Synthesis is building something new out of simpler elements. Analysis is understanding something by breaking it down into its constituent parts. On the face of it, writing seems to be a synthetic activity. But not always. Sometimes creation involves analysis, as this example shows.
A member of my writing group said they’d like to see more of the main female character, Ayesha, in my novel The Tears of Boabdil. The plot, in summary, is about an undercover policeman (Vince) infiltrating an Islamist group and having a forbidden love affair with the sister (Ayesha) of his main targets. The theme is duplicity, that we are all stories we tell ourselves and other people.
My friend suggested she’d like to see Ayesha angry, receiving a gift about which she has to feign pleasure, and being observed by Vince in a situation that shows the reader the difference between her real nature and Vince’s fantasy about her.
I liked these suggestions. The first two were relatively straightforward. The third posed creative problems. The story is entirely told from Vince’s point of view, lies and all. He’s a classic unreliable narrator. The reader can only see what Vince sees. So, how to show Ayesha in a different light?
The process I went through to structure this scene was:
- Firstly to make a list of Ayesha’s attributes. She’s generous, tolerant, intelligent, whimsical, dutiful, frustrated by her life, and overly trusting. Vince sees all of these qualities, bar the last.
- So it was obvious I needed to focus on trust as the basis of the scene. Given the theme of the book, it was a good fit, underscoring for the reader the danger Ayesha runs in trusting Vince. So the next question was who, besides Vince, was Ayesha going to inappropriately trust? And how was Vince going to misunderstand it? Answering the second question seemed to promise a resolution of the first. Since Vince is a manipulator, a story-teller, perhaps he would mistake Ayesha’s trust for guile. He sees her as his talisman and guide into the terrorist conspiracy.
- I didn’t want to introduce extraneous characters, so that implied the interaction would have to be between Ayesha and her brothers. A good place to locate it was a chapter in which one of the brothers invites Vince to lunch with his family.
- Finally, I had to work out some stakes for the mistake. Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows something important that a character doesn’t know. A classic example occurs in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when King Duncan arrives trustingly at Macbeth’s castle, not knowing his hosts plot to murder him. Ayesha’s brothers might well kill her if they suspect her of sleeping with Vince. By seeing Ayesha as being like him, Zami can ignore her vulnerability, and hence his responsibility to protect her. Instead he sees her as protecting him.
- As a last touch, I thought it might be nice to see if I could work in a reference to Macbeth and Duncan, which will serve the dual purpose of providing a literary echo and of alerting the reader to the dramatic irony.
So there I had all the component materials for my new synthesis. Like a flat-pack furniture kit, all I had to do was assemble them into something functional and pleasing.