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Prejudice can’t survive proximity

So said Stephen Beresford, writer of the film Pride, when he was interviewed on Radio 4’s Front Row back in September.

When I go power walking through the Wellington woods, I listen to podcasts and, occasionally, I hear a phrase or idea that makes me stop and scribble a note (sadly, I don’t have a Dorothy Wordsworth to do this job for me – every writer needs a wife, hey?).  I’ve written before about how fiction builds empathy, how, beyond entertaining us, good stories allow us to step into someone else’s shoes, to walk around in them for a while, to feel the pinch at the toes, the weight of the rubber soles, the chaffing at the heels. And how this experience brings us closer to the human beings we all too often reject simply because they’re different from us. It’s wonderful when a writer coins a phrase that sums up our feelings perfectly – enter Stephen Beresford with his words:

Prejudice can’t survive proximity.

Beresford was discussing writing the script of Pride, a film based on the extraordinary true story of how, in 1984, a group of lesbian and gay activists went to support the miners in the small welsh village of Onllywn.  Beresford said that as he researched the coming together of these unlikely communities, he witnessed the miracle of how prejudice dissolves when it comes face to face with individuals. He spoke about how easy it is to be prejudiced when a group remains an abstract concept – and how difficult it is to maintain that prejudice when you engage with and live alongside the flesh and blood human beings who form part of that group.

We’ve all done it, haven’t we?  Come across someone and curled our toes. Felt our jaw clenching, our teeth grinding, the bile in our stomach churning.  Felt like Elizabeth Bennett when she first meets Mr Darcy: a physical, emotional and mental repulsion for all that this person embodies.  There’s someone in my life like that at the moment: he’s rude and arrogant and self-important and vain.  He takes credit for other people’s ideas.  He’s a self-ingratiating greasy-pole climber. He’s patronising.  He spends his meetings playing with his expensive mobile phone, only looking up when someone worth his attention is making a point…(I could go on, this is starting to feel cathartic…I guess that’s why prejudice is so toxic.)

But…I know – of course I know – that should I get stuck with him in a lift for a few hours, I’d probably come out liking him.  That I’d see past all those Peacock strutting mannerisms that irritate me so much and that I’d feel guilty and sorry and chastened and resolved that, next time I meet someone like him (notice the categorisation into a type that is the mother of prejudice), I’ll be more tolerant.  That I’ll stick to Nick Carraway’s maxim (not that he lived it), of ‘deferring judgement’ because living like that gives us a source of ‘infinite hope.’

The other night, my husband, Hugh, asked me, ‘Do you like Adam’?  The wonderful thing about being married to a trained actor-director-drama-teacher-playwright is that we can discuss fictional characters over dinner like they’re members of our family.  Adam is one of the main characters in my second novel (out in November 2015).  The issue of creating likeable characters rears it head time again in creative writing courses and reviews and author Q&As.  I don’t ever think of writing characters that either I or my readers will like: instead, I work to create characters that my readers might understand. No matter how badly they behave, how much they let us down, how difficult they are to like, I want to bring a reader close enough to my characters to feel for them, to see the world from their point of view, to empathise. I want my readers to be interested in them, to feel sorry for them, to be surprised by them and, perhaps, most importantly, (and to carry the Elizabeth Bennett – Mr Darcy metaphor to its natural conclusion) – to fall in love – if only a little bit.

Isn’t, ‘do you love a character?’ a much more interesting and complex question than, ‘do you like a character?’

I’ve come to realise that finding new ways to help my readers fall in love with my characters is perhaps my biggest job as a writer.

So, as I sit down to plan and write my third novel, I’ll ask myself how I can build this proximity between my characters and my readers, how I can get them so very close that prejudice, in Beresford’s words, ‘can’t survive’.

Image: Dominic West’s disco dance in Pride is, I gather, one of the most glorious moments of the film. West’s character is based on Jonathan Blake, a middle-aged HIV-positive gay actor with a stalled career who finds redemption by helping the striking miners. Blake was one of the first individuals to be diagnosed with HIV in this country.