I think the most important quality a writer has, more than a high threshold for coffee and at least one cat is a keen sense of being completely involved and completely separate from the world going on around them. It’s like a really useless superpower, like X-ray vision or an ability to fold napkins using only your thumbs, it serves no one really but once you have the power, it’s really hard to turn off. I no longer see people anymore, I see characters.
I see the girl with headphones on and a small hint of a tattoo on her neck. She’s from Dubbo, originally, and likes the smell of butter when it melts on her lip. Her father died when she was two and her mother, whilst trying to keep it on track, instilled in her a sense that life will inevitably bite you in the arse and leave you miserable. She is skimming her Facebook feed, envious of a post from Carly, a girl who used to be called ‘Flubber’ at Dubbo College because of the rubbery loose quality of her cheeks when she ran laps in PE, because Carly just changed her status to ‘engaged’.
Or there’s the guy behind me on the phone right now. He’s on the train to Epping to visit his sister’s new house, a duplex but it’s a nice one. He is talking fast and quick, like he’s nervous and seems to be leaving the other partner with no air to interject. He’s selling himself, a skill he was taught in his Catholic private school in Mumbai, a lesson that he learnt alongside his rapid rise as the top Hockey player for his senior year. Until the ankle injury. Until his father made the decision to take the job with Optus in Sydney. Until he was forced to come to the two bedroom townhouse in North Rocks with the rooster he had to throw a rock at every morning at 4.39am.
I could go on, but you get the picture. And it happens all the time.
There’s a wealth of hints and suggestions about people’s real and completely imagined back stories that have nothing to do at all with the character and or even what the hell you might get them for to do in a narrative – that’s plot and quite frankly my kryptonite.
But it’s the best part of being a writer because it means I’m never bored. Even on the train back to my own suburban nest.
So my advice is to get good at back stories because as Vicky Madden, the screen writing teacher from the AFTRS intensive I attended once said ‘if you find the wound of a character, then you can put them in any situation and know, actually know how and why they will respond’ – or she said something like that. And in order to understand characters, you need to be curious about people. You have to want to know what motivates them, what upsets them. You need to peel back the skin and see the sinew. You need to dissect the heart and dig your fingers into the jelly bits of brain matter until you look like an extra on ‘The Walking Dead’.
But like Alice, the problem with this rabbit hole is that it has no end, only a mirror. And that is why I can tell you about my shortcomings and what the lady reading ‘The Barefoot Investor’ was listening to on the radio the first night she was felt up by Stanley, the pudgy neighbour with two Mexican walking fish floating like loose astronauts in the fish tank above her head, but I can’t write a whole story to save my life.
Better Advice from 3 People who are not me: