Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | August 18, 2014

What I Learned About Being a Writer From Lewis Carroll Part 2

You Don’t Have to Know Everything

          The Hatter opened his eyes very wide . . . but all he SAID was, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” 

          . . .  “Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

         “No, I give it up,” Alice replied: “what’s the answer?”

         “I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.

323a2503fa71e4b0Despite her initial enthusiasm for the riddle, poor Alice struggles to come up with an answer.  In fact, the answer is never revealed nor is there any indication that the Hatter himself knows the answer.  The reader is left to assume that this is yet another indication of the Hatter’s madness, to pose a riddle without knowing the answer.  In the most recent Alice movie, Johnny Depp’s Hatter repeatedly uses this most famous unsolved riddle as a metaphor for his anxiety and despair.  But for me, it’s a reminder that as a writer I don’t need to know everything.

What I love about writing fiction is that you never know where the process will take you. Characters will suddenly reveal information or act in ways that you weren’t expecting. After writing a scene, it’s not uncommon me to exclaim, “Well, I didn’t see that coming” or “Where did that come from?”

In my first book one of my characters, while in the middle of an argument with an old boyfriend, revealed that she had not only become pregnant but had aborted their child. This did wonders for the plot as it resulted in an attempted murder and a further revelation which directly impacted the investigation.  Needless to say, I was extremely grateful to her for telling me that, but I had no idea it was part of her personal history.

Writing teachers often ask their students to compile lists to help them flesh-out their characters.  What’s in your characters’ junk drawer?  Who were their best friends in high school?  What are their favourite movies?  You get the idea.  Like an actor building up the backstory of a stage or film character, this does force writers to become better acquainted with their characters before starting to write.  But as I pointed out earlier, often the most interesting aspects of our characters are revealed through spontaneous actions.

I don’t want to know everything about my characters.  I also don’t want to know absolutely everything about the people I am in relationships with in my non-writing life. I like being surprised.  Likewise I don’t want my characters to get into predictable patterns.  If readers can anticipate how a character is going to react to every situation, they can easily get bored.

As someone writing a series, my characters are growing and developing over time, forming relationships and intimacies with each other.  My two lead characters, Kate and Siobhan, are opposites in many ways and as such they both compliment and antagonize each other.  But the more time they spend together, the more they influence each other’s personalities in ways I can’t predict.  This is what keeps me interested as the writer.

So why is a raven like a writing desk?  Because Carroll was bothered by so many people wanting to know the answer to the Hatter’s riddle, he wrote in the preface to the 1896 edition of the book “a fairly appropriate answer”: “’Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an afterthought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.”

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Responses

  1. Great blog! I certainly agree that our characters should surprise us but also want to add that keeping a character consistent to themselves and their basic personality is very important. If a character who I thought I understood does something that disagrees with everything we’ve previously been told about them, it can ruin a story for me. That doesn’t mean we can’t be surprised about things in their history, things they say or do in a time of stress, ect.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Sarah. I absolutely agree that we should make sure that our characters act “in character”. It’s just that so many writing books inundate writers with all sort of exercises and advice to learn everything they can about their characters which can be intimidating to beginning writers, especially. Because I write a mystery series, I always start a new book by writing background stories for all my characters to understand their possible motive for the murder and the relationship each has with the victim. When I write, I just let them go at it and see what comes up. Having said that, it’s not uncommon for me to write a scene only to have a character stand back and say, “No, I wouldn’t have done or said that at all. Rewrite it!”


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