Fiction writing needs a touch of tragedy

Gabriel Yakub

“I have suffered, I have experienced drama, and I’m prepared to share this with you,” said Scarlett Thomas.

Drawing on her work in general and in particular on her recent book Monkeys With Typewriters, the award-winning British novelist was talking to the Sydney Writers’ Festival audience about the process of creating convincing fictional characters.

Thomas described how her own personality and choices became a frame of reference in her character writing. “As long as my characters did something that I was likely to do, they would be authentic and plausible,” she said.

For the first part of the session at The Loft, the audience journeyed with the author from her experimental approach to characterisation as an early writer, to her discovery of Stanislavsky’s method acting.

A once aspiring actor herself, Thomas talked about getting in touch with her roots, explaining that she found Stanislavsky’s inclination toward finding ‘authenticity’ or ‘motivated choices of character’ in performance, to ring true for writers creating characters as well.

She also emphasised the need for tragedy in fiction writing.  As a creative writing teacher at Kent University in the UK, she said she often tells her students that if there’s anything wrong with their writing it is that “it needs more tragedy.”

Thomas gave generous answers to questions as varied as “How do you structure your day to stay motivated when you’re writing a novel?” to “Do you create a plot as you go or plan it out before you start a project?”

Scarlett Thomas

Scarlett Thomas

Though characterisation was the key to the session, audience questions demonstrated a range of interests. Terri, 64, was there to improve her overall approach to writing. Describing herself as not a writer, Terry was nonetheless working on a project for her grandchildren to honor the memories of her late father, who lived with dementia in the later years of his life.

Thomas told the audience she was working on a new book called The Seed Collectors, “which is something different… and it’s all about botany and plants and botanists. And you know when you normally read about plants, and it’s all about how good for you plants are and how you should eat vegetables? This is all about how plants are evil and want to enslave us.”

Presumably all will be revealed when The Seed Collectors arrives, with a predicted release date of 2015.