Writing Secrets: The vast canvas calls, but don’t neglect the miniature

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

When people first enter our mentoring programme, they often come with grand issues, extensive landscapes and multitudes of characters.

It’s good to remind ourselves that writers have achieved acclaim for writing about families and friends: their relationships and their development as characters. These miniatures can be just as, and sometimes more, satisfying, and tell us more about human nature, than those painted across vast canvases.

I was recently introduced to the novels of Tessa Hadley, referred to in a New York Times review as “old-fashioned and modernist and brilliantly postmodern all at once”.

Her characters live fairly ordinary lives. They interact with friends and lovers and want things, sometimes things they shouldn’t have. But these are human and recognisable desires. The characters are thrown into uncertainty because of everyday human concerns: birth, death, the onset of senility, the need to break free…

She is attracted to the complexity of human nature. Asked about her influences, she said: “I’ve drawn great comfort from Alice Munro’s drifting heroines, messing up their lives, wanting more than they have, drawn fatally to the men who won’t give it…”

The reason Hadley makes it work is her intense focus on her characters. Here are no grand plot lines, action or adventure. Her main characters are vibrant and magnetic. But even tangential characters are coloured in vivid detail.

The following description of characters at a party allows us to visualise them clearly, but also to gain a greater sense of the observer. The way he sees them shows us more about him.

They were striking in ways in which David thought of as belonging to the metropolis. A girl with a feathered cap, bird face and bright vermillion lipstick. A small middle-aged man, light on his feet, with face expressively lined, and a heavy central-European accent. A beautiful fat woman in a sari, exposing satiny folds of bare midriff. They might simply be the kind of Cardiff people that David never met.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Here’s how to write a bestseller

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