Monthly Archives: August 2014

The hotshot, the hero and the loathly lady – creativity and archetypes

Tuesday evening took me to the environs of Liverpool Street for another treat from the London Writers’ Café – a workshop on characterisation run by Rowan Coleman, author of no less than twenty-three books under three pen names.  When someone has been published that many times with still not a grey hair to be seen, you know she’s worth listening to.

The workshop was great, the Q&A even better.  Having spent the previous hour and a half poring over exercises to get under the skin of the characters in our various works in progress, an annoying little doubt was niggling away at me: was it really possible to invent an entirely new set of characters for any new project? Or if, as it’s often said, a writer’s characters are all really aspects of him- or herself, does the time come when we exhaust our cast lists and begin to reproduce essentially the same people?

What better person to ask than someone who’s half-way through their twenty-fourth book?

Rowan started by saying that she believed all her characters were unique. Perhaps, she suggested, I should buy all twenty-three of her books and let her know whether I agreed? (That’s a challenge I may yet take up – although if anyone reading this has got there ahead of me, please let me know what you think.) But, she mused, perhaps there is a signature that an author leaves on her characters, something that you might discern if you read all her works back to back. Rowan, it turns out, is a fellow fan of Stephen King, and having done just that with a sizable chunk of his output she thought that was the case.

But what then is that signature? Is it simply that a strangely high proportion of The Master’s protagonists are white men of a certain age with more than a passing interest in creative writing? Or is it something deeper – something about their way of speaking and interacting with others? About their way of looking at the world? And do we, as readers, connect with those characters because, no matter how different we may be on the surface, there’s something there that we recognise in ourselves?

Jung hypothesised that there were twelve primary archetypes, including the hero, the innocent and the jester (Bridget Jones’s Diary, anyone?). But a bit more online digging reveals that’s a long way from the end of the archetype listing: the intriguingly named www.howtofascinate.com tells me that there are, in fact, 49 personality archetypes – which, with the help of their “senior strategists” can be analysed to determine someone’s “Personality Brand”.  I don’t know about you, but I’m fascinated…

Then there are the archetypes-within-archetypes: eight hero archetypes apparently (http://www.likesbooks.com/eight.html), and sixteen master villains (http://www.tamicowden.com/archetypes.htm) – well, the villains would have to go one better.

The loathly lady - she was furious when she found the artist hadn't painted her best side.

The loathly lady was furious when she found the artist hadn’t painted her best side.

And that’s before you get to Wikipedia, which lists over 130 stock characters. These include the fabulously alliterative (“loathly lady – a woman who appears to be hideous, often cursed”), the satisfyingly rhyming (“hotshot – also known as ‘badass'”) and the weirdly specific (“Herr Pastor – an authoritarian pastor in an ethnic German congregation”).

What conclusion to draw from this little lot? I’m not sure I know, but I’ve decided on one thing: if, as writers, our characters really are aspects of ourselves, I can’t wait to unleash my inner Herr Pastor.

They call me Buttercup…

Well, not me, but the rather beautiful 1975 VW Camper in which the Husband and I spent a happy, rain-sodden weekend two weeks ago.

The story begins last Christmas in the living room of the parents-in-law.  Picture the scene: mother-in-law is very excited, father-in-law hardly less so.  Most of the presents have been unwrapped and we think we’re about to settle down with a glass of vino and the Doctor Who Christmas Special when they hand the Husband and me an envelope.  This, they tell us, is the last and most special of our gifts.  It is, in fact, “the perfect present”.

Now if this were a film, there’d be a close-up of their expectant faces as the Husband and I fumble with the corners of the envelope, laughing as shreds of paper fall to the carpet; a pause, then cut to our expressions of barely-disguised dismay as we reveal a voucher for a walking tour of the architectural delights of Milton Keynes, or tickets for a Justin Bieber concert, or a token for 30% off six sessions with a personal trainer (“SWEAT with Brett!”).

But no, this was no film – and this time it was a proper, kosher, honest to goodness, fab present: the envelope contained a voucher for a trip in a beautiful 1970s VW campervan called Doris.

“Er – Doris?” I hear observant readers ask, “I thought you said she was called Buttercup?” Well yes.  The thing about these masterpieces of funky gorgeousness, it turns out, is that they’re not that reliable – hardly surprising, I suppose, when you consider they’re regularly hitting the road around 40 years after they were built.  The day before our much-anticipated trip we had a call from Doris’s owner to tell us that she’d developed a fault and needed medical attention. Our date was off.

Happily, there was a standby waiting in the wings: step forward Buttercup.  She was beautiful, she was yellow, and she made us sing Gilbert and Sullivan. What more could anyone ask for?

According to the Husband, she was hard work to drive – and the pull-and-twist hand brake that you only had any chance of applying after you’d parked made for some interesting moments at uphill traffic lights – but hey, that wasn’t my problem. So what if Buttercup took a few attempts to splutter into life? So what if she swayed gently as yet another twenty tonne lorry rumbled past her? I’m sure the Husband secretly loved that three point turn in the one track country lane when I failed to spot the turning to the campsite until a moment too late. Whatever he said at the time.

As for me, I just sat in the passenger seat grinning like a loon and praying to see another camper so I could practise my newly-learned VW wave.

Magic.

On the campsite we were celebs, basking in the instant coolness Buttercup conferred.  Envious campers threw her sidelong glances as they walked past to fill up their water bottles just one more time. Others, bolder, sidled up to ask us how long we’d had her, or if they could take a look inside, or to share stories of their friends’ campervan-owning exploits. From the skin-headed woman in the tie-dyed harem pants, to the middle-aged couple in the sensible sandals, they all loved Buttercup.

I felt like I was on a date with super-model.  Oh yeah, baby – she’s with me.

Buttercup basking in the calm before the storm

Buttercup basking in the calm before the storm. See the toilet block? Exactly.

Of course, the weather was rubbish; properly rubbish, in the way that only a British coastal town in August can manage.  On our first afternoon, the sky that had been a flawless azure was smothered in a moment by a flock of clouds that blotted out the sun.  There was that odd moment of stillness: I swear the birds stopped singing.  Then it got Biblical.

But what did we care? We had books! We had a kettle! We had Buttercup!

The rain drumming on the roof was cosy, romantic even.  And surely it would stop soon.  Surely it couldn’t rain that hard for long, not when it had been so lovely and sunny for weeks beforehand? Surely not when the only footwear I had with me and with which to navigate the footpath through the field to the pub was flip-flops?

How I under-estimated the British summer.

After a few cups of tea (“Isn’t it lovely to have the camp stove?” “Watch out for the f***ing bunting!”) the drawbacks of camping began to make themselves felt. The electrical hook-up point in front of which we’d parked was about as far away as it was possible to get from the toilet block. The walk there was a slippery slide to the bottom of the hill.  The walk back was worse.

And that’s the weird thing about camping. There’s the irresistible compunction to kit yourself out with all kind of crap that make this allegedly cheap-as-chips experience about as pricey as a week in an all-inclusive in Barbados: the rechargeable lantern, the fold-away washing-up bowl, the little tables to put your cuppa on as you sit on your brand new pop-up chairs. And then there’s the satisfaction that you take from sweating for half an hour over the two ring gas stove to prepare bacon and eggs, eating standing up for another ten minutes while you wait for the kettle to boil.  There’s the way everything takes longer and is just that little bit less comfortable than it would be if you were doing it… oh, I don’t know, let’s say, if you were doing it at home.

“Ooh!” we say, “Buttercup has a camp stove! And look, there’s a little fold-down table to put your cups on when you make tea!” But you’ve left behind a kitchen! With a kettle you can plug in, and a real, honest to goodness four ring hob, and actual worktops. And that’s before you get to the sleeping arrangements (and believe me, Buttercup’s suspension wasn’t made for anything more adventurous than sleeping).

Why do we do this to ourselves?  Is it because we like to pretend we’re getting back to nature? Are we all harbouring secret fantasies that come Armageddon we’ll be fine because we have four-season sleeping bags? That we’d be able to cope without the comforts of modern life because we’ve walked three minutes to use the shower?

I think that’s it. And I’ll tell you one thing: I bet there’s a statistically significant difference between campers and the general population in one all-important aspect.

I bet everyone on that campsite had a zombie escape plan.