My Attraction to Gritty Stories

By Chelene Knight

man in alley Vancouver

Not all stories are romantic or are tied up neatly at the end. Sometimes characters do not have a redeeming quality, and sometimes their experiences have made them hard and difficult to “save.” Gritty stories showcase the true and unwavering personality traits needed for truly character-driven stories. This is what I admire about grit.

For the past four months, I have been working with one of my mentees, and I noticed her writing exploded on the page when she answered the loud voice in her head that told her to write the gritty stories her pen was made for. Whether it’s writing about the streets, or the dark days living inside another body she was desperately trying to leave, peel back and step out like a shell, her writing soared because she was compelled to write the glitter into the grime vs the other way around. She was in her element. We had a very productive discussion about this and it prompted me to explore this genre a bit more, and break down why I also was called to write the dark bits that some folks prefer to erase or tuck under the rug. I asked myself why these characters were always built in a way that displayed their unfavourable characteristics as something that needed to be polished or changed. What if these characters who crawled out through the tightest of cracks, took the slots of main characters? What if we followed their everyday journeys through their eyes?

I started a new project the other day, and I actively sought out the characters in my head that fell between the cracks or were pushed into the margins. For me, these stories always appear after I’ve been people watching or eavesdropping. As writers, we are prone to notice things that others ignore or just do not see. These writerly senses are heightened when I am alone. When I am fully present and paying attention to everything around me, like it’s all happening in slow motion—this is when the writing begins. I wondered if I could apply this mindful attention to detail the characters that are not as loud and boisterous. Maybe then, their quiet existence in the shadows could be worth more. We just have to pay attention. Right?

The gritty character’s everyday life can be completely different from the traditional, well-rounded character. The decisions they make when moving from point A to point B will be very different. The gritty character might face various triggers on their way to the store or to the bus stop. They may be judged or stopped. They may be questioned or challenged. They may not make it. There will likely be barriers placed in front of them and they may have to quickly pivot or duck and dodge just to get to point B. This seemingly simple journey is a world within a world, and it’s incredibly visceral to me.

I do not want to save these characters. I do not want them to change and “see the light.” I do not want to invite them inside, or wrap a warm blanket around their shivering shoulders and place a hot mug of chamomile tea in their cold hands. I do not want them to look me in the eye. I want them to exist in the way they have always existed—in the grittiness and honesty of their everyday lives. Maybe this is me busting the traditional template again. Or maybe it’s just that I enjoy the exploration of other people’s daily experiences and why and how they make small decisions and how those decisions can create a long domino collapse of happenings.

When the gritty stories stem from personal experience, it’s natural to push these stories down. It’s natural to think you shouldn’t let them breathe or see the light of day because these stories reflect on the person who experienced them. Whether writing fiction or not, bits of myself always seeps into my stories and I know my mentee thought about this too. What will people say? Shouldn’t I keep the dark days in the dark?

I am writing a character now, and she’s tough. She has no desire to help anyone, not even herself. She doesn’t change. Throughout the narrative we watch her make decisions and we gasp. We shudder. We pray for her. She smiles in the dark knowing that our prayers are a waste of time. She is tough by choice. She knows the meaning of survival, has all the tools, and she uses them well. I can see her face. There’s sadness in her eyes, but she never pretends it isn’t there. She goes about her day and every time she opens her front door, she is presented with a series of obstacles, decisions, and opportunities. I know I might get hurt watching her move through the city from point A to point B, hell, I’m the one who put her there, but I have to write her the way she exists in my head. It’s a new story and not much has happened yet, but I am spending all my time writing her, and growing her. I put her in shiny rooms just to see what she’ll do. I place glass items in front of her knowing she’ll smash them. I’m just curious to see what she will do with the shards.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Chelene Knight is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making RoomLove Me TrueSustenanceThe Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter.

The Toronto Star called Knight, “one of the storytellers we need most right now.” In addition to her work as a writer, Knight is managing editor at Room, programming director for the Growing Room Festival, and CEO of #LearnWritingEssentials. She often gives talks about home, belonging and belief, inclusivity, and community building through authentic storytelling. 

Knight is currently working on Junie, a novel set in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, forthcoming in 2020.