Tag Archives: creativity

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.

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The Ideas Factory

But when you got a story idea, no one gave you a bill of sale. There was no provenance to be traced.  Why would there be?  Nobody gave you a bill of sale when you got something for free. You charged whoever wanted to buy that thing from you – oh yes, all the traffic would bear, and a little more than that, if you could, to make up for all the time the bastards shorted you – magazines, newspapers, book publishers, movie companies. But the item came to you free, clear, and unencumbered.

Stephen King, Secret Window, Secret Garden

I never believed that babies were delivered by a stork when I was a little girl. I don’t think my parents ever tried that kind of nonsense on me, and I like to believe I’d have seen through it if they had(though given that I fell hook, line and sinker for Father Christmas, that’s probably unlikely).  Well before the time my mum told a five-year-old me that I was going to have a brother or sister, I had arrived at my own theory, which seemed to me to be self-evidently true and to require no further explanation: a woman became pregnant in the same way she caught a cold or had heart problems or whatever – it was just something that sometimes happened to her body. Apparently, I was always something of a fatalist.

Hans Andersen's Dreams, by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone

Hans Andersen’s Dreams, by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone

Now that I’ve been asked a couple of times where I got the idea for my book, I find I have much the same kind of explanation: it just “came to me”. But that’s not very satisfying really, is it? And for someone who’d dearly love to be able to make a living from writing, it feels like a very sandy foundation on which to attempt to build a career.  I mean, if ideas just pop out of the ether, what’s to say that one day they won’t stop coming just as inexplicably?

At the Faber Academy course I attended three months ago, I heard that a commercial author should expect to write a novel a year. That’s not too bad really, I thought. I mean, setting aside the small matter of the work involved in actually coming up with a novel length manuscript, that’s essentially one core idea a year. Surely that should be manageable?

But what if the ideas aren’t fit for purpose?

A few weeks ago I went to a talk by noted short story writer Zoe Fairbairns, organised by the London Writers’ Café. Someone asked her why she had focussed in her career on writing short stories rather than novels, particularly since the market in short stories in the UK is nowhere near as developed as that for novels; in other words, and without wishing to sound too craven, even a successful short story writer isn’t going to make very much money. The main reason for her chosen medium, she said, was that she found she had plenty of ideas that would make good short stories, but she’d simply run out of ones that would stretch to novel length.

I found that a slightly alarming thought.  It’s not that I don’t like short stories, but given the choice I’d much rather curl up with a novel. I want to be immersed for hours, developing my opinions about the characters, trying to work out that’s going on inside their heads, watching as some kind of mystery unfolds and is then resolved.  And because that’s the kind of experience I most enjoy about reading, it’s why I’ve always wanted to write novels.

So where do novelists get their ideas? How do they keep them coming, without finding that they’re unconsciously giving different ideas to the same characters, changing the place names but creating parallel sets of circumstances? How does someone like Stephen King keep coming up with things that are fresh, whilst at the same time having the same sense of King-ness that means his readers know the kind of thing they’re going to get, and that they’re going to enjoy the ride?

I can see that there are techniques for stimulating the creative process: the daily writing prompts that appear all over WordPress, the pictures and the snippets of prose that invite you to imagine what is happening and develop a story around them. Zoe Fairbairns suggested building a short story around an object, preferably a small one (her most famous short story centred around a bus ticket).  I can see how that would work to stimulate some writing, any writing – and there are times, of course, when that’s just what you need – but is it really possible to keep extrapolating until you hit 100,000 words? I think I’m with Ms Fairbairns here – there are surely some ideas that just aren’t big enough for the job.

At the moment, I’m in the preparation stages for the next book. The idea is there, just waiting to be brought to life.  And I have a great title for another one – at some point I’m hoping that’s going to be enough to get the creative juices flowing.  But – then what? I’ve never been one of those people who feels they have so many ideas bubbling around that they don’t know which one to start with.  It’s a scary thought that the time might come when my meagre store just runs out.

So I’m going to ask that question.  You know, the really annoying one that makes you feel as if you’ve failed somehow if you don’t have a proper answer.

Where do you get your ideas?