Writers, do you beautify your main character?


Prince Albert – Winterhalter

The recent TV production, VICTORIA, enchanted viewers in the first three episodes thanks to the girlish, if skittish character of Jenna Coleman’s princess. The appearance of the awkward and distant Albert added drama, if not as much attraction, as riveting Rufus Sewell, Lord Melbourne.

I discovered that the ridiculous hair style of Albert was no TV concoction when I visited the Chateau de Compiégne, Picardy.  There the wonderful portraits of Franz Xavier Winterhalter (known for his true-to-life painting) formed a special exhibition.

Winterhalter became one of the royal pair’s  favourite painters. It seems that Victoria praised his truthful representations, so we must accept that her own portrait is as she was, with bulging pale blue eyes, plump arms and stocky little body even in her youth. Whereas Tom Hughes is near to a spitting image of Albert, Jenna Coleman’s Victoria is very much beautified.

It may be that the scriptwriters came closer to the couples’ personalities. After all, clashes between two strong spirits is the stuff of drama. If one were portrayed as wholly sweet and cooperative, the series would fall a long way short. In my own case, I preferred the image I had concocted from history books to Tom Hughes, but sadly his lisping portrayal of the penniless prince was probably near the truth.

Have you written a character close to truth of someone you’ve actually known, while another you’ve deliberately beautified? Readers are left unsatisfied when excuses are made for the protagonist with unblemished features and unstained character, whereas the antagonist’s redeeming elements are ignored. Such black/white characters are termed ‘cardboard’. It’s surely the shades of grey that grip a reader, so don’t beautify your characters.

History is far more interested in what Victoria really looked like, not how beautiful a painter could make her. The same is true of writing.

Winning Writing

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This lovely image is Iranian.

I like playing Scrabble, but I’m not competitive. The challenge presented by the board in hand and the variety of options, limitations placed upon moves is sufficient. Sometimes the layout feels like an art form. It’s fun to enliven the game further by restraints such as allowing only nouns related to e.g. writing, for words of 4 letters or more. Going to an event based on competition would spoil the enjoyment completely.

It seems that the lack of competitiveness has a worthy origin.Chess_Players_of_Haft_Awrang

Chess is thought to originate in India, before the 6th century AD and then spread to Persia, pictured here.

Chess reached Southern Europe via Arabs and Muslims, and by the 15th century it had evolved into its current form.

The “Romantic Era of Chess” was characterized by swashbuckling attacks, clever combinations, brash piece sacrifices and dynamic games. Winning was secondary to winning with style and the focus was upon artistic expression. I’d loved to have been an audience then before the style changed, in the 19th century, to one of technical mastery and long-term planning.

In presenting our fiction to the world we writers are exhorted to use multiple techniques to gain sales.  Innocent days of creating the best that our talent and art form allow, end. Months of miserable media-bashing follow. What contrasting activities, what different emotions!

Reading about the origin of chess brings similarly opposite emotions to reading self-help books that teach tricks of beating algorithms or garnering a following. It’s these books themselves that sell in huge numbers, their authors then ‘teaching’ a system to all other writers on the basis of this ‘sure’ success.

How sad.  William Boyd, Anne TylerKasuo Ishiguro novels, say, may have comparable Amazon sales rankings with a very badly produced book on Twitter techniques. Even the most reputable newspapers may show best-selling books for their Top Twenty rather than a list of most highly regarded fiction.

Swashbuckling attacks on the media, clever combinations of layered promotion, technical mastewinningry of marketing ploys and long-term planning of a marketing campaign is what sells books and makes a winning writer. Thank goodness that reputable writing competitions rely on writing judges, not the amount of ‘votes’ an entrant can grab via social media. Nowadays, all of us writers are pushed into this.

I wonder whether a ‘romantic era’ for art forms will ever return.

A Talent for Short Stories

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GOODBYE CROCODILE  –  Conor Patrick

  published by The London Magazine

The London Magazine has a long-standing reputation for selecting and presenting work of a high literary quality, poetry and prose. They produced this collection of short stories in 2013. It does them credit as well as its author. I reviewed it then, but recently saw that it had not received a great deal of attention, so I flag it up again.

I always enjoy Irish writing.  What is it about Ireland – the oral tradition? – that it produces writers who so understand pain. People suffer elsewhere, after all.  Yet Irish writers are so skilled in capturing the image that strikes at the heart.

Conor Patrick is one of these. His writing displays both the velvet of his Irish genes and the sharpness of his past American environment. In this collection, he gives twelve stories that grasp that time of change or realisation and exposes it. Many of his characters are on the verge of adulthood and perhaps that is why they are lightly drawn. They are fawns not stags, often coping with raw or threatening circumstances. The settings show a wide variety of rough and ready America with characters who are struggling to survive physically or psychologically.

These are literary pieces, rich in description. The boy in the cathedral absorbs the effigies and images ‘lifting heavenwards their stained glass faces.’ In my favourite story, ‘Be Still the River’, perhaps the most beautifully written, there is an image of the ‘carapace’ of a pram. This image poignantly highlights the death of the mother and of a bereaved younger sister’s childhood. The girl does not have the large fish she had worked so hard to land only this remainder of a pram. She is used to pulling fish from the water as the one means of sustenance.

Patrick masters that task of suggesting half a world in the one paragraph – sign of the excellent short story writer. I highly recommended this collection to the serious reader.