Writing About People Like Us Part 2
To write a family scene I really have to use my imagination
‘Don’t show me pictures of your baby,’ says Brendon Gleeson in ‘The Guard’, ‘they’re all the same except the really ugly ones.’ For a couple of decades selfish London urbanites looked upon children as if they were visitors from Mars. ‘Are they dwarves?’ asked my friend when she came out of a film screening one morning in town. ‘No, Sarah, they’re children,’ I told her (admittedly they were dressed like miniature adults).
The childless urban couple was shorthand for ‘Unfeeling Yuppies’ but the wheel turned and babies came back. Out in the suburbs they had never gone away. But the suburbs are unfamiliar territory to me; I have no reason to go there. If I could live even closer to the centre of London I would, but King’s Cross is pretty much as close as it gets these days.
The plots of books and films are largely centred around family units, but although I remember my own childhood I really have little conception of how today’s families operate from day to day – although I’ve had more insight since lockdown, when we’re all oversharing details of our daily lives.
In literary fiction families are dysfunctional and lose control after a catalyst event occurs. In films a traditional home life is set up only so that the protagonist can break away from it. Too many wives turn up at the start and end of films to offer their husbands comfort and breakfast. It’s shocking to see how many scenes consist of two males and a female, with the female given no lines to say at all.
Different cultures provide only minimal variations. In Korean films the wives never stop serving food while husbands go off to work. It’s a one-size-fits-all template that grounds a story in familiarity. When I wrote my first novel, ‘Roofworld’, the Hollywood studio execs who were keen to adapt it asked me to change the black female lead to a white male teenager. It was after I refused to do so that I realised Hollywood and I were not compatible.
If you don’t follow the nuclear family rule and start somewhere else – telling a story about, say, a single person with no attachments – you usually only appeal to readers under 25. Writing about a generic family unit will let you produce popular stories featuring breadwinners, homemakers, child-rearers. Crime stories set in exotic locations sell well to women at home with children.
It’s an embarrassingly simple formula that for all the talk of evolution doesn’t change from one decade to the next, and it’s backed up by all the data I’ve ever read about reading habits. Male readership in working age groups has shrunk dramatically, which is why there are so few old-school adventure authors around now.
The top-selling fiction books are those with most readily identifiable home situations. If I have to write a breakfast scene with kids and make it interesting I need to use more imagination than writing about a journey to Neptune. If I chose to write about the teens on my street I’d probably get cancelled for some kind of cultural appropriation.
While I don’t know many normal families I do know plenty of dysfunctional ones, with children on medication or sectioned, missing husbands, psychologically damaged wives. They’re why so many stories now have flawed, introspective characters.
In giving representation to everyone we must put characters we can all relate to in books and on screens – but for many authors it’s harder than setting a book in the 18th century. The secret it first-source research – going out and talking to people. But that can be the hardest part of all.