Real people don’t have character arcs, or simple motivations, or background stories to be revealed in a prequel – those things are inventions of the entertainment industry. They’re marketable tropes. Real people are far more nebulous, complicated, they live far more in the moment and without definable meaning. They can’t be summed up on a character sheet. As such it feels dishonest — for me at least — to try and write characters that way. Instead I feel more comfortable providing the reader with glimpses into their lives, allowing them to tag along with them in their day to day routines, to let them piece things together and make their own decisions about them. That’s how we interact with most people we meet, if we’re honest: we never really, deeply know that much about them, we can just observe and judge, rightly or wrongly. It’s the best we can ask or hope for, beyond close friends or lovers. We’re not entitled to anything more. I quite like the idea of the same being true about the characters in my books. But maybe I’ll change my mind.
If you’ve not read Infinite Detail yet, sort your shit out. It’s enviably good. Also bleak as hell, but — well, see the title of this post.
Many writers insist that when they are writing they write for themselves, they don’t think about the reader. A noble sentiment, even a necessary one, but is it true? Even Emily Dickinson wanted to be read. Do we not all, when we are writing, have in mind if not our ideal reader then our ideal writer, the writer who drives us forward, the writer whose audience we would like to share, the writer – if we dare admit it – we would most like to impress?
It is useful to acknowledge the truth of this, because it opens a window on to the summit of our ambition. Ambition is often seen as a dirty word, but for me it is a powerful word as well as an honest one, an abstraction that is physically revealed in the very act of writing.
How far do we want to climb? I’m not talking about a universal standard, a clearly measurable distance. It is a matter of the kind of terrain we wish to traverse.
Patterns other than the wave, though, are everywhere. Here are the ones Stevens calls “nature’s darlings.” Spiral: think of a fiddlehead fern, whirlpool, hurricane, horns twisting from a ram’s head, or a chambered nautilus. Meander: picture a river curving and kinking, a snake in motion, a snail’s silver trail, or the path left by a goat grazing the tenderest greens. Radial or explosion: a splash of dripping water, petals growing from a daisy’s heart, light radiating from the sun, the ring left around a tick bite. Branching and other fractal patterns: self-replication at different scale made by trees, coastlines, clouds. Cellular or network patterns: repeating shapes you see in a honeycomb, foam of bubbles, cracked lakebed, or light rippling in a pool; these can look like cells or, inversely, like a net.
These fundamental patterns inform our bodies, too. We have wiggling meanders in our hair, brains, and intestines; branching patterns in capillaries, neurons, and lungs; explosive patterns in areolae and irises; spirals in ears, fingertips, DNA, fists. Our brains want patterns. We follow them instinctively: coiling a garden hose, stacking boxes, creating a wavering path when walking along the shore. And we even invoke these patterns to describe motions in our minds: someone spirals into despair or compartmentalizes emotions, thoughts meander, rage can be so great we feel we’ll explode. There are, in other words, recurring ways that we order and make things. Those natural patterns have inspired visual artists and architects for centuries. Why wouldn’t they form our narratives, too?
The feature interview in this month’s issue of Now Then Magazine is the result of yours truly having a chat with the bard of Salford himself, Dr John Cooper Clarke.
Residents of Rust City can pick up a pulped-wood copy from all the usual places, while those elsewhere can peruse it in electronic form via the website. Many thanks to Dr Clarke and his publicity people for setting up the interview, and for the two Sams at Now Then for letting me talk to a legend.
“The work is never finished. The work will never be finished. There will never be a nice, comfortable utopia where we can rest on our laurels and sip strawberry daiquiris by the pool and trust that now things are Fine and we can all relax. Utopia is not a stable system. It doesn’t last. The best we can hope for is five minutes, an hour.”
Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …