Depth in fiction is a pet peeve of mine. I read to learn as much as I read to be entertained—in fact, as my life gets busier, I read more and more for the former, less and less for the latter.
And, I’m not talking about fiction vs. non, because in my opinion you ought to be able to learn just as much from a good novel as from a dishy bit of non, about historical periods or human psychology or literary movements. Say the protagonist is a mechanic or an opera singer or an oil tycoon, well, I want to know what that’s like, and I’m going to be kind of annoyed if I don’t learn anything more than that mechanics get oily and opera singers can be divas and oil tycoons spend a lot of money.
The first rule of conversation is the first rule of writing: spill secrets or go home.
That being said, it’s kind of hard to spill secrets you don’t know.
And, unless you’re willing to write covert autobiographies (I mean, more so than every book which is always in one way or another autobiographical. And, in any case, I’m not particularly willing to write them) by the dozen… Well, I’m still working on my technique.
Which is basically that of any other magpie.
I usually carry a book around in my head for a good year or two before I start writing it. In the meantime I read books. Lots and lots of books and articles and generally go on with my life until something sparkly catches my eye.
For ex, I just read the third volume of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, where he describes his life as a civil servant in Ceylon, and was captivated by the world of pearl fisheries and uncomfortable imperialism and instantly knew I needed that in my book—not overtly, of course, because I already have my plot figured out, but somewhere beneath the surface…
And, poof: My protagonist’s mother grew up in Ceylon, the daughter of a low-ranking civil servant.
I don’t know whether that will come up in the book or not. Who knows. But, just knowing that tells me a lot about my protag’s mother, gives her character dimension, and forces me to ask more interesting questions about her. Did all the traveling make her adventurous and capable, or did she go the opposite route and learn to crave security? What are her attitudes about race and caste? Does she feel out of place or intimidated by English society? Does she believe strongly in Britain’s empire or is she ambivalent after seeing it up close?
I read an article a few months ago about the devastating effects of and sometimes bizarre recovery methods tried for shell shock on World War I veterans. My book is set in the early 1920s, so I started jotting notes, trying to figure out where this information fit. My male lead lost his brother in the war, so it wasn’t hard to start making the connections.
And, that’s how my books grow.
I don’t know if it’s the best technique in the world. One of the cons is that the book can get over-detailed, losing some of that nice elasticity that comes with a tight plot. But, that’s what second drafts are for, right? My theory is that it’s always better to know your characters well, to give them texture and a variety of opinions about the world, and they’ll be happier. They’ll do more interesting things. They’ll fight more believably. They’ll misunderstand each other. Their need for redemption will be just a touch deeper.
And, if the price tag for that is having to write and later delete a couple of scenes where my protag’s mother reminisces about her youth in Kandy or the male lead gets caught up in his brother’s condition… so be it.
I’m having too much fun to stop.