Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Project: Create - Day 16

For Day 16 of Project: Create, I decided to finally get around to writing an editorial piece that I've been thinking about penning for some time. Lately I've been wondering whether my interactions with other people in my place of work could influence my approach to writing characters. This is a brief opinion piece exploring that. A bit different from my other submissions for Project: Create so far, but what's the harm in being different?

Indispensable Experience
Meeting People and Writing Characters

I've long considered writing characters to be one of my most obvious weaknesses as a writer. I have relatively few problems with every other aspect of prose - world-building seems to come fairly naturally to me, as does the shaping of a story's arc, and while I'm by no means the greatest descriptor the Western world has ever known, I'm certainly not bad at it. Yet whenever I revisit an old piece of writing, or try to breathe new life into a stagnant idea, it's the characters that seem to cause most problems. My protagonists are invariably fictional extensions of myself, their worldview almost a carbon copy of my own, and their talents a vicarious means of catering for what I perceive to be my own short-comings. My supporting casts suffer from a lack of believability, their one-dimensional archetypes poorly fleshed out to serve whatever need the narrative demands - comic relief, gritty seriousness, prospective romance.

I think a big reason for this up to now has been my own lack of experience in dealing with people. To clarify, I don't mean I've lived most of my twenty-three years avoiding any and all social contact - if that were the case, I don't think I'd be writing at all. What I mean is that I tend not to spend a great deal of time interacting with people who are different to me. Rather than being part of a large social circle encompassing lots of different types of people, my group of friends is very small, and with one or two exceptions we're all very like-minded. I'd never been forced into a situation where I had to deal with people I couldn't stand - even when thrown into a completely new ecosystem at University, I was quick to identify the few people I identified with and re-establish my comfort zone. It's a way of living that's demanded a delicate balancing act with the aim of maintaining that status-quo.

Last April, that equilibrium hit a state of major imbalance when I joined the staff at my local GP surgery. For the first time in my life I was put in a customer-facing role, a job that required me to put on a smile and a friendly voice and deal with others from all walks of life. Now, instead of being able to restrict my social interactions to people I know I will get on with, I have to converse and empathise with everyone. The result of this is that I'm learning a lot about people. I see these patients in wildly different circumstances, and get to observe how they react to all manner of stimuli. I see reactions to both good news and bad news. I see how they react to the presence of the other patients, both known and unknown. I see how they react to people in different positions, from the front-line reception staff to the doctors themselves. I see idiosyncrasies, habits and quirks. Every one of these reactions is a lesson, a demonstration in human behaviour, and no two are quite the same. I've built rapports with many patients that I probably would never have given any of my time outside of work, and it's been an incredible experience.

I'm hoping I can start to put this bank of knowledge into practice within the realm of my writing. In future, when conceiving scenarios and how my characters could react to them, my first port of call most likely won't be my own likely reaction, but instead the probable reaction of this patient or that patient. I've seen enough people fly off the handle to be able to better write conflict between characters, and enough surprise reunions at the dispenser's counter to facilitate penning more amicable meetings as well. Perhaps most crucially, I've been able to observe the minutiae that make people who they are, and could therefore serve to make characters more believable as people. I never thought something as seemingly mundane as handing out prescriptions would serve as such an incredible writer's resource. I'd already say it's the most fulfilling job I've ever done, but I think that extra experience safely seals the deal.

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