What is it about Lizzie and Darcy?

About Sherlock and Watson, about Scarlett and Rhett, Odysseus and Penelope that hooks us into their stories and keeps us there? They feel real, living and breathing, singing and ranting, no matter how long ago they were written. How do we write characters who feel as real as that?

The answer is as simple as we are: let your fictional characters develop in believable ways and your readers will love them.

Where do we start?

SHORTCUT:
The better you know the internal worlds of your characters before you start, the easier you’ll find writing your draft. It can even come to feel as if the characters are writing it for you.

Chatting with your characters on the page or screen about how they feel about themselves can feel like a lot of work, or even a waste of time. Why not just get cracking and find out as you go? But being with your characters, getting to know them from the inside out, does many great things for us:

  • It becomes obvious pretty quickly what drives your character and right there is the engine of your story.
  • It’s a lovely, relaxed way to loosen up your writing muscles. You’re welcoming your story, letting it come to you free of pressure. That makes it the perfect way to bypass any block lurking around. Writing is always better than not writing.
  • The more of it you do, the more your characters will reveal – things you never foresaw – with greater depth and candour than you imagined. The most exciting moment in writing (apart from your first royalties) is when your writing takes wing and you write flowingly. This written interview technique is one of the best ways I know to get yourself there.
  • You will find out how your character speaks. Everyone’s accent, provenance, education, world view, age and temperament are all there in what we say and how we say it. This technique will shortcut you to much better dialogue.
  • In this relaxed zone, you can – paradoxically – produce chunks of your best writing, sequences that can go straight into your book. Picasso said that when inspiration came, it would find him in his studio. This is you being in your studio.

I don’t mean you should chuck all your plans out of the window. One of the great synergies in any creative activity is the one between planning and the life the thing takes on for itself. It’s a complex game and we all play it in different ways. But playwrights think nothing of exploring their characters for weeks before they write a single scene. Unless the playwright knows the characters deeply, an actor can’t be expected to guess how a character will enter a scene or begin to speak in a way that will convince a stranger. I believe that the same is true of fiction. Readers open a book, read a line or two and immediately feel whether they’re in competent hands. I believe that the most crucial factor in conjuring that sense of comfort is knowing your characters.

Stage 1 – the character interview:

Set aside some time with plenty of A4 and a working pen, or your favourite screen, whatever works best for you. You should be somewhere private and comfortable if you can. Home is nice if it’s peaceful. Cafes and pubs are good too. Waiting rooms in hospitals and airports or waiting for your local GP can be strangely inspiring. Proust wrote in bed. Whatever works for you.

Limber up with a few minutes of free writing just for yourself about your day, your worry list or ‘why am I writing this book’. Then invite your characters – one at a time – to come and talk to you. Chatting to your characters in your head only gets you part of the way; there’s an extra magic that happens while you record it on your page or screen.

Try and describe your character doing something utterly normal like getting off public transport or out of a car, walking in the street, going into their place of work, taking off their outer garments and going in to where they work. Write as if you’re a stranger watching and listening. How do they sit, stand, how do they move in their clothes and footwear? How do other people react around them? Character is there in the details.

Take your time. You’re after much more than a list.

Next, still catching the answers on the page or screen as fully as possible, try and approach your fictional character and have a chat. Don’t be afraid to be as nosey as you like, and to let your character move you emotionally. You can even get angry with your character, why not?

Let rip together as if you’re best mates, that’s where the best stuff is.

Above all, allow her/him to speak back to you in her/his own voice with whatever shyness, bossiness, whatever else comes naturally. The moment when the character joins in won’t always come immediately. If it’s stalling, try imagining you’ve just met at a fictional party and let the character talk.

Be as thorough as you can. If a question is turning up interesting things, let it roll for as long as you have time. Nobody else knows what you’re doing – they don’t really notice somebody writing in a café, it’s as if we’re not there – so it you can go as deep as you like.

What you’re after is the moment when the character starts surprising you, telling you things you didn’t know were going to come. Push on from there. That’s where the gold dust is, where the writing has its own life, a richer one.

I hope you’ll look up an hour or so later and not know where the time’s gone. You’ll have written pages and pages, feel excited as well as tired and above all, released. And you won’t be sure where it all came from, some of it might even feel as if it was ‘channelled’. Don’t worry now about it being perfect, you’re discovering your character and through that, your story too.

Next week we’ll start on my questionnaire for your characters and it’s not quite like anybody else’s…

Have a happy writing week!

The hillside exercise

Imagine that your writing journey is like a climb in the hills. As you reach one peak, you sit and rest your eyes on the horizon and spot an even bigger peak further off. Sitting here with your writing today, you have reached a peak in your writing journey by the sheer fact of writing and learning about your craft.

Write privately for yourself about how far you’ve come. Take some time to enjoy where you are. Remember the days before you took your writing seriously, when it was an ache that wouldn’t go away, maybe it was all talk but you didn’t know where to start. Sea level. Congratulate yourself on how far you’ve climbed, feel in those writing hands of yours how different you feel.

Have a look higher up the hillside at what’s next. Try to describe how that might be and how you’ll feel about it, about what climbing steps would get you there.

There’s no need to push this anywhere, just see where it takes you.

FICTION’S BIGGEST TRICK

and how we play it

Story-writers have a trick that people in films, television drama and theatre can only envy. We can take our readers into the minds of our characters and deep inside their emotions. While you’re reading a story or novel, you are not just walking a mile in those characters’ shoes, you’re with them every step of their biggest crises, maybe their whole lives, living and breathing it sometimes from behind their eyes. This trick happens so lightly that readers maybe aren’t even aware of the miracle but it has changed the world.

Drama on screen or in a theatre can move us very deeply but the best it can do is show us a selection of characters acting out their stories in front of us. Actors and script writers work hard at helping us know what those characters are going through, and it can feel genuine. Film directors often fill the gap with swathes of music. But do we really know what the characters feel, think, plan, need at the deepest level? Characters talk to each other, yes, and sometimes they even move out of the action into a monologue to talk to us direct what they’re up to. But it’s always at a remove – we are watching it, not living it.

From the first word of a novel we are invited deep inside a character’s internal essence. Why are the Game of Thrones novels so clever? Because George RR Martin writes each chapter from the mind of a single character so, whatever horrors are going on, we live those events through that person.

Why was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre so revolutionary when it was finally published in 1847? From the beginning, we are inside the formidably honest, rebellious mind of Jane growing up and it’s a thrilling place to be.

Anne Bronte’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) broke boundaries too in bringing truths about marriage to an alcoholic into the daylight, beautifully written and from his wife’s point of view.

It’s hard these days to understand the impact of something like Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty in its day (1877) about the life of a working horse in Victorian society. It has sold 50 million copies (so far) and brought animal welfare changes all over the world. At the core of the book’s success is that the story is told by the horse himself.

SHORTCUT

Whenever we have our scribble-chats with our characters, do your best to let them tell the story for you. In their own voices.

Too many first drafts have characters who all speak in the same voice. This tends to be because the writer is ‘designing’ the characters from the outside without getting inside their heads. These writers are more likely to tell us what a character is wearing than thinking or feeling.

Readers want their interior worlds. If you work through scribble-chats at letting your characters speak to you, each in their own way from their own lives and hearts, you will jump past that first draft error and find yourself in a much more vibrant fictional world with more realistic characters around you.

EXERCISE

Think of a character, just one. Ask him how old he is and be aware of his reactions while he’s telling you. How does he feel about his age? Let him keep talking about it while you catch it on your page or screen. Stay inside his thoughts and voice. When is his birthday? How does he feel about birthdays? How did his last one go? Any plans for the next one?

You are mining for depths you never would have thought of if your character summary stopped at ‘Age: 26’.

Have a happy time!

 

Incidentally, I said last week that we’d be with the Churchill Writers this weekend. I got ahead of myself – that’s not until next month. We’ll do it then …

Your book’s world

Whether you’re writing about Venus for earthlings or a disastrous first date, the Napoleonic Wars or your grandmother, every book invites readers into its world. Even a cookery book has an atmosphere of its own and is often rooted sensually in a particular place.

You know your book’s world and so do your characters. How do you write it so that it not only convinces your readers but gets right into their blood?

Let’s start in the here and now.

The senses exercise

Sit on your own somewhere, anywhere. Let yourself become aware of nothing but where you are and what your senses tell you. Scribble what you find, just for yourself.

Are you warm or cold? Can you feel the air moving on any of your body? Become aware of what you’re wearing and what pressures it makes on different parts of your body. Which parts of your body are tense? (I usually write in something like a sprinter’s starting position, forward on the chair, up on my toes.)

Check your way through the five senses. Four of them are handy there on your head: eyes, nose, ears and mouth (taste), with the fifth covering all of you in what you touch and feel. What do you smell, what can you hear and so on. Most of our senses are more complex than we realise day to day. We can stretch our hearing for example to catch a thousand sounds from far away even on the most silent beach and can the zoom in like hawks for precision if we choose.

This is can do several important things for us writers:

  • This trick helps us concentrate on our writing wherever we are, however distracting and noisy it is. Use the distraction, concentrate on it, write about it and its detail for five minutes, then select the bit that takes you into your writing world. In no time, you will be writing happily in your bubble.
  • This exercise can (as Proust showed us) take us on a ramble through our memories, something we can harness for the good of our writing.
  • The more you develop your ability to be aware of specific details, the better your writing will become. Notice yourself and the effects your life has on you. If we’re afraid, our heart and breathing rates increase, our stomachs might clench and we might start to shake. How and in what order do you feel these things? Does one effect lead to the other or do they happen independently? What do you taste when you’re afraid? These details are our writing paradox: we’re looking for unusual little things that the readers might not have noticed much but which they recognise immediately as true. It is a search all the time for specificity, and for emotional truth.

 How do we find details in our character’s world?

Have a scribble-chat with your characters. Ask them one by one about where they live and work and note down the answers as you go with pen and paper or your laptop. No need to stop and tidy, this is exploration for you and nobody else. It’s the kind of chatty, best-friends interview I’ll post more about next week. Ask about:

  • Home – kitchen and bathroom, main room, bedroom(s) and especially the bed. Tracey Emin was right, your bed can tell more about you than almost anything else.
  • The car, including what’s in the boot and the music. It’s not just about those designer headlamps flashing past everyone on the motorway or the dog baskets in the back – how does your character feel the minute s/he sits inside and sets off?
  • Work – the location, the place itself, equipment, people, air-conditioning or not, the loos, whatever comes to you. How does your character feel there?
  • Hobby/pastime – the gym, golf club, pub, dance studio, mall, choir room. Again, what emotions roll through your character in places like that, and on the way to and from them?
  • Family – Mum’s place, Nan’s place, girlfriend’s place etc.
  • The home(s) your character grew up in.
  • School/uni or college?
  • Holiday – favourite and least favourite places and why.

SHORTCUT

This saves you loads of time later and primes you to write better and more deeply in your first draft.

It’s also really good for limbering up your imagination, your style and your talent for seeing the world through your characters’ eyes and hearts. More about that last one next week …

Inspiration or hard graft?

In his book Creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi set out to discover what geniuses have in common. He interviewed and spent time with hundreds of people who were excellent in their creative fields ranging from music and writing through science and engineering. Was sustained creativity about lying around drunk and waiting for inspiration or was it more about showing up at the desk every day like office workers?

The answer, he discovered, was very much the latter. Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winners had in common, more often than not, relatively sober, hard-working life styles and – believe it or not – steady home lives and long marriages too.

Inspiration is much more likely to find you when you’re at your desk, in the act of writing. (Picasso said that when inspiration called, she would find him in his studio.) That is when you are best equipped to harness and develop those thoughts.

Csikszentmihalyi points out too that being part of a tradition helps the standard of your work. Learn from the writing giants who have gone before. Read their work relentlessly and go on all the courses you can. Every course turns up something useful, something that hangs at the back of the mind for later, and you can meet other writers, have a sense of being part of an important community and make contacts for the future.

This does not mean that you will be induced to write in the same way as other people. The opposite is true. Creative people are all magpies, picking up tips and tricks wherever we go, for our own ends. You can see it in the way that Haydn (known as Papa because he lived so long and shared his skills with so many through teaching) taught both Mozart and Beethoven. They both took his knowledge into their own lives and used it in stunning, different ways. The band Oasis stood on the shoulders of the Beatles and didn’t invent the phrase ‘on the shoulders of giants’ either.

That said, most of the artists of all kinds who make the most memorable contributions are the ones who, knowing the rules and conventions of their craft, go on to shatter them. Some are completely self-taught (like Vincent Van Gogh) but mostly they’re taking a swerve out of tradition.

Let’s remember why tradition is good for us?

  • It is always good to learn and keep learning. Work at nourishing yourself with the best writing from the past and take whatever you like from it, wherever you find it.
  • Mentors are useful and can nurture you as a person as well as a creator. The two go together.
  • Supporters in your field can make all the difference to your happiness and confidence in your work, especially during the lonely later stages. While writers need to enjoy, even need solitude, company is good for us too. Your writing friends can introduce you to other like minds, review and crit your work, write interviews and endorsements, and give you a hug now and again.

The trick is to keep firm hold on your own unique spark and to have the confidence to make those big swerves into novelty when they feel right.