As every writer knows, the characters they create are made up – fictional, if you will – and the extent that a part of the writer’s self goes into the characters and the story varies from writer to writer. Even so, and no matter how much the writer denies that any part of their own experience is in the character, there has to be a common resonance with the world and other people, a kind of recognition, to allow someone to suspend their belief and ‘get’ a world completely made up by someone else.
The familiar structure of the story is part of it (we are all familiar with a beginning, middle and an end, it’s almost a circadian rhythm) but the people in the story must be familiar enough for us to identify with them, yet different enough to be interesting. Likewise, the location and plot must contain pieces of information that we can recognise.
The reason for this is the way our minds are organised. We use schema, which and connections between thing, to organise our thoughts and memories, and to recall information. For example, our dog schema might have dog, ball, lead, walk, park, bark and paws. When someone else’s story has a dog that goes for a walk in the park on his lead with a ball, we know exactly what they mean.
Basing a fictional story on an event in history is one way of anchoring a schema, as is writing about sex. Both these things are immediately recognisable to us – we have ready made schema for both memory and sex; writing original material that is not common schema-based is more of a challenge.
Writers want readers to like their story, to identify with it. But to get published it has to be that little bit different, yet still resonate. The main resource writers have to work with is their own minds – and the realisation that whatever they write is from their own thoughts and imaginings – inevitably somewhere inside their mind is the schema of experienced life that holds together their character and plot. When the reader reads the words and integrates them into their own schema, they change slightly to reflect the reader’s experience; the trick is to leave a trace of resonance in the mind of the reader of the writer’s idea, something that seems like an old friend has come back to visit, or a familiar emotion arising again.
This raises the question of the responsibility of the writer to the reader – and the spectre of gratuitous writing in common schema to make money! Here’s a question: if, instead of reading your book at a distance, your reader was in front of you with some way to read your thoughts and you were accountable face to face, would you be as happy to put out the material that is downloaded direct from your consciousness for others to share? I guess that’s for another blog post…