Well, what a time for us all, hey? Usually I never quite know what my readers are up to. You’re all so different and spread all over the world, it's hard to predict. But for the first time, I know with certainty we've all faced the same thing: a global pandemic. And while I have been blessed in many ways (I have not caught Covid-19 nor lost anyone as a result of it) I have had my own personal battles, and have come out feeling battered and bruised. Thank God for my friends and family, especially these three above.
As for the writing side of my life, many people have asked what it's been like to write during a pandemic. Other than the obvious, what I struggled with most was what I call ‘spinning head syndrome’. This pandemic really does put your mind in a spin. Even those who haven't been impacted in ways others have, it messes with your mind, right?
This spinning mind syndrome is particularly hard for creatives. We need focused time to dream up our ideas. We need to be able to push away outside distractions to sink into the writing process. Let me tell you, that's been near on impossible the past few months.
And yet at the same time, I have learnt SO many lessons from observing people's reactions throughout the pandemic, especially when it comes to people's opinions and how they express them.
And wow, the pandemic has invoked a lot of opinions, hasn't it?! When I say ‘opinions’ I mean the ones we see play out on social media feeds (and maybe ones we post ourselves too during moments of frustration!). On one end of the spectrum are those who think the pandemic is one big conspiracy. Then there are those who think anyone who dares even step outside their house without a mask on is a criminal. Mixed in with this are a whole bunch of opinions in between. Either way, you'll recognise the more impassioned posts by the use of words such as ‘sheeple!’ and ‘plandemic’; ‘covidiots’ and ‘moronavirus!'
It all reminds me of how het up people get when it comes to parenting, like in my latest novel Circle of Doubt. At the core of the novel is a Facebook group for mothers where the eternal debate bubbles beneath the surface: what makes a 'good parent?' During the pandemic, this debate seems to focus on 'who knows the real truth?' Both are pretty unanswerable to be honest!
I've watched these debates play out with interest, and also thrown myself into them too. Throughout, I've made three valuable observations about character to help me with future novels.
Duality of Character
What makes a fictional character interesting is the battle between what someone presents to the world and what's deep inside them. The main character in Circle of Doubt, Emma, wants people to see her as an assured working mum who doesn't need anyone else but the family she loves. But the truth is, she is deeply insecure and is desperate for a friend she can confide in.
One of the mothers who looks down on Emma gives the impression of being an upstanding compassionate member of the community when the truth is, she hates the place.
These are just two examples of how the exterior can contradict the interior in character.
During the pandemic, I'm seeing countless examples of how character contradictions play out in 'real-life'.
Take the 'you're all sheeple' brigade as an example. In the context of the pandemic, the term sheeple is used as a derogatory term to refer to those who, among other things, are perceived as being easily influenced by the Powers That Be and the media. Sometimes, this will have spawned from conspiracy theories such as the 'New World Order' and 'plandemic' school of thought. Often, it's also a chance to say: 'Hey, look at me, I stand out from the rest of you brainwashed bunch thanks to my revolutionary and enlightened thought!'
The conflict of character that so fascinates us authors really shines through here. By using the word 'sheeple' in a derogatory manner, there is an implication the one wielding the word stands out from the herd, and is a groundbreaking, enlightened individual. But more often than not, they're just like everyone else when it comes to the reality of their lives.
They may argue what makes them revolutionary is their ability to see the truth when others can't. But let's be honest, it's not exactly pioneering to acknowledge the media and those in authority aren't always right or true. Most of us learn this at GCSE level!
Whether they like it or not, by banging on about how different they are from the 'sheeple', it just means people will scrutinise all the ways those in the 'anti-sheeple' brigade do belong to the herd in so many other, utterly ordinary ways.
Credit: 'Sheeple' webcomic by xkcd
And this so fascinates me as an author, that conflict between the outer mask ('I am so different / above others') and the inner truth ('actually, I'm not and it really pisses me off that I'm not') leads to the final irony: the armchair rants of the 'anti-sheeple' brigade ends up sounding like the 'baa-baa-baaing' of a thousand sheep themselves, joining the countless similar rants and rule subversions that echo around the internet chamber and in the homes of people around the world.
The 'covidiot' police can be just as bad. Don't get me wrong, there truly are some covidiots out there, the kind of people who make others feel uncomfortable by bowling into a shop without a mask on and coughing near an elderly person. Or the ones who stand outside hospitals shouting 'covid is a hoax!' as the sick and dying lie inside. In my view, it's perfectly acceptable to call those people 'covidiots'.
But what about those who posted photos of families enjoying (socially distanced) days at the beach when rules were relaxed during the summer, calling them covidiots? Sure, if they were breaking the rules at, say, this time while hospital admissions / deaths were as bad as they are now, maybe they deserve that 'covidiot' label but not back when it was allowed. I've found myself thinking the government and media's reaction has been somewhat hysterical at time. But not now, as cases, hospital admissions and deaths are at a high. We adapt our reactions based on statistical context in this fast moving madness.
The dichotomy we see here is between the desire to appear the opposite of an idiot (intelligent) while not doing the due diligence of checking the rules before accusing others of breaking them (not very intelligent).
During the past few months, something else I've noticed is the difference that comes depending on whether you 'lead with anger' or 'lead with love'. Those who 'lead with anger' allow that negative energy to cloud their ability to notice when compassion is needed. They are so blinded by their fury or desperation to get their opinion across / appear 'cool' in their rule-breaking anti-sheeple ways, that they can't see the suffering and worry friends and family might be going through. They'll jump to bang on about their theories before looking at someone who has, say a clinically vulnerable loved one at risk, and asking, 'hey, how are you doing?'
In Circle of Doubt, as Emma navigates the demands of a holding down a full-time job and being a mother, she finds herself contending with the blinkers of those who lead with anger and it has horrible consequences.
During this pandemic, you'll recognise those who lead with anger because rather than genuinely checking in with family and friends when a new worrying development occurs, their first instinct is to post an opinion on social media.
It makes me think of a recent story about a manatee which was found with 'Trump' etched onto its back (bear with me!). It's like how some people are so desperate to etch their opinions online, they don't realise how much it might be hurting people close to them... including, again, those at risk of dying of covid and their very worried loved ones.
We all have days like this where compassion goes out of the window in the rush to share anger and frustration. I know I've lead with anger, saying and writing things without thought. But as I've got older, I've tried to lead with love, listening to my first instinct to put out a hand of warmth instead of pointing a finger of mockery. Sometimes I don't get it right. At least I admit that.
Emma in Circle of Doubt is the same. Even with all the anger and frustration she might feel, there is a pause for thought before expressing a view or making a choice (or breaking a rule) that could risk wider repercussions. She tries very hard to make compassion the guiding emotion, not anger.
This doesn't mean censoring views. It means thinking carefully about how they will be received, in particular by those you care about, and ensuring you are at peace with that.
The Hidden Motivations
When observing all this play out, I often ask myself: why is this person reacting like this? What motivates people to react the way they do? It's a question all authors must ask of their characters: why?
Sheer showing off?
This is just a small list of potential motivations for those negative actions we take. For Emma in Circle of Doubt, her main motivation is love for her adopted daughter but also insecurity. She wants to prove she is worthy of that love due to an awful episode from her past. Funnily enough, for the mothers that turn against her, they're usually motivated by insecurity in their own parenting too. The insecurity that binds us all as parents, hey?
What about the motivations of those who might lead with anger during the pandemic, accusing people of being 'sheeple' or 'covidiots' before offering some compassion? Maybe it's as simple as love for the people close to them too. They're either upset the Government has taken away their rights to see their loves ones, worried about the mental impact or, on the other end of the scale, they're angry because people flouting the rules might be risking the lives of those they love.
Insecurity could be another. Someone might feel embarrassed they don't have the tools to help the community, so turn to a form of online policing instead, criticising 'covidiots' who turn out to have been following the rules.
Fear is a big one. Ironically, it can be the hidden motivation of those who accuse anyone expressing worry or following the rules as 'sheeple'. Fear that the pandemic we're facing might be a pure act of nature which we can't control, and not something that is planned and therefore easier to control. Fear that the Government and media's fear (and in turn, lockdown) might be justified and if so, that's much scarier to contemplate then any of the conspiracy theories out there.
Or what about peer pressure from those who express strong views? You'll often find people are influenced by the strength of one person's character, so much so that by the time they realise deep down they don't agree with them, they're just too mentally exhausted to counter them. Or they want to impress these strong characters. That old childish desire to seem 'sooooo cooooool'.
At the end of the day, there are always reasons for people reacting the way they do that go deeper than the obvious surface motivations. Even if they insist 'no, I'm just bloody angry', or 'I'm just saying what I believe' nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems. People around them will know that and in moments of contemplation, the ones who lead with anger will see it too.
Trying to bring to the surface that which is so fiercely hidden is what drives us as authors in creating our characters too. It's the 'scratching beneath the surface' which makes us write. And the pandemic has highlighted the emotions that bubble beneath the surface more than ever.
To read my latest novel, Circle of Doubt, click the button below.
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