3 Embarrassing Realisations as a Fiction Writer


It seems that there are two broad breeds of fiction writer: those who write, and those who think about being a writer and perhaps occasionally commit some fragment to paper. In attempting to transform myself from the second into the first, I am going through an embarrassing process which isn’t over yet. But in the cause of forwarding fiction writing everywhere, here are three of the key harrowing realisations I have had so far:

1. I’ve never invented a convincing character -ever.

This is awkward. When I really sat down and thought about it, and with criteria to hand which I had myself established after twenty years of studying and teaching about the greatest works of literature in the English language, it turns out that the so-called ‘characters’ I’d created were thin, feeble shadows of well-known characters in other people’s fiction. Sometimes the similarities were cringeworthy: wizards whose names even resembled Gandalf’s; lonely protagonists who neither seemed lonely nor very good protagonists; female characters who were thinly disguised (and even occasionally thinly dressed) wish-fulfilment fantasies - I shiver just thinking about them. Not one of them stood out as in any way original; not one of them breathed. Even though I now know what drives characters and how to build a totally gripping and attractive one, I balked at the task when I saw that those I had attempted in the past were so derivative.

2. While we’re thinking of the word ‘derivative’ - I’ve never invented a convincing plot either.

I looked through the 600-page manuscripts I’d written and the notes for the other 600-page manuscripts that never got off the ground, and could instantly see, as though glimpsing them in a thunder flash, that they were either rambling and disjointed or hugging too closely to the plotlines of the books that had inspired them. This was dispiriting. To realise that every name I had ever put to anyone in a story was nothing more than a set of letters hung on a wire-frame of a person modelled on someone else’s creation was bad enough, but to register that the stories themselves were almost completely derivative was a challenge. It was like watching as the flesh fell off a Frankenstein monster that you were hoping would stand on its own feet, leaving nothing but a feebly trembling skeleton.