Great writers know themselves according to Robert McKee. And he should know, because he is a damn good writer if not a great one, and he teaches other people how to write…great…greatly?
McKee believes that character drives great storytelling and to create great characters we need to know what is real, what touches people, what makes the reader/viewer see themselves in the character. How freeing to know that our characters don’t even have to be that likeable if the audience can empathise with them. Let’s face it, we all have facets of our personality that are dark. We all loved Snape even though he was a nasty, crusty old teacher who picked on a little kid because he looked like his annoying dad.
Chekhov once said something along the lines of “everything I learned about being a man I learned from me.” That’s great advice worth emulating as long as you don’t have your head up your ass. The single most important thing we can do as a writer (human) is to learn what really makes us tick, our shadow as well as our light.
For example, I’ve always said I love to travel. I was one of those annoying twats who said things like “I’m a traveller, not a tourist.”
Gah, it’s mortifying…
But when I sat down and teased out what I actually enjoy about travel, the ‘travelling part’ is nowhere on the list. I love being ‘somewhere else’. I love fancy hotels, cosy fireplaces in mountain lodges, incredible vistas and ancient sites. I love walking around new cities, museums, eating in restaurants, hearing people speak in other languages… I tolerate plane travel, I suffer silently through taxi or bus rides, I struggle with coming home to a messy house and inexplicably sticky floors… (I said no parties! It wasn’t a party, mum, it was only 14 people!)
So if I’m being honest, I’m a tourist. Hell, I’m planning to do the Camino de Santiago with my husband in a support vehicle (a little red Vespa!), going ahead to check into our fancy accommodation and meet me at the door with a glass of bubbles and a foot rub every day! No hostels for me. pfft!
I know what I like and what I really, really don’t…I never set myself up to fail anymore because I know myself well enough.
I hope my constant obsession with self-knowledge pays off in the way Chekhov and McKee et al say it will. Sometimes while delving, what I uncover is unpleasant and sometimes I am surprised by the gap between what I thought and what actually was.
As for the pay-off, I can see my writing improving so the work is worth it.
Besides, it’s not like I have any say in the matter. Creativity is my vehicle of choice in my desperate struggle to make/find meaning in this dark, cold universe and I am compelled to write and tell stories. If I don’t write, I go crazy and nobody needs to see that!
Here is part of my list of probing questions I ask myself when I’m journaling.
When was the last time you questioned your own motives? For writing or doing whatever it is you do. In relationships.
When did you last do something nice for someone else?
When did you last re-set your goals?
What are you aiming for right now? Why does it matter?
How can you love more? How do you give and receive love? How are you stopping the flow of love in your life?
How can you do for others today?
When were you last really angry? Sad?
When did you last learn something new?
When did you last really mess up? Did you apologise if your mistake affected someone else? Make reparations? Or did you walk away from the situation, unfriend the person either on social media or in real life?
When did you last really fail on a project or goal?
How does one make an egg-free omelette?
Do you know why you do what you do? Do you know what your one Definite Chief Aim is? Has it changed? Why? Wtf?
What one thing would you change about yourself? Your partner? Your child?
What makes someone do the wrong thing?
What drives people (my latest character) more, pain or reward?