Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Heart of Darkness

When generating ideas for stories and characters the writer has two resources available to him – experience and imagination - what he knows (or can learn) and what he can invent. These ready-made reservoirs of ideas can be stirred up with research, reading, reminiscing, or other cues - but essentially imagination and experience are the places a writer goes to for source material.

These two disciplines promote different aspects of fiction – experience lends itself to realism, imagination to romanticism (in the broadest sense of the word). The writer therefore has a heady cocktail of material that he carries right along with him wherever he goes.

It makes sense that if you augment these two reservoirs then you will naturally have a broader set of experiences and ideas with which to inform your writing – theoretically your work will be more believable via experience and more creative via imagination. These two disciplines require different means to extend them – experience needs feeding, and imagination needs exercising.

So a fastidious writer will spend his time day-dreaming while gobbling up experience like a starving man, right?

Obviously there are limits, and a wealth of experience and a fertile and well flexed imagination are only a part of being a writer – but there is a certain truth to this.

Which is why I think writers are drawn to the dark a little – preferring a tempest to a heat-wave; raking over past experiences to reinterpret and understand; embracing melancholy, longing, dissatisfaction (as well as happiness) to better feel and understand it; quizzing people with genuine interest about painful things that have happened to them, making one speculative remark too many at dinner-party conversations.

There is only so far you can go with experiencing the darker side of human nature without getting arrested, but with the imagination there are no limits – and this is where a writer will walk themselves into some pretty dark places.

Sounds grim, right? But as writers I think we are professionally obliged to do it – that's our job – to walk on the darkside (either for real or in our imagination, or both) and write about it - and hopefully by doing so we will say something that speaks to people about their everyday lives.


  1. Oh how true. I absolutely adore writing darker characters with flaws that would be wholly unacceptable in society. More fun to write and stops me from being an angry woman in real life!
    That's why I had to change genre as my characters are not always that likeable.
    Great, thought provoking blog James.

  2. very true point about quizzing people about painful situations. a friend of a friend's wife was caught in a shootout and there was a limit to what she felt comfortable talking about. i was really intrigued to know more about what the experience was like.

    tricky to reign in writerly curiosity when you meet someone with a potentially captivating story like that.

  3. So Hemmie, I guess that makes you a 'crossover' author! I like the fact that you're also using your writing as carthasis!

    Paulo, I find writerly curiosity can be satisfied by attentive and considerate listening and it's not necessarily a cynical thing. I think the more you write, the more interesting you find people.