- Helen Dunmore - Orange Prize winner - Articles - Making It Up
Helen Dunmore
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Making It Up
 
Children often talk of making things up. 'I made up a story'. 'I make it all up.' Making things up sounds simple, but really it is among the most highly sophisticated, the most characteristically human things that we do. It's a creative swapping of realities, and an understanding that there is no single given world, but a million interrelated possible worlds, and that we are free to move between them.

Our earliest understanding of the world comes though story. A baby learns to explore probability and possibility, which are the basics of story. For instance, his mother goes out of the room. At first this is an event which has no narrative attached to it. She simply disappears. But in an incredibly short time, the baby learns that there is a story which begins with her going and rounds to a triumphant conclusion when she returns. There is also a story about being hungry, and consequently being fed. There is a story about crying, and being answered.

Day by day, the stories grow more complex. There is the 'If you do this, that will happen' type of story. Something is hot. If you touch, it will hurt you. If you push another baby over, he or she will cry. If you are strapped into a car seat, you will end up somewhere else when you are lifted out. On and on the stories go, growing more complex, rich, baffling, wonderful or frightening. Increasingly, the world of story becomes peopled. Nursery rhyme and fairy story build an understanding of character at its most satisfying. Characters exert force, like Old King Cole calling for his pipe and bowl and fiddlers three - and getting them. They disobey and venture into the unknown, like Goldilocks, and meet marvels like the house of the bears. They long for lovers, resent their step-families, abandon their children, boast, lie, flourish and perish.

As we grow older we start to possess our own stories., and turn our lives into stories so as to control them. One child tells fables of mad, vengeful teachers, while another describes a witch who lives in the next street. Everyone in the neighbourhood is given a character. Children begin to understand the use of stereotype to strengthen their fictions.

Meanwhile the adults around them are doing exactly the same thing. Children learn early that parents are imagining a character for them out of the mass of confusing signals that each child emits.

I begin with all this not as an essay in chlld psychology, but as an attempt to come closer to the roots of our power to thrive through story and the creation of character. I also want to get away from the idea that only writers, privileged creatures, are able to create character, or have a particular interest in doing so. Instead, I'd suggest that the huge appeal of fiction to all of us - whether found in a novel, a soap opera or a comic - exists precisely because writers are doing what we all do. They are doing it to a greater and more formalised extent, obviously. They possess literary skills that everyone does not possess. They may have a degree of imaginative power which is genuinely rare. But they are close cousins to the raconteur who makes you see every moment of his story through phrasing, timing and choice use of words. The sense of story as a shared enterprise is the foundation of involvement and passion for books.

I'd now like to look at some aspects of the reader/writer relationship in the creation of character. Each novel creates, more or less successfully, a fictional space into which the reader can enter, where his or her imagination can play, stimulated by the fiction, responding to it, but also bringing to bear a life-time's weight of experience and story-making. How quickly readers withdraw their own imaginations from the fictional space offered by the book, if they are not satisfied. Why waste time and energy there?

The question then is, how does any author create characters which do have the power to grip imagination, arouse feeling, excite curiosity and that elusive desire to remains in their company? My own feeling is that the development of character is a slower process that even the writer may realise. Perhaps character is not such much invented as gradually apprehended. Long before I begin to write, my understanding of character is slowly forming. At first this can be very vague - a few notes, a sensation. I need to know much more than I'll ever write down. I need to know this character in solitude as well as in relation to the other characters. The author is privileged, because we never really see other human beings when they are alone - and the reader will share this privileged intimacy.

I've experimented with exploring this sense of a character's solitude in many ways, through interior monologue, through dreams, diaries, letters, and through the dozens of careless spontaneous things that we all do when we're alone, and which are so deeply and privately part of us. For example, in my novel With Your Crooked Heart, Louise is alone, drinking her way through a bottle of vermouth.

There's a bottle of Martini, three quarters full. It's very cold. I open it and pour out a glass, just a small one. It's oily on my tongue, then there's a bitter, herbal taste which ought to be doing me some good.

It makes me tired, right down to my feet. I want to sit down. I pick up the bottle and the glass and go back to the sitting-room, but this time I don't sit in the armchair. I choose the sofa, in case I feel like putting my feet up. The Martini's moving round inside me already, getting everywhere. Nice. I get up again and find a lemon in the fruit bowl. A bit wrinkled, but it'll do. I cut it into quarters and put them on a saucer. It looks good to put a slice of lemon into the Martini, as if it's a proper drink you might pour for yourself before going off out somewhere for dinner. I suck the last drops of the Martini from around the lemon quarter. It's a funny noise, and it reminds me of something. I fill the glass and the lemon bobs to the top. after a long time bits of fruit get sodden and they lie in the bottom of the glass no matter how much more you pour in.

I know what the sucking noise reminds me of. It's the noise of the bath water going out slowly, before I cleared the waste-pipe with the plunger.

The bath is white, clean. It smells of lemon bath cleaner. I did a good job there. I keep it in mind.

In this passage, Louise is on the borderline between heavy drinking and alcoholism. She is separated from her husband Paul, and their daughter Anna is living with him. As the scene continues the extent of Louise's drinking becomes clear, and how far she's come form her former life. But I wanted this to be a scene that draws readers in, rather than repelling them. A lot of people know what it's like to be alone and to kid themselves about their consumption of food or drink, and make it seem normal by decorating it with a soggy lemon. I also wanted to capture the sensation of drinking from Louise's point of view: this is not an objective view of her as a drinker. Time jumps in the scene, as it jumps in Louise's mind. Like Louise, the passage glosses over exactly how many times the glass is refilled. Like Louise, the passage chooses what it will dwell on, and what it will avoid.

Food and drink play a large part in my writing. I think this is because people define so much of themselves through their appetites. A character tastes the salt and oil of chips on a cold night, or has her face forced into uneaten custard as a childhood punishment, or drifts to the fridge and feels for the cold sweat on a bottle of beer. It is part of the vast semi-submerged life of sensation that so often contradicts conscious thoughts. The acridity of autumn, the smell of a pub at closing time, the velvety touch of old polished wood, the stink of aircraft fuel, the smell of a lover's hair and skin - all these are so powerful that they colour whole hours and days. The tension between each character's world of sensation and the outer world of conscious thought and action creates friction - and even fiction.

The artificiality of the novel is all-consuming. Some novelists delight in making this obvious, while others labour to make their fiction appear natural, even artless. There's the compression of time and event. Whole lifetimes, sweeps of time, great changes in mood or fortune are rendered down to something which can be read in a few hours. Novels are about change, and characters travel great distances, emotionally, psychologically, physically. They may age - they may even move backwards and forward through time - they will engage with one another, and perhaps disengage. We're so used to the constructs of fiction, both in books and in film, that we may no longer even register their strangeness. But in them lies the key difference between the novelist and the teller of anecdotes. A novelist not only has to illuminate the character so that it can be grasped both within and without, but also has to transform it.

Take Nick Hornby's About a Boy. Hornby uses a classic device, whereby two key characters encounter one another, conflict and then transform and mature one another. The unusual thing is that in this book they are a man and a child. Hornby shows a man frozen into a posture of adolescence, who gradually melts and risks adulthood, while at the same time a lonely eccentric boy becomes more ordinary in order to survive and transform himself into the very same conformity of adolescence that Will escapes. There is a satisfying symmetry in the progress of these two characters.

In other novels, external social and political turmoil mirrors the inner turmoil of the characters, and personal change and transformation is echoed by the transformation of the wider world. These types of symmetry are enormously satisfying. Dozens of examples come to mind, from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities to Olivia Manning's Balkan and Levant trilogies to Mrs Gaskell's North and South. But there are plenty of pitfalls. Particularly annoying are characters endowed with historical hindsight about the times through which they're living:

'Oh! Two Spitfires are having a dogfight up there!'
'I must tell Mary Peabody. Her son is one of The Few, you know.'

Far better to follow Tolstoy's example, as he lets his characters stumble around the battlefield without knowing either exactly where they are or what is happening. Instead they see everything feelingly, every fibre of their bodies engaged, their minds sometimes hectic, sometimes lucid, sometimes overwhelmed. They are defined by characteristic and often instinctive acts. Petya, in his first battle, is no more than a boy. He dies in a rush of dreams and impulse, and is remembered not for heroism but for his characteristic Rostov generosity as he gives away his raisins to his comrades - 'Take them all!'. Tolstoy's incomparable handling of the Rostov children as they grow from childhood through adolescence to adulthood shows just how powerful children can be as the central figures in a novel. Unlike Dickens he does not put his authorial weight behind one child character - an Oliver Twist or a David Copperfield - and see the world skewed and rich through that character's eyes.

Charlotte and Emily Brontë's children also confront a world of violence and indeed violation: Jane Eyre must have spawned many a misery memoir. Their characters progress through scenes so brilliantly defined that they never stop burning in the reader's imagination. Catherine, her foot caught in the jaws of the Lintons' guard dog, silent in spite of her pain, while Heathcliff refuses to desert her. Heathcliff, faced with the Lintons' dismissive contempt as he is excluded from the fair-seeming but barren world that welcomes Cathy. Jane Eyre, curled into bed with the dying Helen Burns, or reading behind the curtains while cold rain lashes outside the window. Through these children we see not only the outlines of their adult selves, but also the authorial viewpoint which so fiercely criticises and condemns the adult world.

'Jane Eyre' produces a savage critique of the society embodied in the Reed family. John Reed is bullying and dissolute, Aunt Reed powerful, cruel yet ultimately desperate. Charlotte Brontë lays into the suffocating apparatus of respectability through the voice of Jane, who is the clear-eyed child who dares to tell the truth about her own experiences. In spite of punishment, Jane never denies herself, and insists that she is not a liar. Charlotte Brontë summons up the physical world from the child's viewpoint: the nightmarish Red Room, the enchanting Bewick's illustrations in Jane's book, the enticing fragments of toast and seedcake produced by Miss Temple for Jane and Helen Burns. These are manna, sacrament and food for hungry children, all at once.

I've been interested in writing about children, and from the viewpoint of children since my first novel, Zennor in Darkness. In this novel, flashbacks to the childhood of Clare, Hannah and John William in the streets and on the beaches of St Ives show the growth of the bond between them, and also point the way to the adult love that will develop between them. Their childhood is not something they grow out of and cast away. It remains within them, sustaining them, colouring present experience, creating character. It is present to the last note of the novel.

A beach. Cold footprints in cold incoming sea. Bare skin tingling with sunburn, but beginning to chill.
'Quick, get your clothes on.'

'I can't find my drawers!'
'Why, there they are, Clarey. You weren't looking.'
'Where's John William?'
'He's still out there. can't you see him? Look. Out past the rocks. He's gone too far out again. Johnnie! Johnnie! Nan'll kill me if we're not back in time.'
'John Will-i-am! John Will-i-am!'

He turns, his black head sleek with water. He turns and dives, to tease them. The water grows smooth over his head. He's gone.

Again, in The Siege, the relationship between five-year-old Kolya and his twenty-three year-old sister Anna is central to the way the Siege of Leningrad unfolds in their lives. Civilians were not accidental casualties, but deliberately targeted for mass death and destruction. In this context, the extreme difficulty of preserving life becomes the most intense of dramas. Through the lives of the Levin family and their friends and neighbours I wanted to focus the almost unimaginable vastness of events. Rather than creating a sweeping panorama, I wanted to distil what happened into the felt, lived reality of people who are trapped in history, cannot get out and do not know how the story ends.

' Are you sleep?'
'No, are you?'
'No.'
'How's the little one?'
'Sleeping.'
'You're sure?'
'Yes, sure. But his feet are cold.'
'Give me your hand.'

In their cave of rugs and blankets, two hands meet. There is no warmth in the touch. Two hands, stiff, chill, claw-like, fold into one another. They are not male or female any more. But they are alive. One hand stretches to another, touching. From the child there is a sudden, spasmodic explosion of coughing. His body shakes, his chest rattles, but he doesn't wake. Andrei and Anna press closer, one on each side of Kolya's body, warming it as much as they can.

'Marina's sleeping?'
'Yes,' says Anna, 'She's sleeping. It's only sleep.'

Kolya shakes and coughs. Anna undoes her coat and pulls him inside. Slowly, with stiff fingers, she buttons her coat back over them both. He burrows into her, choking against the skin of her neck. She rubs his back and tucks his feet between her hollow thighs.

The four of them, musty in clothes that they don't take off at night. Four pairs of boots stand by the mattress, and when they crawl from their cave of blankets into the freezing room, all they have to do is step into them. But everything takes so long. It hurts to breathe. You get palpitations.

Marina is curled into a ball at Anna's back, turned away from the others, her fist pressed into the hollow under her cheekbone. Imagine being asleep, and dreaming. Dreams of food. Dreams of fragrant, smoking-hot soup made with dried mushrooms. tiny dumplings float on top, golden and puffy ...

Kolya's honey. The glass jar is almost empty. Only one spoonful left.

Things will get better. They've got to. The blockade will be lifted. Our forces will take back Mga and the Moscow railway will re-open. The circle of siege will break.

Only Kolya's honey stretches between this time, now, and then, when things will be better. A thin, dark, sweet thread, smelling of heather and smoke. One spoonful. They'll all watch, while Anna lifts the spoon to Kolya's mouth.

'There, slowly, don't gobble it.'

In go the precious calories and vitamins. Is it their imagination, or is there a little more colour in Kolya's wasted cheeks as he swallows? Anna reaches out, catches on her finger a drop which has fallen from the spoon on to the side of the glass jar, and puts her finger into the child's mouth to suck. He sucks and keeps on sucking long after the sweetness has gone. On these threads they hang.

There is so much to be said about character that I've done little more than touch on a few aspects, and without the idea of forming a theory of character. Perhaps no novelist can do this unless he or she is writing formula fiction. From novel to novel the experience of character changes. The characters demand a different handling. And so the writer moves on.

 
Making It Up
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