Writing About People Like Us Part 2

Reading & Writing

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.


35 comments on “Writing About People Like Us Part 2”

  1. Liz Thompson says:

    Over 25? I’m 72, and still reading books about single people. All 4 of my closest friends are childless, one has been determinedly single all their life. Two of the five of us had dysfunctional families in our childhood. One adopted children, that family is still dysfunctional. My own children’s childhood was disrupted by mental illness in both parents, some resulting problems still remain, in both offspring and parents. Within my immediate family, we have gay, bi and trans people, accepted, loved, and their partners welcome. Welcomed by my parents, too.
    I hardly know anyone who conforms to the nuclear family unit, whose marriage/partnership conforms to the traditional happy ever after. Maybe, out of a lifetime, and people my own age, I can dredge up two couples. I know people whose various children are spread out between relatives, fosterers and exes.
    All of us making the best out of what we have I suppose, but so far as I can tell, none of us out of the norm, none of us that odder than our neighbours.
    And most of us happy to read books about gay or single or childless or disabled/disadvantaged/disturbed people, or unconventional family groupings for that matter, possibly because most of us have either been there or can clearly see ‘there but for fortune’.
    Stereotypes bore me in books, and when statistics or estimates or sweeping assumptions produce them, I get very, very suspicious.

  2. admin says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head there, Liz – behind every normal family stands a second more complex set of individuals. The battle to be seen as ‘respectable’ is universal.

  3. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    ‘Writing about a generic family unit will let you produce popular stories featuring breadwinners, homemakers, child-rearers’

    Maybe so, but I won’t be reading them.

  4. John Griffin says:

    Having a dysfunctional life with a disordered (borderline personality disorder) ‘mother’ – who wasn’t, it turned out,, then a loveless marriage until 39, then discovering a huge extended family including real siblings (all of them being dysfunctional, problematic etc), I am perfectly happy to read Sherlockian pastiches, Agatha Christie, watch sci-fi, nature documentaries…..anything EXCEPT books or films about dysfunctional families.

  5. Brooke says:

    What Liz said so accurately. “…the battle to be seen as respectable” is the battle to survive.

    The publishing industry is like Wall Street: disconnected from reality, believes its own simple formulas (bs), convinces others and thus drives out efforts to create genuine value for consumers even as it increases prices. E.G. “Male readership .. so few old-school adventure authors around now.” Or maybe publishers say “we already have one in that category” to aspiring authors. Or the feminization of publishing, and reading, has driven out authentic male voices. As a result we don’t get something like Of Human Bondage; we get Piranesi. Lord save us.

    Regarding family breakfast conversations, I would credit you with having a high quotient of imagination, enough to meet the challenge.

  6. Peter T says:

    Leave families, dysfunctional and functional, to psychologists and their works. I don’t want to know about them.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Peter T, if you have characters it helps to set them in a context. As for “normal”, Chris, I don’t think there is such a thing. People would say our family is normal, heterosexual, one son, hobbies, living in a suburb. If you scrape that away there are all sorts of oddities underneath, one of which only surfaced a couple of months ago right here on this forum. Have your characters be what you like, have them skip breakfast, or have the story skip it, who cares? Of course, the publishers seem to care and that is of importance to you (ultimately to us as well) but … we did threaten to march on your publisher once before with hats, scarves and boiled sweets. I do think readers are more varied in their tastes than publishers think, but since it’s their money at risk I suppose they have to be cautious.

  8. John Howard says:

    Ah Helen, I remember that threat well… Oh for the good old days when we could march with impunity… The boiled sweets were an interesting subject of discussion if I remember correctly.
    I seem to get the impression that the consensus above is that nowadays dysfunction has become the norm. Normal seems to be on the wane. I am certainly shouting at the TV much more these days although maybe that’s because I am wearing my “old git” badge with considerable pride.
    I blame “the parents” and the madness that is social media. ( Got to blame something that isn’t me ‘cos I’m perfect… “hello flowers, hello sky” )

  9. Peter Dixon says:

    Have a listen to The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s ‘We Are Normal’ or ‘My Pink Half of the Drainpipe’.
    Or re-read ‘Diary of a Nobody’.

    On no account refer to Coronation Street or Eastenders where everyone just seems to shout at each other and never actually eat meals.

  10. chazza says:

    Peter Dixon
    Or go to the toilet….

  11. Paul C says:

    Huge fan of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. There’s a riotous biography of Viv Stanshall called Ginger Geezer which is a must read for admirers. Other wonderful songs are Canyons of Your Mind and i’m the Urban Spaceman featuring an unforgettable hosepipe solo by Stanshall.

  12. Brian Evans says:

    I’m rather partial to Bonzo Dog’s version of “Jollity Farm”

  13. admin says:

    …and so, with seemingly no effort at all, we have passed on to Viv Stanshall and possibly ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’ and no doubt Sir Henry at Rawlinson End…

  14. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Who could forget Mrs Black and her ‘orrible ‘andbag?

  15. Peter Dixon says:

    I was simply trying to point out that one persons normal is rarely someone else’s normal.
    I was brought up on a working class estate in a council house. My mother seemed to do almost nothing and rarely left the house; my friends mothers smoked, drank, went to the club on a Saturday night and went to bingo on a Wednesday. Our (childless) next door neighbours, who had a lovely garden, worked on for 15 years, decided to move to a static caravan when the husband retired (the wife was a total housewife) because they didn’t like living among the working class. The wife instructed her husband to poison all of the plants in the garden because she ‘didn’t want anyone else to enjoy them’. Imagine what their breakfast conversation was like.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    “Poison all the plants”?! What sort of looney toon nasty was she? That’s worse than poisoning pigeons in the park.

  17. Brian Evans says:

    Nice choice, Mr F, though you missed out “At Last the 1948 Show”…

  18. mike says:

    One of the great memories of my younger days was the regular two trips a week to the Deuragon Arms to see the Bonzo’s utterly chaotic act.The thought of Legs Larry Smith and Vivian Stanshall tap dancing across a row of tables still brings a chuckle. One time they blew up a pair of army boots and the smoke was so intense I couldn’t see my friends next to me. Oh Happy Days!
    It’s still a great regret we couldn’t afford the £40.00 for them to play at our wedding reception

  19. Paul C says:

    I envy you, Mike ! I would rather have seen the Bonzos in their pomp than the Beatles. One of their favourite routines was to suddenly – in the middle of a song – go mute and mime as though the sound had gone then Stanshall would backheel something and their voices and instruments would ‘come back on again’

    Apologies, Chris – I’ll try to stick to the subject a little more in future……

  20. Brooke says:

    Imagine breakfast with all of us around the table…..

  21. Barbara Boucke says:

    Thank you for The Bonzo’s. Needless to say, i had no idea who they were but I just watched “I’m the Urban Spaceman” on Youtube and laughed all the way through. I will go back in search of more.

  22. Peter Dixon says:

    Nice thought Brooke…pass the marmalade, or as they say in France ‘seasick’.

  23. Peter T says:

    Is dysfunctional normal? I vaguely remember a Larkin poem about parents having the job of passing all their dysfunctionality to their children plus a few new ones for good measure. And is normal good? ‘Normal’ neuro-typical individuals seem most irrational. Bonzos were ace.

  24. Steveb says:

    We are normal and we want our freedom!

  25. Roger says:

    “I’ve yet to meet the man I wouldn’t mutilate.” would be the ideal inspiration for a slasher film.

  26. Andrew Holme says:

    Steveb, I love ‘Love’!

  27. Keith Ravenscroft says:

    Speaking of setting books in past centuries Connie Willis did a wonderful job with Doomsday book, her short stories too always provoke much thought. More recently The Parentations by Kate Mayfield. Jumping timelines from Iceland in the 1700’s to eighteenth century London and up to the present. It revolves around the lives of sisters Fitzgerald, Constance and Verity, who become entwined with the nearby Fowler household (any relation Chris?) and are charged with providing safety to a mysterious baby from Iceland. It’s also about eternal life. We see life in Victorian London through seasons, wars, and misery. It also asks the question- What would you do if you were immortal.

  28. Helen Martin says:

    I just visited (virtually) the Senate House Library at the University of London where among other things they have an interview with Viv Stanishall. I was there to look at their exhibit on Dickens and childhood in the Victorian era but I noticed other things, including Dame Judi Dench on why she loves trees. I saw that a while back and if you haven’t seen it it’s well worth your time.

  29. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – have you read ‘Ginger Geezer’, the biography of Vivian Stanshall? It’s a brilliant read, funny, dark in places, and in others, heartbreakingly sad. I’ll say this: he had an interesting life. To quote Sir Henry Rawlinson:
    “I arranged the firing squad into a circle…”

  30. Ian Luck says:

    Peter – characters in soaps go to the toilets during the commercial breaks on ITV, whilst the whining no-marks on BBC’s ‘Eastenders’ all wear nappies, just in case.
    Brian Eno’s brother, Roger, whom I knew in the 1980’s, made some cassette audio plays when ‘Eastenders’ was a new thing, which he called ‘Enders’, and played all the characters. They were bloody funny, too.

  31. Helen Martin says:

    No, Ian, I had no knowledge of that whole genre. I merely noticed the heading alongside the info on the display.
    The British Library has a very complex exhibit of Judaica, which I found fascinating. They wanted to survey me but I had to shut down my computer because i couldn’t exit the exhibit and lost the survey form. They have sound connected to many of the documents and demonstrations connected to the music and calligraphy. There was aJjewish settlement in China from, I think, the tenth century CE and it operated until 1860-ish when the Chinese tore down the synagogue. There were ketubas (?) from India, Morocco and modern Britain to show how the wording remained but the decoration changed. The modern British one had changed the wording a little to impose equal responsibilities on wife and husband and the witnesses included women. Just noting current input.

  32. David Ronaldson says:

    The Nuclear Family: my teenage Son (who has anxiety issues) casually began a conversation with “My friend has been admitted to a clinic for a Psychotic Episode”. It transpires the psychosis was peripheral in the anecdote to the playing of Pink Floyd in the waiting room (presumably not Brain Damage). On the same day, my Son’s girlfriend and her mother returned home from visiting Granny in her Care Home to find Dad blind drunk at ranting in the lounge. Don’t sideline “Normal” life.

  33. Ian Luck says:

    “…And on vibes, looking very relaxed – Adolf Hitler…” From ‘The Intro and The Outro’, by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. Played to death in the Sixth Form common room at my old school, simply because that one line annoyed an unpleasant head of year, whose office was next door, and he’d bang on the wall when it was played.

  34. Paul C says:

    …Duke Ellington and his Orchestra on triangle…………ting………….Thanks !

  35. Xanthe says:

    I could be wrong but over the years I have noticed that people who have had difficult lives rarely want to read/ watch or even talk about the kind of difficulties they have faced. This is not escapism but a valuable and possibly healing counterpoint to the abuse/deprivation etc. that they have had to overcome.

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