Why I broke the rules when I wrote The Snow Witch
The magic realist novel The Snow Witch by Matt Wingett tells the story of a refugee from Eastern Europe who finds her life under threat when she makes connections with the wrong person in a British seaside town. The book is filled with hallucination, obsession, lust, witchcraft and weaves together folklore, mythology and the real horrors of the war she escaped into a compelling mix. Its main villain, Riley, is cruel and violent, while Donitza is frozen by painful memories. When these two personalities collide, a story rich in magical symbolism and esoteric imagery unfolds.
Here, author Matt Wingett talks about the two characters at its centre, and how he decided to ignore the writer’s rule book when approaching both of them.
Whenever I hear people say that some rules in storytelling are sacrosanct, I can’t help taking the bait and breaking them just to see if they’re right. That’s certainly true of two of the main ingredients of The Snow Witch.
The first far-too-often repeated maxim is: “Your villain must be identifiable”.
You know the sort of thing: the heartless psychopath has a soft spot for chihuahuas, or the killer hates doing what he’s doing and seeks absolution from a priest / shaman / psychotherapist, or the bully is kind to old ladies because they remind him of his dear old gran.
The second maxim is: “avoid the pathetic fallacy”. For those who don’t know, that’s when the rain falls at the point in the story where the lovers break up, or the dawn rises just as a new chapter in the characters’ lives begin, or the depressing fog falls just at the moment of most despair.
The problem with both these rules that are used to alternatively badger and bully writers is actually they’re born of descriptions of some bad uses of both tropes, they’re not law. The problem is, too often, these sorts of rules are treated as law, and that’s when I get annoyed.
There’s no doubt many stories have two-dimensional villains who should be rewritten to make them interesting. But making them identifiable can be a shortcut you take instead of making them more real. Through identifiability, you’re meant to be offering the reader an “in” to their psychology, but instead, you’re just giving them more amusing and eccentric behaviour that doesn’t really tell you about them.
I wondered, if I wrote my villain’s psychology well enough, then wouldn’t the fact he is a screwed up, sadistic bastard become interesting in itself? Isn’t the other interesting too?
Then there’s that question of who we are making our villains identifiable to? Who am I as a writer to assume that none of our readers are sadistic bastards? Maybe the villain we’re written is identifiable, even as he is… to someone you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night, alone.
Then there’s the final problem with identifiability. You do it badly, and you end up taking away from the villain’s nastiness. In the end, they become reasonable in their evil. Yet, sometimes, evil is unreasonable. In fact, sometimes, it’s worse because it appears to have no cause. So, you can see why I was willing to try having a pure villain. One who is not redeemed or redeemable.
That’s why I do not ask my readers to like Riley, even if we do understand him. Sure, there’s a cliche that the devil is a charmer, but actually, how more sinister is the devil as pure malevolence that is not fully fathomable? Just so with Riley. We are here to bear witness to the petty cruelties he performs and the misery he causes.
As for the pathetic fallacy, isn’t that really a fancy way of saying the weather is a metaphor? And who would say “never use a metaphor”? In the The Snow Witch, I gave the central character, Donitza, a frozen inner world, and that is what manifests in the bleak snowscapes in the world outside.
Surely it’s what you do with that white powder falling from the sky that makes the read interesting? To be banned from using it because sometimes people do it badly, that is plain silly, isn’t it?
This has been my approach throughout The Snow Witch – to create a magical, mystical world that is also real, hard and cruel. Symbol echoes symbol, archetype reflects archetype. The magic weaves its way through the story and grips you in its icy unforgivingness. I hope – and I’m being told by reviewers- that the result is a fresh, dark, gritty and disturbing tale.
That was the plan, anyway. What do you think?
Matt Wingett is an author, performer, songwriter, publisher and screenwriter. He has written episodes of police tv drama The Bill, stage plays and short stories. He also wrote Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light, an account of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in Spiritualism and has published several books on local history relating to his hometown of Portsmouth, and is also a public speaker on this and other topics.
Matt finds the mysterious, fantastical and magical have a powerful attraction for him, and most of his stories incorporate magic realism or fantasy in some way. He was editor and contributor to Portsmouth Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups, Day of the Dead – tales of death and dying to disturb perturb and delight, and is the publisher of Dark City, Portsmouth Tales of Haunting and Horror, which was published in conjunction with the University of Portsmouth.
He is also the organiser of HolmesFest, an annual celebration of the life of Arthur Conan Doyle in Portsmouth.
The book is available in paperback or hardback, post-free in the UK
direct from the publisher’s website, here:
It is also available from Waterstones, Blackwells, WHSmith and other