy). The idea, I’m assuming, is to get straight to the point and efficiently reveal character through appearance, rather than showing over time through action. It’s efficient, sure. But it’s untrue. Real life villains don’t have long black hair and dark features. They’re more orange, if anything.

If you impose a ban on writing about hair, height or crooked smiles to reveal character; if you can’t use words like fiery or stubborn – what is left? Character is not appearance. It’s action. Instead of showing your reader what a character looks like, show them what they do. Trust your reader to make their own judgements.

That being said. There is one author who can reveal character through appearance. She wrote a little series called Harry Potter. Snape has a dark look, greasy hair, hooked nose. This casts him as the bad guy, and as the reader, we have enough information to make assumptions about him. We know his kind. But, the reason Rowling uses appearance as character successfully is because she uses it to wrong-foot us. She leads us to characterise Snape ourselves, based on his look. But in the end, we see that we were wrong. Who he is cannot be contained within his appearance. It’s what he does, who he loves.

The essence of character is contradiction. Contradiction is what makes them three-dimensional and lifts them off the page. When I was studying short fiction at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), some of the most helpful feedback from my portfolio was that I’d made my characters only one thing. All bad or all good. In real life, people aren’t like this. The most compelling characters I’ve seen in fiction are those that are both good and bad. A character who’s neither could be too passive, a character who’s only one is okay but not so believable. A character who is both is captivating. A prime example is Spike from Buffy and, once again, Snape. What I loved about learning this aspect of characterisation was that it helped me to understand people better, and to see that we’re capable of many conflicting things. Kind and unkind, true and false, good and bad. I saw how people can be at war with themselves, in inner conflict. We wrestle against aspects of our own character, trying to be good and sometimes failing.

The leopard in my story from Issue 9, ‘No Church in the Wild’, is what started the story. When I was a kid and living in southern Ethiopia, we really did have a leopard prowling around our property, making off with our chickens. I dreamt about the leopard every night for a long time. In the dream, my sisters and I would throw rocks at it and run away when it chased us. At the end of the dream I would trip, my sisters would run ahead, I would roll over to see the leopard poised above in the air. In my imagination, she took on a sort of mystical quality, so when it came to designing the character for this story, she brought the weird magic of dreams and memory with her. She became a kind of familiar that went between the Qalichas and the family. So, from the narrator’s perspective, she’s a threat – something she has to scare away. But to add a level of contradiction, she also has a relationship with the leopard. They watch each other, and they understand when the other has ceased to be a danger. If you believe the shadow in the bedroom was the leopard (and it’s up to you to decide) she leaves. The narrator is spared, but it’s a failed mercy because the mother falls sick that night. In her characterisation, I wanted this balance between good and evil, and even the balance of real and imagined, to be ambiguous and in conflict with itself. The balance should shift, as it does in life. And so, life informs art, and art doubles back to hold a mirror to life.

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Read ‘No church in the wild’ and more in Issue 9, available now.

So, um, what is creative nonfiction exactly?

So, um, what is creative nonfiction exactly?

 

Headland Co-Founding Editor Liesl Nunns

We love getting creative nonfiction submissions at Headland. We’d love to get more. We’d love to publish more. It’s not a well-known form in New Zealand, with ‘creative’ and ‘nonfiction’ perhaps seeming contradictory. It’s a many-headed beast to characterise, as the genre can encompass so many hybrid forms of journalism, opinion, memoir, travel writing, and review.

Too often at Headland we read a creative nonfiction submission and think, “I would have assumed this was a short story.” Presumably these pieces stem from memoir, but ‘fact’ is not the sole marker of creative nonfiction. That’s just a starting point.

Cliché though this may be as an observation, I shall dare to say that creative nonfiction should speak to ‘the human experience’. It is a fantastic vehicle for taking “here is what I think” or “here is what happened to me” and making connections to those larger ideas, thoughts, and concerns that make up the soup we’re all swimming in. A short story does this well by conjuring up scenarios or characters that leave us as readers with ‘homework’, drawing our own questions and conclusions and making our own cognitive leaps as the story ticks on in our minds. Creative nonfiction is like reading someone else’s homework. It is sitting down for coffee with that brainy, witty, or insightful friend you’ve got, and hearing them talk about something they’ve been thinking a lot about. They’ve actually done a bit of reading on it, done some real research, so they know what they’re talking about; but they’re telling you all about it with that special voice that is uniquely theirs. Yes, interesting isn’t it?

When I think of creative nonfiction I have loved, I think of Eva Saulitis’ ‘Wild Darkness’, as published in 2014 in the American environmentalism journal Orion. A marine biologist and essayist, Saulitis places her own experience of terminal cancer against her observations of death in the natural world. It is a thoughtful and understated piece, with a scope beyond Saulitis’ personal experience: she references and quotes writers and scholars, draws on religious and cultural practices, and includes personal anecdotes from others. She widens the context. She questions herself, “So what?” The heart talks to the brain, as creative nonfiction should.

For the student of creative nonfiction, I would further point to two particular accomplishments of Saulitis’ piece. Firstly, there is a specific timeline, a sense of ‘now’ and ‘the next day’, but it doesn’t march forward relentlessly without deviation or relief. She moves the piece along thematically rather than strictly chronologically, unrolling specific incidents with her wider thoughts then circling back. Most importantly, this temporal structure takes the reader with it effortlessly. Secondly, her use of language leaves you in no doubt as to what kind of writing you are reading. She marries the ‘creative’ and the ‘nonfiction’ seamlessly. Sentences and paragraphs rise and fall on a spectrum from academic to poetic, guiding you between memoir and research. She links the personal and the theoretical, eyes each in the light of the other, to reach conclusions that have the unmistakably earthy growl of our common human experience. You’re there having coffee with Eva Saulitis, and she breaks your heart:

Perhaps (I tell myself), though we deny and abhor and battle death in our society, though we hide it away, it is something so natural, so innate, that when the time comes, our bodies—our whole selves—know exactly how it’s done. All I know right now is that something has stepped toward me, some invisible presence in the woods, one I’ve always sensed and feared and backed away from, called out to in a tentative voice (hello?), trying to scare it off, but which I now must approach. I stumble toward it in dusky conifer light: my own predatory, furred, toothed, clawed angel.

Your topic of choice need not have the weightiness of cancer, and you need not be a highly respected marine biologist to talk salmon in the wild. Perhaps you’ve been ruminating on public transport etiquette or reflecting on the formative role that Jim Hickey’s weather reports played in your later romantic relationships. I’d like to read those pieces. I’d love to read those pieces if, in the process, I might learn something or feel something bigger. I’d love to see the “So what?”

That predatory, furred, toothed, clawed angel came for Eva Saulitis in January 2016. In ‘Wild Darkness’ she says of her coming death, The salmon dying in their stream tell me I am not alone…For this you were born, writes Stanley Kunitz. For this you were born, say the salmon.

Good short fiction makes us wonder about, or realise, those things for which we were born, both big and trivial. Creative nonfiction does that too, but it arms our imagination as well as spurring it. It gives you the salmon and the Stanley Kunitz as well as the woman standing on the shore.

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Inspired? Our submission deadline for Issue 10 is open until 16 June. Send us your creative nonfiction (and short fiction too!) up to 5000 words. Every submission is eligible for our annual Headland prizes, and we love getting work from New Zealand authors. See our submission guidelines for details.

Two Tūrangawaewae

Exploring Sense of Place – Do We Write What We Know?

In this Issue 4 series, we asked a few of our writers to reflect on whether they write what they know, and share their thoughts on how this applies to setting and sense of place in their stories. Google ‘write what you know’ and a plethora of think pieces and advice articles will come up. To paraphrase, they range from from ‘DON’T – your only limit is your imagination’, to ‘stick to your own range of experiences for authenticity’.

In Seeds of a Story, Jane Percival said “To make it real I have to put myself in the picture and draw from my own experiences.”.  David Morgan O’Connor took us on a trip to his places and their meanings in Names of Place and Sense.  For our final post in this series, Antony Millen, author of‘ The Homeless Men of Mahuika’ talks about his new setting through the lens of his country of birth, and how this informs his writing.

Antony is a Canadian living and writing in New Zealand, having shifted from his beloved Nova Scotia to the storied town of Taumarunui in 1997. He has published two novels since 2013, both of which feature settings in the North Island of New Zealand: Redeeming Brother Murriihy and Te Kauhanga: A Tale of Space(s). In 2014, he won the Heartland short story competition and was highly commended for his entry in the New Zealand Society of Authors Central Districts competition. His work features realistic, intriguing and even slightly mysterious events in rural, small-town New Zealand. Antony is currently completing his third novel. He also writes reviews and blog posts at antonymillen.wordpress.com

 

Two Tūrangawaewae

Cover

 

I think a lot about place. I’m an immigrant to New Zealand—an expatriate from Canada although when I think of expats, I think of Ernest Hemingway or Katherine Mansfield in France and it connotes a rejection of homeland which I would never do. However, the concept of homeland is challenged by emigration and immigration. We migrants experience a perpetual duality as we live in two places at once, a sort of bilocation of the mind and spirit. We have two tūrangawaewae—two places to stand—a foot in both camps. Even after eighteen years in New Zealand, I still start sentences with, “A buddy of mine back home…”. I’m aware of how obnoxious it can be, but I am always interpreting my current physical setting through the lens of the former—a life of continual comparisons and contrasts.

 

There is an advantage for a writer in this. You become an astute observer of human behaviour and language. You notice inflections and habits, and others notice them in you. People who live in small towns naturally do this as well, comparing city life with our rural, remote situation. Small towns are my preferred settings, not only because they’re all I’ve ever known, but because these observations are made on a continual basis by their inhabitants, often to convince ourselves of our lifestyle supremacy over that of city-dwellers. “Parking is easier,” we say and, “If you wait for three cars, it’s a traffic jam here.” We note the stars in the sky after returning from a visit under the bigger urban lights and count our blessings we don’t need to listen to traffic as we drift into our provincial slumbers. In Taumarunui, we don’t live in the middle of nowhere, we live in “the middle of everywhere”.

 

So, a writer does write what he knows, but, like the immigrant and the small town observer, he does so by comparing it and contrasting it. I write a story about a mother and daughter fishing the Pungapunga stream in Ngapuke, New Zealand but the river resembles the brook behind my grandparents’ place in Nova Scotia and I draw on memories and feelings from there to communicate familiarity and belonging. If I create a scene around a boy ostracised by his peers, I draw on similar experiences from my youth or from those I’ve witnessed as a teacher, though the circumstances, culture and setting are completely different.

 

In New Zealand, I’ve learned the concept of tangata whenua, a concept our writers here and elsewhere should consider when discussing a sense of place. The famous whakataukī from the Whanganui River area says, Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au—I am the river and the river is me. What does that mean to a Nova Scotian mind? What does it mean to identify with a mountain or a river when you introduce yourself in your whaikōrero? In New Zealand, I have associated myself with Ruapehu or Hikurangi, with the Whanganui and the Pungapunga, for these places have connected with me, surrounding me during my time here. I greet the Whanganui when I arrive alongside it during a bike ride. I acknowledge the presence of imposing trees in Ohinetonga and in other bush walks. In a way, it is not me who has chosen them as significant, but in a form of whāngai it is they who have adopted me, though I am aware of the limited connection and understanding I have compared to those whose ancestors have lived here, inspired and nurtured by them for generations.

 

But, originally, my maunga is Green Hill in Pictou County, Nova Scotia and my awa is that brook behind my grandparents’ house or Middle River whose shores hosted the field upon which I played softball. They bear less exotic names and exist without the grandeur and myth surrounding the Waikato or Taranaki, but it is in coming to this place and learning of tangata whenua that I feel the connection to the maunga and awa of my Canadian childhood. In his song about Taumarunui, my son writes of the Whanganui and Ongarue, “two rivers that melt into one”. That’s me—two homelands melted into one. I believe it’s also symbolic of the multiple iwi who reside here. It is a mystery rivalling the Trinity really and that is a good thing.

 

And that is a good thing for writers who are creating a sense of place. Place, like time, is mysterious. Try and describe the place you are in as you read this and you will find the options for doing so are limitless. Do you list all the objects and colours you see? Do you include elements that will appeal to all five senses? What about the history of the place or the background to how you arrived in it? What about its future? What will it be like when you no longer occupy it or when it is inhabited by another soul? What about the souls who have breathed and loved and raged and created in it before you? What place do they still have in the narrative of your place?

 

In describing place and creating a sense of it for readers, we must be selective and in doing so, I believe we do write what we know, but not always in the obvious sense. It is one thing to set your story in an actual town you’ve lived in, comfortably detailing street names and landmarks, but more often we are selecting aspects of places with which we are familiar for other reasons. Websites and Google Maps are invaluable tools for sourcing details about unfamiliar settings, but that sense of place comes from the author’s familiarity with the atmosphere and significance of another place entirely, from their own experiences or from those they have encountered in books or on screen, comparing and contrasting them. Even the most imaginative world-building must consist of familiarity for the writer and for the reader so they can inhabit the world together—two in one.

Read Antony’s story and more in Issue 4, available on Amazon.

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