Philip Whiteley's Blog

December 12, 2016

A test of character

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 1:52 pm

One of the aspects I most dislike about the delineation of popular and literary fiction is the underlying assumption that life can be divvied up neatly into levels; that something entertaining cannot be deep; or that characters of complexity don’t do whimsy and can’t have fun. In real life, and in good fiction, the lines are not so clear. At the end of the ‘comic’ novel (and it is very funny) Pratt of the Argus by David Nobbs, one encounters a most profound reflection on the ethical dilemma of balancing candour against discretion; more thought-provoking than anything I have read in a ‘serious’ literary novel by the Granta set.

At the Urbane Publications writers’ party last month, some of us discussed how an underrated strength of ‘popular’ authors is their ability to bring a character to life. Helen Fielding achieved this with Bridget Jones, whose observations on ‘smug marrieds’, or of dying alone surrounded by cats, are contemporary and funny, but also tragic, evoking primal fears about rejection and death. Also turning popular concepts upside down is La Peste, a classic existentialist novel by philosopher and Nobel laureate Albert Camus, which features superbly drawn eccentrics and is at times laugh-out-loud funny.

There is so much focus on research and story arc these days that some writers forget that a primary objective is to bring a character to life. He or she may be tough and admirable, like Jane Eyre, or loathsome, at least initially, like Ebenezer Scrooge. The achievement is to make the character’s point of view also the reader’s. Consider the late comedian Ronnie Barker’s tribute to The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, another of David Nobbs’ works: “I still feel I am Reggie Perrin as I walk about.”

If the individual is fully developed, then he or she will convey telling insights into the human condition, as well as display ambition or jealousy or desire. A comic aside can be more revealing and original than pages of earnest introspection.

In my second novel, Marching on Together, one of the main characters is Yvonne Fairclough, whose family is falling apart as she goes through middle age, and she cannot grasp why. Could there possibly be a connection, she worries, to a guilty secret, a crime from many years ago for which she was never punished? Here’s a little window into Yvonne’s world, as she begins her Christmas shopping – in August:

“She preferred to buy gifts that were unwanted for others, than items that would be valued for herself. Yet how could gifts bring this near-evaporated ‘family’ back together? She sensed that, while a good choice would do little to arrest this unhappy dynamic, a wrong selection would only accelerate it. Each year she countered this pessimism with a formidable effort to begin the quest earlier, and devote more thought and more time.”

I cannot be certain that readers will feel for Yvonne as much as I do, and as much as I want them to. She’s real to me, now, but I’ve known her for two years. How will she get on with her new audience?

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