Monday Motivation: A character in full

 In Monday Motivation

Being a writer sometimes demands that you put on the mask and the costume of a moral philosopher. I’ve just heard three writers doing just that in a conversation they held about the ways in which fiction is capable of confronting violence.

They were members of a panel at the Hay Literary Festival. There was Meg Rosoff, best known for her novel How I Live Now, Sebastian Barry, author of the Coast Award-winning Days Without End – and Colm Toibin, multiple-award winning author of a fistful of books including The Master.

There, having established their credentials, let me now talk about the interchange that particularly caught my attention. They were talking about characters capable of committing a violent act, a murder, a rape, an assault. And Toibin said this:

“I think in a novel your job is to show the character in full from all sides.”

This simple commitment to showing your character in full has enormous consequences. It means that you know more about them than the newspaper headline that might follow the act of violence of which they’re guilty. If you know them in full, said Toibin, you can no longer say that that moment is the moment that defines them.

There might be no question that they’ve committed the act in question. But, he said, it was an act committed by “a person I’ve seen in other contexts. I’ve seen them asleep, I’ve seen them longing for love, I’ve seen them welcoming their son home, I’ve seen them being the son who came home and wanted to come home…

“I’ve seen them in so many other contexts that this moment, when they’re doing this,” – the violent, the criminal, the brutal act – “is both like them and unlike them.”

Any complex character is capable of kindness, love and compassion – and cruelty. If you, as their creator, present them in the fullness of their being, then your reader will find it impossible to view them as a cartoon, a two-dimensional being who is simply “bad” or “good”.

I don’t know about you, but for me this has disconcerting implications not just for fiction, but for life. If the man who fires a gun through the toilet door in a moment of great anger, and kills his girlfriend cowering within, is defined forever by that moment – then there can be no redemption for him, or release for us from the judgement we made of him.

But if we – and, perhaps more importantly, he – can take a broader view, and see that he is also a man with a life full of particular moments of kindness and vulnerability, of triumph and defeat, then we (and he) might believe that it’s possible to move forward out of the shadow of that act of violence.

Happy writing,



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