Writer and teacher James George answers our latest 5 Quick Questions. James will be teaching at the upcoming Kāpiti Writers’ Retreat. His comments follow on from a face-to-face conversation with Kahini Oceania Director Kirsten Le Harivel.
1. What I loved about ‘Hummingbird’ and ‘Ocean Roads’ is the way you create the world of the story particularly the characterisation – I really fell for all of them, they were so believable because they were so real, so far from the stereotypes that we often see to deal with issues of broken families, prison, gangs… Can you talk about how you develop your characters?
I tend to carry snatches of characters around for a long time: a piece of backstory, a few lines, an image, a certain gesture, sometimes (though not usually) a name. These pieces tend to come out of the process in fleshing out one story context (a current novel or short fiction piece) – but don’t fit (or don’t seem to want to fit) into that specific context. Like a flailing of literary loose wires. So I’m carrying around overlapping storyscapes and characters whose needs and conflicts bleed from one narrative to another, or bridge one context and another, or are just inspired by a moment in one story. I tend to follow – at least to the point of jotting down a few ideas – anything that grabs my attention. Once I’m committed to a new story context, say a new novel, and am developing a narrative backbone of plot and (potential) structure, then I’ll start to use those ideas. Sometimes I’m looking for symmetry – a character or a setting or a conflict for a plot materialized by the individual conflicts or backstory of a specific character. But sometimes I’m looking for the opposite: something to break, or perhaps someone with broken edges or a broken centre who’ll upset the symmetry of a story, so it doesn’t become too comfortable. The early stages can feel quite prescriptive when I’m mapping in this way, but once I start writing real-time scenes the character’s essential human-ness begins to come out, so they become much more than their role in a story. Putting people in a room, with something going on, things that need to be discussed but can’t, things that have been unsaid – but can’t stay that way. Questions in characters actions or dialogue lines or gestures. So much story is carried in those questions, those gaps in the known. A character without conflict is just someone moving about or being functional. After that, it’s just drafting, over and over, looking for both answers, and of course more questions. And I never fret about having more literary loose wires appear, that’s what future stories are for.
2. You mentioned that you think the metaphor of ‘the personal is political’ is quite misunderstood. Could you talk to why you think that is and what that notion means to you and your work?
That’s a very large subject for a writer’s interview. For another day, perhaps.
3. How is it that a story can become so real to us, that as readers we are able to travel alongside as if these people were in our everyday lives? You called this a bridge rather than a trick, could you expand on this and what you see as the power of literature?
We could think of a story as a bridge – co-created – between writer and audience. If the writer crosses the bridge all the way to the other side, the reader can be passive, adopt a completely wait-and-see stance, not do any of the crossing ‘work.’ But reading is an active process, a collective process, a drawing out of the writer’s ideas and emotional landscape, and a drawing in of the reader, with their needs, necessities, their expectations. The reader’s own internal journeys, played out within the world of storytelling. I’ll look at this process while covering focalization and perspective at Kahini, because these concepts aren’t just about what happens ‘in’ a story, but what we do in story. Who we ‘are’ where we’re reading, when we’re being characters, living their lives vicariously, taking their conflicts within us. Psychologist Carl Rogers gave us a famous line: ‘What is most personal, is most universal’ and that’s a great foundation stone for writers, especially in consideration of character creation and development. The ‘universal’ lies within each of us, or at least the capacity to find reflections of it. That’s why we can be torn by ‘Beloved’ or ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ set in storyscapes we don’t ourselves inhabit – specifically. But we know what it is to love, to lose, to be left behind or left without. To want and need.
Specific stories become real to us for different reasons, and in very different ways. We’ve all had the experience of reading a passage and losing touch with what’s happening in the tangible, physical world around us. Because good stories are tangible and physical too. And emotional and psychological. As a reader I like to be absorbed into storyscapes, to the point where the concept of ‘real’ becomes blurred. Intense engagement with characters comes from a process of building up empathy with them, not necessarily liking them, as such, that’s a bit simplistic, but being able to see the emotional logic in their actions. And feeling their conflicts, their needs, their ‘truths’ as if they could be ours. That gives us a stake in them, in where and how they go.
4. Could you talk about the idea of inner validity and the creation of archetypes and what it means to you in your work and to a writer’s audience?
I’ve always found the concept of archetypes in storytelling interesting. I’m using the term archetypes as in ‘pre-existing patterns of mind, or energies’, which we step into. More specifically, characterisations we recognise and respond to, on a deep level, and which therefore occur and recur in many stories. It touches again on Rogers’ quote about the personal and universal. Archetypal characterizations can be a strong part of that bridge between writer and audience, as they create a continuance of story, where readers feel connection across multiple texts because characters they encounter resonate within them, and various permutations and manifestations people our reading landscape – because they’re in our heads, often unacknowledged. Waiting for specific stories to ignite and reignite our connection with them, our need for them to be part of our road to find truth through story. Or community, or validation, or forgiveness. Emotional validity and authenticity in storytelling is a tricky process and isn’t so much a part of a writer’s skillset, (ie: authenticity is not a tool, as such) as an ability they develop to allow their humanity to seep into their writing, and their skillset as writers allows that to appear as if from the story. They great thing about grappling with character as a writer, is that you have to be yourself to do it, your naked, honest self, with all your foibles and imperfections and gaps in knowledge and understanding. And breathe those imperfections into your characters.
5. Lastly what should people expect from your workshop?
I’m going to focus on the use of Focalization, exploring writing in perspectives, in various uses of Point of View (POV). The choice of a POV can make a story, in that a writer can bring to life one character’s interior world through narration, or reveal many characters from the outside in, through overt – but often subtle – actions, dialogue, gesture and tone of language. POV is both a concept and a process, and stories are vastly different depending on where the reader views the action from. We’ll explore interior focalization – e.g. first person, or third person subjective, and also exterior focalization – e.g. third person limited/objective, the camera’s eye POV. And also the omniscient narrator, and where and how that can be useful. POV design in a long narrative such as a novel is often a mixture, not a binary notional of one or t’other. It’s easy to think that direct address, pulling the reader into the character/narrator’s thoughts by literally listening to them, is the most intense form of character/reader connection, but that’s not necessarily true. Some authors write with very little direct access to character internality, but are skilled at bringing out their interiority in action and dialogue. They do that by empowering the audience to read gesture, to search for keys to character in dialogue, to activate their own sense of why and how they empathize with people in the world, and employ that in their reading of fiction. There are many different perspectives, but likely one that an individual author can best use to bring out the emotional resonance in their story. It’s a matter of uncovering and developing it.