Learning Characterisation from Humans Of New York

HONY Facebook Page

HONY Facebook Page

I’ve talked about the Humans of New York Facebook page many times before, mostly in passing. Today I wanted to discuss what an amazing resource the page is for writers.

For me, one of the hardest parts of being a writer is coming up with three-dimensional characters. When I start a first draft my characters are usually pretty vague. I know their motivation or I know the key story problem (Helen getting pregnant, Rebecca’s dislike of the upper class, Lucy’s need for a family and to fit in), but the character starts out as a hazy version of me at some earlier point in my life. They move on from that, and by the end of the first draft they become living, breathing, talkative people in my head. But I think one of the reasons I like my male characters better is because the starting point for them is more often men I know and admire or love, rather than versions of me. (There’s a lot of hubbie in Marcio!)

The problem now is that my novels are starting to have mirror scenes. I’m stuck with Finding Lucy because it starts with a death and a funeral – as does Class Act (although Finding Lucy came first.) Now, it’s unlikely many people will read both, as Class Act bombed, but I can see the reviews now. “Amanda Martin’s latest novel is dull and repetitive, with chunks lifted directly from her previous release.” Oh joy.

Similarly, the protagonists often have similar upbringings and backgrounds because I write more authentically when I can really live it (or have lived it!)

Brandon's Latest Post

Brandon’s Latest Post

So where does HONY come in? I’ve been editing Dragon Wraiths this week for one final time before entering it in the Chicken House/Times competition, after having had the lovely lady who proofread Class Act run through it. She pointed out the bits where I lose the sense of Leah being a teen (my editor has teenage kids, which is fantastic). But she also pointed to the bits where I evoke Leah’s backstory well, when she was in foster care.

I did a lot of research online for the care scenes, and the snippet of Leah’s time on the streets. I wanted it to be realistic but not sensationalist, genuine but not too gritty. A fine line. But then I read a HONY post yesterday which gave an insight into care in one paragraph. In fact it created a whole story and three-dimensional character in a couple of hundred words. Each HONY post does.

When Brandon Stanton (the amazing man behind Humans Of New York) was on his UN tour, the stories were beyond my ability to visualise, but now he’s back in New York the wealth of material is incredible. Not just for main characters. I think one of the reasons Baby Blues resonates with people is because all the characters have stories of their own. I chose not to develop the bit-characters in Class Act, because some reviews of Baby Blues said it was crowded with people, but I’m learning you can’t please everyone!

What Brandon shows is that a person’s whole life and character can be depicted in half a page. He has a way of getting under people’s skin to their very essence. He gets them to tell the core of their life story succinctly but with feeling. I read his posts to keep me grounded in the stories of the world, but also I read them to learn from a master.

The Stories in Tragedy: Manchester Dogs Home

My daughter woke up in tears at 3am this morning (that’s another post) and it took a long while to calm her back to sleep. When I finally made it back to bed, I had to check the downloads for my latest Baby Blues free promotion (they’ve been amazing, but that’s another post too) and I happened on a tragic story unfolding in Manchester.

Yesterday evening a fouteen-year-old boy allegedly set fire to the Manchester Dog Home. The home houses around 200 dogs and at least a quarter were killed in the blaze.

I reluctantly confess, despite being a dog lover, my initial response was that it wasn’t a tragedy on the scale of Syria or Gaza or the 9/11 anniversary.

It disgusts me, now, in the cold light of dawn, how numb I have become to tragedy.

Then I started reading the news feed – in reverse – and became involved in the emotion of it. The story behind the headline.

It’s what Humans of New York has done for every strife-ridden country it has visited as part of the UN Tour: tell the stories and you humanise the victims. You create room for empathy and the headline is no longer a number, a statistic. The dispassionate historian in me gives way to the writer. That is the power of stories.

As I read about the awful truth of trapped animals yelping in fear, I cried. When I read about the people of Manchester and beyond turning out in their thousands with crates and blankets and offers of help I felt lifted by the knowledge that there is still some good left in humanity. The online fundraising account started by the Manchester Evening News has raised a staggering sum overnight (donate here) and my faith in the world is somewhat restored.

But then I read some of the comments about the 14-year-old suspect. Comments like ‘he should hang’, and ‘he should burn’ and I think, what about his story? Don’t get me wrong, I think it was a despicable act and he should be punished. But, fourteen? What happens in a child’s life that leads him there?

And that’s the parent in me talking. That’s listening to my daughter sob at 3am, “Mummy, I just don’t know why I’m so sad,” and fearing she’s inherited my depression, god help her. That’s seeing every tiny thing that shapes my children and feeling guilty for most of it, while trying to remember they are people in their own right and it isn’t all my fault.

I’m shocked and dismayed by the boy’s behaviour, and six years ago I would have let him burn. But meeting hate with hate isn’t the answer, although I don’t know what is. My first response is to want to give him a hug, as I would my boy, when he does something stupid that incurs my wrath and says, “I don’t know why I did that, Mummy, I’m sorry.”

All I know is the emotions left me feeling like I might fly apart. There isn’t room inside me for all the contradictory empathy, the love and loss and hope and disappointment and, above all, the need to understand. The world was easier when it was hero and villain, good and bad, black and white.

Life, Love, and Looking for the Positive (with Bon Jovi)

The view from my 'office' this morning

The view from my ‘office’ this morning

Reading the latest post from The Belle Jar yesterday, and from Miss Fanny P this morning, about how hard it is reconciling being a Mum with being a person, I couldn’t help but pour out a long heartfelt reply of agreement.

I spent the entire summer holiday sleeping in defence against being in a situation I couldn’t change, even though it was a situation of my choosing.

This was my comment on Miss Fanny P’s blog:

“Ah, I can so relate. I spent most of the school holidays ‘napping’ and I thought it was a virus. Only when it went on for two months did I realise it was my body’s way of escaping an unwanted but unavoidable situation.

There was a great post on The Belle Jar yesterday about losing self when you become ‘Mummy’. It’s so true. We make our choices but from a really limited set of options. Hubbie was telling me this weekend that he read some of my old work notes and realised how very good I used to be at my job and it made me so sad, because even though I didn’t quit to become a mum (rather to be an artist, which didn’t work out) I lost all ability to go back as soon as the children got used to having me at home.

If you’re a working mum from the beginning, fine, because that’s the child’s normal. But to take kids at 4 and 5 and say, ‘Mummy’s going to leave you with a childminder at 8am and pick you up at 6pm’, that doesn’t feel fair. So when hubbie says I could go back, start at the bottom rung because of my seven years out (yay!) and the kids will adapt, that doesn’t really feel like a choice.

But I know in my head how lucky I am, and that most working mums wish they could drop their kids at school and go write novels in the coffee shop (because they tell me all the time, like working 30 hours a week to make £20 a month is so great). I yearn to be Amanda Martin, instead of Mummy. Of course I’d feel different if my books actually sold, but still I feel I’m making the best of the crappy options rather than steering my own craft in the river of life. And so, when despair takes hold, I sleep. And sleep. And sleep.”

"There's no going back on the highway of life" Bon Jovi

“There’s no going back on the highway of life” Bon Jovi

I meant every word, at 9am this morning, having survived the weekend with chunks of time hiding in bed. But as I left the coffee shop in the sunshine, and walked through shadow-patterned pavements and a summer scented churchyard, stopping to order a balloon for my son’s birthday, I realised the feelings were fading. I smiled, with sun on my face and a blue sky behind the trees above.

Even driving to my Gyn appointment (because that’s what every woman wants on her first day of term-time freedom) listening to Bon Jovi, I realised I’m not unhappy with my lot. Frustrated, yes. Struggling, definitely. But not unhappy. I did make my choices, possibly for the first time. For the first time life didn’t dictate my path, I did.

I’ve been going through my first ever novel this week, with a view to editing it for my next release. Oh my. It’s not a novel it’s a bad biography. My ‘character’ is just me. All her opinions are mine, and boy is she miserable. I wrote the novel between the birth of my first child and my second (and lord I hope it gets better, or it’ll need more than a complete rewrite, it’ll need a miracle!)

I read this section this morning (it’s all this bad, but it just shows how far I’ve come as a writer, that’s what I tell myself).

“That sense of belonging she had assumed she’d find at university continued to elude her. So she had thrown herself into her studies, determined at least to graduate with a high grade and get the perfect job, whatever that was. She had never been clear about that point – still wasn’t really. An accidental career, that’s what her CV should say. She admired friends who had a passion, “I want to be a …” fill in blank. It didn’t matter, Doctor, Dentist, Film Producer, Bin Man. It didn’t matter what someone’s passion was, just that they had one. Hers had been to have a family, to belong somewhere: she had paid a steep price for that knowledge.”

Oh yes, that’s me. It goes on to describe my final year at uni, when my boyfriend snogged someone else on NYE and how I wandered in a fog of despair for months until I suddenly realised I had six weeks to write my dissertation and save my degree. The despair hadn’t been losing the bloke (although I thought so at the time. In hindsight it was a lucky escape), it was losing a vision for the future.

Up until then I’d followed the system. GCSEs, A Levels, University. But I didn’t know what to do once I had to make my own choices. I ended up taking the first job I got, survived four years of mega-stress, broke down and ran away to New Zealand.

I could go on, but really my life summarises into trying to find love, a place to belong and a job where I felt useful and appreciated.

"One man's ceiling's another man's sky" Bon Jovi

“One man’s ceiling’s another man’s sky” Bon Jovi

Fast forward a decade or two and I have a gorgeous husband who I love, who loves me and treats me well. I have a place I belong and a job where I am (mostly) useful and appreciated. I am Mummy. I fit. I belong. I have an identity. And, much as I hate to admit it, because I feel it’s only using a tenth of my brain, I’m actually quite good at it.

And I chose it. I wanted babies. They weren’t an accident, they were a choice. Okay I didn’t have a scooby what being a parent meant or how ill-equipped I was to be one, but I’m doing okay.

I’m doing everything I wanted to do. I’m dropping my kids off at school, I’m writing novels and using my creativity. Three days out of seven I have hours of freedom. Right now (having had my gyn appointment and tried to sell a book to the nurse who has known me since I was nine) my ‘office’ is a parked car on a hillside (because the neighbours have builders in!), with a chill autumn wind blowing through the open windows, a clear blue sky overhead and Bon Jovi on the stereo singing a bunch of optimistic songs full of messages of hope and fight (better still, it’s a CD I somehow never listened to and only found this weekend, so it’s full of new stuff!)

Some Bon Jovi wisdom 😉 –

“We weren’t born to follow”

“Back when we were beautiful, before the world got small, before we knew it all. Back when we were innocent, I wonder where it went, let’s go back and find it”.

“Can I be happy now? Can I let my breath out? Let me believe, I’m building a dream, don’t try to drag me down.” Bon Jovi

A decade ago I would have stared at the blue sky out the tinted office windows, before going to some stupid meeting where actually I was mostly unappreciated. In the evening I would have hooked up for a beer with an ex who definitely didn’t appreciate me.

Then I signed up to UDate, met hubbie, and the rest, as they say, is history.

When I’m struggling with my lack of choices, I have to pause and remember how fortunate I am and that it’s all about context. I jokingly said to Miss Fanny P that my life will start when the children leave home and I can set up my Writer’s Retreat in the Welsh hills. But my life is now, I just have to look for it.

“Home is where you are and where I am” (Bon Jovi)

Lately Facebook has become my therapy, strange as that sounds. Between the positivity posts and the Humans of New York UN world tour (seriously, subscribe, it will change your life) I am strangely optimistic. I just need silence and time away from the children’s tantrums and histrionics to remember! 😉

As Bon Jovi says, “You’ve got to learn to love the world you’re living in”

(All lyrics from The Circle album)