Monday, May 21, 2007

Bringing Characters to Life

First I'm going to rap some knuckles.

Sad it was indeed that so few people turned up for the MPH Writer's Circle* meet on Saturday even though so many people SAY that they want to write the great Malaysian novel!

We were talking fundamantals really - how do you craft great characters and make them live on the page? We had three very good speakers, one academic, two published authors and the dialogue flowed between them.

Professor Lim Chee Seng of Universiti Malaya (below) spoke more broadly about how writers bring their characters to life through names, dress, physical features and drew on the writing of Balzac, Shakespeare, Lawrence Sterne, Tolstoy ... and even the bible for his examples!

Nizam Zakaria (below) has now turned full-time writer. He reckons that characters will die if they are not close to what readers can relate to. He writes for TV and is often asked if his script is plot driven or character driven: but he finds it impossible to separate the two things out - they really go hand in hand. Some of his characters, he says, are based on aspects of himself. He also said that he describes his characters minimally, but likes to reveal his characters through what other characters say about them.

Kam Raslan (below), author of Confessions of an Old Boy, not to be out done by Professor Lim's literary references very nicely drew on examples from Jackie Collins and the film Titanic to show:
the ancient tussle between character and plot ...
Good characters create the plot and must relate to events in:
predictably unpredictable ways
and must be able to justify what they are doing. No character can ever be simply a foil for the main character.

The conversation was opened up even more when the audience joined in. It was really great too to have yet another very successful Malaysian novelist come along to the session, Beth Yahp, who talked about how her characters emerge from scraps of conversation recorded in her notebooks.

A couple of issues came up in conversation which interest me greatly:

Why don't Malaysian authors don't reflect the racial diversity of the country in their fiction, seldom creating characters from other racial backgrounds in their writing?

Should Malaysian authors use of Malaysian English in dialogue. (Prof Lim believes there is:
no need to mangle our English and make it laughable ...
while I'm pretty undecided on the issue.)

These are questions are v. much on my mind and the desire to write a thesis to explore them (and other fascinations) in an academic context grows ever stronger.

*Didn't know about it? Perhaps you should contact MPH to be put on the mailing list. (Call up the Marketing Dept @ (603) 7781 1800 or the Customer Service Hotline @ (603) 2938 3818 for more information.)


Gette said...

Boy, I wish I could have attended this one.

On the question of reflecting racial diversity, I've often wondered about that myself... mostly on why it turns me off so much when people try too hard to make sure every race is represented. I certainly don't sit down and decide on races unless it's immediately relevant to the story.

I feel a blog post of my own coming for this one. :P

bibliobibuli said...

the school textbooks always have three chums of different races going around together ... haha ... as if!!

yes, i know what you mean, it can seem very artificial and forced.

Anonymous said...

How do you mean, as if ? when I was in school I DID have friends of different races. How'd you know anyway given that you went to school in Britain ? :P

Anonymous said...

Ideally, it shouldn't even be an issue anymore, be it one way or the other (but of course, reality speaks otherwise). Thus let me grab every available colour to add to my palette; I likes them all I tells ya.

sympozium said...

So to write the Great Malaysian Novel the writer must have characters who are (deep breath): Malay, Chinese, Indian, Kadazans, Ibans, Eurasians, Temiangs, Siamese, Europeans and Japanese and Saudis and Taiwanese who've made Malaysia their home, Bangladeshis, Indonesians, Filipinos. And then the writer will have to decide which character is the main one.

Then cue subsequent criticisms that the hero is X-race, the villain is Y-race, the servants Z-race etc... and also criticisms that how dare an X-race author write about the mindset and social ambitions of Y-race etc etc...

Please lah...

Anonymous said...

But you could also look at it this way; at least from my perspective; If Andrew - an Indian gentleman; the lover of Rachel - a towering Dusun godess, frolic in an unpretentious love trail within the pages of an author's intent, and nothing is ever said of their creed nor are there any hackneyed racial conceptions utilized to specify stereotypes, then why would that be a big problem? Unless of course one sees 'race' first and foremost yet nothing of that deep psycological complexity that binds all of humanity.

bibliobibuli said...

anon - don't forget i spent years sitting in the back of malaysian classrooms observing classes. i think things were very different back then. now the polarisation is much more clear cut.

pelukismelikis - shouldn't be an issue, you're right, and i hope your write the novel about andrew.

sympozium - nicely said and quite right about the how-dare bit, what i'd call "the yasmin factor" ... and one day i will blog about that

Anonymous said...

Ma'am, I can barely spell let alone write a novel :-P
Just wanted to elucidate a point that's all.

bibliobibuli said...

damn! that after you've gone and intrigued me about their relationship. how can you leave a reader hanging in this way?

Anonymous said...

Their relationship is open-ended and predisposed to the infinite majesty of fate, he he

Anonymous said...

I guess things were different back then. This country was a sort of big huge kampung ("backwater" for the international readers) and I guess people were friendlier the same way people in kampungs are generally.

Hey Kam was there... the old man in his novel is not only identifiably Malay, he's also identifiably a Malay man from a certain social class.

Why didn't you ask him why that was ? :D I guess it's because people write what they know.

Gette said...

The idea of three chums of different races is funny because even in school, we all know how it really is: while we're friendly with classmates as a general rule, we gravitate towards people we can relate to or who speak our language. Usually it's people of the same race. But textbooks are probably required to make everyone feel included.

After we grow out of the "your people / my people" mentality, race really doesn't matter anymore and it shows in our stories.

Maybe cultural/racial identity isn't the first thing you want to show off when you write a story, especially if the only role it's going to play is a gratuitous "Oh by the way, I'm Iban but that fact is going to be irrelevant for the rest of the story!"

Maybe we want to write stories that could have happened to anyone anywhere, stories that other people can relate to no matter what the race.

But it all comes down to what the story is about. Is race going to be an issue in the plot?

Anonymous said...

I don't think we should define novels by race. In real life, people of different races do not really mix. So novels should also reflect this state of affairs. Mixing races in a novel purposefully reeks of blatant propaganda! I would like to read a well written novel; I don't really care about the race of the characters.

Anonymous said...

Yet who actually decides what 'real life' is, I wonder. If a person grew up and matures to see things beyond race or creed; is unswervingly all-inclusive and decides to describe in letters his/her view of the world - one that is a essentially a bag of all-sorts, with every shade and nuance available for the eyes to perceive- would that not be his/her 'real life'?

bibliobibuli said...

i ponder the point only because since burgess wrote "the malayan trilogy" there have been very few novels (in english) which have had a multi-racial cast of characters - lloyd fernado's "green is the colour" maybe, and adibah amin's english novel. fifty years ... and to me this feels just so odd.

it's like there seems to be this huge avoidance about writing about the country in wider view and in tackling social and political issues (does an author have a duty to? another huge area of contentious debate)

as daphne lee once said on her blog, you can't dictate what authors write about. they write what they MUST write

in fairness though this is also said about britain - whose is the voice of the times?

of course the argument can go round and round in circles without reaching any conclusion, so i won't fight the corner any further at the moment

Jen said...

off on a tangent here ... I found this link on my web-wanderings, on teaching writing and what it takes to be a writer:

"(Ishmael) Beah ... had trouble with grammar, was quiet most of the time, and never visited during my office hours. Probably the best I can say of my teaching of Beah is: I did no harm."


bibliobibuli said...

very many thanks for this link, jen - a most interesting article and i think i'll put it up front