The Narrative Center

As mentioned in the last post, I just spent a very long weekend in Center Parcs (staying until late Monday afternoon. trying to get most value for money).

I’ve been to all the Center Parcs in the country although the one at Elveden in Suffolk the most often (about four times) — and would go more often if it wasn’t so ludicrously expensive. This is quite odd as I normally like holidays to be as independent and away from hordes of other people as possible — I much prefer self-catering cottages in the wilds of Wales or Gozitian villas to big hotel complexes.

The concept of entering a fenced-off compound, surrendering your ability to ‘escape’ because your car is parked (as in my case) literally a mile away and spending three or four days there with over 4,000 other people hell bent on a good time would normally be an anathema to me. And yet…

Like Disneyland or well-run theme parks like Alton Towers, there seems to be something quite re-assuring about these closed, contained, managed worlds. I can pretty cynical about most forms of entertainment and yet I found myself happily paying out extortionate prices — like £10 for 30 minutes on a pedalo (although I saved £96 for a weekend hiring 5 bikes by strapping our own precariously on the car and spent more time looking in the mirror to check they hadn’t fallen off than I did looking forwards down the A11).

As far as I could tell, almost everyone else that I’ve ever encountered there has a similarly good time — again something that seems to happen at Disneyland, even to the most embittered sceptic. I was prompted to wonder why. It goes beyond the obvious factors like things generally working properly and having good staff who are well trained in customer service (they’re in the company of John Lewis and Waitrose in surveys and have recently undergone a whole company training programme ‘Making Memorable Moments’ similar to the ones I used to do at BA when that company actually had good customer service). (It might be possible to spot my MBA training in the interest in customer service and operations management there — I’d love to write a thesis on how these places work.)

But what does this have to do with novel writing? On a psychological level, I think there are some startling similarities. A comment I wrote up on the blog a few months ago that Francesca Main made  (commissioning editor at Simon and Schuster) seems very relevant. She said of reading the opening of a novel that ‘you must feel you are in good hands’ as a reader — and this is exactly what places like Center Parcs do. Well-written fiction has an authorial assurance (distinct from the narrator) that, ultimately, makes the reader feel safe — part of a contract in the reader suspending disbelief and also a guarantee that the time invested in reading will result in a satisfying experience.

Note that the words ‘author’ and ‘authority’ have the same etymological root. And so this is at Center Parcs and Disneyland — there’s an invisible sort of authority that derives from the exclusivity of the community — everyone’s paid a lot to be there so that’s a social leveller and they are literally gated communities where causes of social anxiety can be excluded. In Center Parcs case various design features ameliorate the fact that thousands of other people are also on the site: the accommodation is cleverly laid out so neighbours don’t overlook each other; the forest setting deadens the noise levels (and mobile phone signals!); and the absence of cars eliminates a source of status and also creates an environment which is a bit otherworldly (a bit like that created in fiction).

Center Parcs is also interesting when considered against Maslow’s hierarchy of needs . The safe and exclusive environment is important as it addresses the knows that physiological and safety needs need to be covered before the higher needs are fulfilled. It brings to mind an interesting quotation that I read recently in the Economist Blighty blog about wider society:  ‘the ultimate purpose of politics and the state [is]: the protection of people from each other.’ I’d argue that the attraction of novels to many readers, especially but by no means exclusively in non-realistic genres, is the sense of escape from anxieties about other people’s actions in the disordered ‘real world’.

Belonging/social needs are generally covered as people are on holiday with family or friends. However, the popularity of activities, like my doing archery or the tree-climbing that I blogged about below, is certainly associated with achieving self-esteem (overcoming fears, demonstrating ability). Some of the activities even inch towards self-actualisation — having a massage in the spa is very nice and I even got up at 6.30am on a Sunday to be educated by a wildlife ranger — going round looking for deer and birds (we spotted a little owl — which is apparently good going).

Also, as mentioned in a previous post in the context of rollercoasters, much of what we choose to do in our leisure time fits a classic narrative structure, which separates the experience from the inertia and continuity of real life — films, plays, music all tend to have beginnings and ends with middles arranged into some sort of anticipated structure. The same applies to holidays — there’s travel there and back and packing and unpacking, acclimatisation and so forth — although holiday companies seem to have been slow to realise the narrative. A subsidiary of my ex-employer, Thomson Holidays, has stumbled in its current TV advertising on the parallels between drama (films/plays) and a perfect holiday experience ‘authored’ by an expertly directed cast.

One re-assuring facet of holidays, planned activities and instances of fiction is that there is a planned end — in real life we never know when the end is.

A need for narrative structure must be somehow hard-wired into the human brain and is no doubt exploited intuitively by effective fiction writers. As a novel has an all encompassing narrative arc and many smaller arcs within that structure, so does the holiday experience. Even such basic events as a meal in a restaurant follow a set structure — and the more satisfying and memorable a meal the more likely it is to have an expectation setting opening and a satisfying resolution.

The more complex activities that I did at Center Parcs are similarly organised. A well-delivered massage certainly follows a pattern that ends with a rewarding, relaxing denouement. The tree-trekking starts with a briefing then has a series of 9 ‘acts’ of rope obstacles to be negotiated between trees (a place to pause) — tension is gradually built up as the obstacles rise higher above the ground. Then there’s the climax of suddenly descending at speed down the zip wire. You negotiate the course yourself (as you would read a book) but there’s always the re-assurance of the authority of the instructors in the background — like a safe, authorial presence — as with reading a book, it can be thrilling and feels perilous but you know it’s ultimately safe.

The Center Parcs Aerial Adventure could be quite an effective, if unorthodox, model for the plotting of a novel as it seems to tap into the same basic human psychology.

Also, many of these participatory activities are a little like a performance and perhaps it’s not surprising that I mentioned in the last post that I was struck that one of the climbing instructors reminded me of my character Kim — both are acting, to an extent, in some sort of artifice. It reminds me of the surreal line in ‘Penny Lane’ (that Ian MacDonald thought was one of the most truly avant garde lines The Beatles ever wrote) — ‘and though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway’.

Zipping Up Kim

It’s a paradox that characters in fiction tend, naturally, to be figments of the author’s imagination but also have to be real and credible enough for the reader to maintain the suspension of their disbelief. Of course authors piece together characters from traits they tend to observe in many different people in real life —  but those different facets need to meld together to make a coherent whole.

I had a moment yesterday, while at Center Parcs Elveden, which was remarkably satisfying because I came across someone who not only looked similar to my character Kim but also seemed to have many of the exterior character attributes that I’d pieced together, which is great because Kim is probably the most complex and contradictory character in the novel.

Kim is able, for a while at least, to be something of a chameleon and be an efficient but sympathetic barmaid (or bar manager) whilst also having the disclipline and concentration needed to work on her artistic pursuits.  She’ll have a curious outward mixture of empathy and assertiveness whilst also combining an outwardly approachable, friendly  humour with a sort of inner-steeliness. (And she’ll also show anger and vulnerability to those who get to know her more closely.)

It was this unusual fusion of personality traits that I thought I recognised in the Center Parcs instructors working on what they called the Action Company Challenge Aerial Adventure. It’s like Go Ape ! which, ironically, James enjoys doing — maybe he sees something of the instructor in Kim? (I’ve done three Go Ape’s myself including the one in Aberfoyle in Scotland with the country’s longest zipwire at 426m that dangles you over 150 feet above a valley.)

In the Center Parcs Aerial Challenge participants follow a course ascending through a stand of conifers by negotiating about about nine obstacles placed between the trees (wooden beams, rope swings, rope ‘spiders’ webs’, wobbly bridges and so on).  You eventually end up about 40 feet up on a tree and have a choice of getting down by 120m zip wire or just jumping off with a rope breaking your fall (you hope!).

In fact, the whole course is incredibly safe as, unlike Go Ape! there’s a safety wire permanently fastened and a high staff to customer ratio. Despite knowing it is safe, some people tend to get irrationally terrified even a few feet off the ground, partly as being elevated off the ground and swinging by a rope is such an alien environment.

So the qualities needed by the instructors are both assertive — I was shouted at to perch on a little wooden step to give my safety rope a yank to get it round a corner and also when I somehow tangled my safety line by going through a rope bridge the wrong way. On the other hand,  some panic stricken people need a lot of encouragement to jump off a platform and swing across a gap of several feet hanging to a rope. It’s interesting as these people aren’t performing a straight pleasing-the-customer role, as might the waiting staff in one of their restuarants, as they also need to be able to try and generate a sense of cheerful confidence to get people around (although they sometimes have to lower people down on ropes who can’t face going further).

They also need to be very fit, professional — and probably a bit unusual. The woman working on the course managed to scramble up a 40 foot vertical pole to get ready to kit me out for the zipwire in the time it took me to get walk over a rope bridge. I was having a zip wire attached to me and had the strange experience that the person who was doing it was behaving exactly as I anticipated my main female character would act when at work meeting new people. Then I had to step off the edge and whizz down the wire.

Clearly, there are many dissimilarities — Kim is a German artist, which I doubt this climbing instructor was — she had a touch of Australian in her accent, although it may have been a very prononounced version of Estuary English. However, she also looked fairly like I imagine Kim to do, as much as you can tell under a safety helmet — she had quite a number of ear piercings.

Kim is meant to be quite distinctive looking — having fairly prominent facial features that she can either accentuate or soften — she’s an artist so she knows what effects she can achieve with her hair and make up should she be so inclined. James finds her at the start of the novel looking quite unattractive — and this disarms Emma to some extent — but she soon develops into someone whom Emma would like to see safely paired off (see comments under previous post).

I suppose if a character is synthesised using some imagination and lots of different sources, then there’s a decent enough chance of bumping into someone who can reflect that mixture of attributes at a certain time and circumstance — it verifies that those sort of personality attributes can plausibly combine together in a character — but it’s odd to discover this standing on a tiny platform up a tree 40ft high off the ground.

Now I only need to worry about how well I transfer the character out of my head on to the page and recreated in a reader’s mind.