I was travelling on a tram through Manchester during the recent heatwave. Two young women of about the same age were standing by the doors. I was struck by the contrast in their appearance, one wearing shorts and a crop top with long loose shirt over both, the other wearing a hijab and a loose abaya. They were both looking at their phones as they travelled through the city.
Now this is not one of those stories where someone on the tram shouted at one of the women and then someone else defended their right to dress as they pleased to general applause. If anything, the scene seemed so unremarkable that no one but me appeared to have noticed the juxtaposition: it was a great example of the unassuming diversity of modern Manchester.
No, the scene reminded me that we have a tendency to write stories as we want them to be, not as they are.
When I start a story I default to thinking of what I want it to be, not what it is. I have characters in mind, I have places I want them to be and confrontations pencilled in for them somewhere down the line.
The more that I write, the more I’m convinced that this is the wrong way to go about things. I’ve written many times about the importance of following your characters. Put them in a situation and then see how they react to it. When my stories aren’t working its usually because I’ve forgotten my own advice.
The same is true in real life, of course. How often do we listen to what people are really saying and how often do we just impose our own ideas upon them?