Your character interviews all in one place

An external description of your character is not a bad place to start. It’s not essential for your reader to have detail about how your character looks, walks etc. but you should have a pretty clear idea. It’s not just about hair colour, it’s about how they move and speak too.

Most of all, it’s how they feel. Then you know what drives them. Once you know what drives them, they’ll write the story for you.

EXERCISE

You are watching your character from afar as they go to work. Describe them leaving whatever transport they use, walking in the street, moving towards their place of work, taking off their outer garments and taking up their place. If they work at home, describe the move from domesticity into whatever it is they do. Where are the telling details: how they sit, how they feel in their clothes, how aware they are of others around them, how they react to others’ approach?

Try this exercise again, the same place and actions, but this time it’s the character doing the talking. Describe the internal monologue (first person) as this daily process unfolds.

Back to our scribble-chat interviews with our character. To start with, imagine you’re conducting an interview with your fictional character as if you’ve just met. By the end, you’re the very best of friends. Please feel free to fill it out as much as you like with musical tastes, what’s in her/his bag and pockets, where they go on their holidays, favourite biscuits, anything you like:

  • How do you look? To yourself? To other people?
  • What is your name? Who gave it to you? Have you a nickname? Where did it come from? How do you feel about it?
  • Your age? How do you feel about it?
  • Where do you live? Why do you live there? How long have you lived there? Do you like it there? Is it your choice or someone else’s? What would you change if you could? Where would you ideally like to live?
  • Who do you live with? Describe the relationships and how you feel about them? Why do you live with these people, or alone? Is it by choice? Has it always been that way? Will this story change or challenge that?
  • Where were you born? How did you feel about it when you were little? How do you feel about that place now? What accent do you have? Has it always been the same? Are you speaking in your first language?
  • Tell me about the family you were born with: mother, father, siblings and any other family members important to your development and/or the story. Are you youngest or eldest, or where in between? Who is emotionally most remote from you and why? Who worries you most and why? Who do you feel safest with and why? (Yes, this is me up the Cave Hill with my dad!)
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  • What’s your education? How did you feel about it then? How do you feel about it now? What would you change if you could? Do you have ambitions for more education in your life? Why(not)?
  • Do you have a job? Is it your choice? What would be your ideal job? Etc. (Take time to get your character to talk freely about this. We learn a lot about people from their jobs: is it what they want, how did they start there, what was the training, how do they feel about where they work, the people they deal with and the nature of the work itself. There’s an argument that doing a job can fossilise certain aspects of your personality and sometimes that can produce a crisis or neurosis. Whenever you meet people, ask them about their work. People will usually talk about it freely and it’s often where people find life partners. All great material.)
  • What’s your economic situation? Has it always been that way? What would you change about it if you could? What are your hopes for the future? How do you feel about it at night when you can’t sleep?
  • What is the music you love, your favourite art and other artefacts? Your most prized possession – why?
  • What makes you laugh most?
  • Any favourite rants?

It’s time to go deeper:

If it hasn’t happened already, let the character speak from now on (on your page or screen) for as long as she/he wants. Good questions come in pairs. Any one of these answers could take a whole day or even a weekend:

  • What are the early successes you’re most proud of?
  • Your early failures ditto?
  • What makes you cry most? (You never cry? Why? Would like you to?)
  • What for you is perfect happiness? Perfect misery?
  • What is your greatest victory? Greatest defeat?
  • Greatest excitement? Greatest boredom?
  • Greatest trap? Greatest escape?
  • Greatest delight? Greatest fear?
  • Greatest happiness and joy? Greatest sadness? Most painful memory?
  • Greatest achievement? Greatest loss?

You can develop this in whatever way you like, and feel free to keep going after you’ve started writing your draft.

What are your character’s places:

Home, travel, work, hobbies, favourite place in all the world etc.

Secrets:

Again give your character as long as he or she wants to answer:

  • What is your sexual orientation? How do you feel about it?
  • Are you now or have you ever been in love?
  • What was your first sexual experience?
  • What is your most painful memory?
  • Your happiest memory?
  • Do you have any secrets?
  • Do you have someone else’s secret?
  • Have you ever been betrayed?
  • Have you ever betrayed someone close to you? How do you justify this to yourself?
  • What do you most regret NOT having done?
  • What would you say is your world view?

SHORTCUT

Let your character finish these sentences in her/his own words:

  • I want …
  • I need …
  • I regret …
  • I love …
  • I hate …

Though you might not know it yet, these answers form the engine of your story. Short, snappy answers are truest.

A little objectivity …

Sleep on what you’ve done so far. Have a walk, coffee, spend time with friends.

When you’ve left your interviews behind enough to be objective about this person you’ve created, ask yourself these important questions:

  • What do I (as author) like about this character?
  • What do I (as author) dislike about this character?

The Big Ones:

Now, having taken a dispassionate look at your character as author, ask yourself:

  • What is this character’s greatest anguish, their most significant pain? Expand. This may take you a few long walks to discover, or you may know it in the snap of your fingers.
  • Whatever it is, does it explain the aspect you don’t like?
  • What does this character actively want in this story?
  • What does she/he actually need?

The answers to these last questions help your plot to come together. Don’t bother to be conscious about this – just keep walking and pondering and what you need will come to you.

Incidentally, I found this on twitter – scientists have proved what we writers have known all along: writing is good for us. Have a happy writing week!

You, me, I, she – what’s this Third Person thing all about? – Point of View, 2

Knowing ‘whose head we are in’ from page to page, chapter to chapter is a central skill in writing fiction. Close engagement with a character’s heart and mind is key to keeping your reader with you.

Writing in the first, second or third person is a stylistic choice for you as author. Sometimes it’s altered in later drafts at a publisher’s or agent’s suggestion, or because of your own gut feeling that something else might work better. It’s worth playing with it to see where you’re comfortable for this story and these characters.

Which ‘person’ is which?

EXERCISE

In a handful of lines, describe a car crash involving one of your favourite characters. Then:

  • Invite that character soon after the event to come to you for a scribble-chat to tell you about it as if you’re best friends. Start with something like, ‘I don’t know why it happened but …’
  • You’re a paramedic telling a colleague about the crash in the hospital just afterwards.
  • Write a police report of the same incident.
  • Describe the crash in the past tense as if you are a god-like story-teller who watched it all from above: he did this, she did that.
  • A close friend is sitting beside a patient in hospital in a coma. Write what the friend says as s/he talks to the silent patient recounting what happened at the scene of the accident, e.g.: ‘You had the kids in the back and everything and then this lunatic, I don’t know how you survived it, love, I really don’t.’

The first is writing as I is the first person. So is the paramedic.

The police report is in the third person, using s/he.

Your omniscient narrator is third person too, either keeping a certain distance from events or zooming in for a closer encounter with minds and hearts.

The friend talking to the patient is using you, the second person.

1st = I, we, me, us.

2nd = you.

3rd = he, she, her, him, it, they, them.

Choose your approach and stick with it throughout your draft, knowing you can change the tilt of it later. Clarity and consistency keep your readers with you.

THIRD PERSON – advantages

  • We’re all used to third person storytelling. Most books do it this way.
  • It combines distance with being able to get in close. Both are useful.
  • An authorial voice can be useful too, either impersonal or another character.

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Third person – disadvantage

  • A bit dull and predictable sometimes? A sense of distance from the heart of things?

EXERCISE

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?’

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy- chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

This is the opening of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865). Dear Alice. You’ll have noticed that it’s written in the third person; we’re right in among Alice’s dreamy thoughts, using she and Alice’s name as subject.

Try writing it again changing ‘Alice’, ‘she’ and ‘her’ (3rd person) to ‘I’ and ‘me’ (1st person).

How does that feel? Try reading both versions aloud to see what you decide about the difference in effect. This is not about exam answers. Trying it all on for size is what’s important.

Here is the opening of The Sign of Four written by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1890. This time try rewriting it, deleting ‘I’ (1st person) each time and replacing it with ‘Watson’, ‘he’ or ‘him’ (3rd):

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel- piece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it. On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest.

What do you notice this time? Does using first person makes it easier to distinguish the two men in a reader’s mind? What else feels different?

SECOND PERSON (you) is rare because it’s tricky to pull off in a full-length novel. Advantages are the jolt of the unusual and, up to a point, it can feel friendly and conversational. Disadvantages are that it can feel preachy. It’s better when it has a context like a letter or a speech in court.

FIRST PERSON narrative has a long tradition including Moby Dick (‘Call me Ishmael’), Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye. Here are the famous opening lines of Jane Eyre:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

Dickens was very fond of it too.

First person – advantages:

  • Your character’s voice – tone, accent and content – is clear without being rationed to sections of dialogue.
  • Readers feel can feel as if the character is confiding in them.
  • Internal uncertainty comes easily. Here is George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’, a timely piece (though it was written in 1936) which isn’t for the squeamish but which displays beautifully how internal debate can be written.
  • If you’re used to scribble-chats with your characters, you can blend into first person accounts easily.
  • Your ‘I’ can be honest or an unreliable narrator who bit by bit allows his/her self-deception to creep out.
  • Writing in the ‘I’ of your character keeps you and your own personal agenda out of the way. Usually a good thing for the flow of your writing and the result.

First person – disadvantages:

  • Your character needs to be someone the reader wants to be with for a whole book.
  • While a confiding tone is easy, distance is more difficult to achieve.

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EXERCISE

It’s time to reach for your bookshelf, online or otherwise, and choose one of your favourite novels:

  • Notice first, through two or three chapters, ‘whose head are we in?’
  • Is it from a single viewpoint or many?
  • Whose story is it? By that, I mean who has the most crucial place in the story arc? Some characters are fascinating but they come in briefly as catalysts, that’s not what I mean. Who is the character who is most challenged and developed, who is it really about?
  • Is the story told from inside that person’s head and heart? If no, why do you think not? If yes, what does that give the reader?
  • Finally, does the author use the first, second or third person to tell the story? Why do you think that’s what the author chose? Try to rewrite some of it in another person and see how it feels. Now try the same with a piece of your own draft.

As I said, it’s not about exam answers. It’s about what seasons the pot best. It’s your pot and your decision.

Next week we’ll be back to character work. There’s lots more still to do there.

Happy writing!

POINT OF VIEW made ridiculously simple

You’ve been quarrying into your characters’ depths until you know them as well as you know yourself or better. What’s the best way now to give your writing a professional sheen and bypass several experimental drafts while you tell their story?

Let’s enjoy a scribble together

Think of an important moment in your main character’s story. An encounter, a fight or battle, a crucial discovery.

Take a few minutes to scribble-chat your way into your character at that moment on your page or screen until that character’s place in the scene is crowding your imagination and the writing flows freely.

Now, sit back for a moment and consider the mental jumble we all carry through every day of our lives. It’s usually a mixture of:

Our physical comfort – are we too hot or cold, our clothing too tight or loose, are we hungry, thirsty, in need of the loo or a rest?

Our wider context – have we just been sacked, fallen in love, won money, bought a car, fallen ill, wakened up?

Our mood – are we feeling excited, content, angry, fed up, exuberant, needful?

Our agenda – there is always a range of things we want at any given moment, from world peace to a burger. Which is the most pressing? Which has gone on for longest? Can you distinguish urgent and important?

Now let’s go back to your character’s big moment. Concentrate on just before it happens and let your character tell you about their mental jumble. Their worry list, how they feel, what they want and need. Blend your writing into a monologue where your character talks in his/her voice for at least 10 minutes. Write quickly and freely, let the character’s voice take you.

Congratulations. You have just written with a clear, strong single point of view (POV). And you’ve got something to edit. The more you do of this exercise, the more you’ll do it in every draft first time. It takes you where your reader wants to be.

POV is simple really. Ask yourself, ‘Whose head are we in?’ at a given moment in the story. Whose eyes are we looking through?

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That’s all there is to it.

Drama on a screen or theatre stage shows us a selection of characters acting out their stories in front of us. Actors and script writers work hard to help us feel what those characters are going through and it can feel real in the way being in a room with other people is real. But do we really know what they feel, think, plan, need at the deepest level? Characters do tell each other, yes, and sometimes they even move out of the action into a monologue given direct to the audience. But they could be, and often are, lying to us. (I’m thinking of Alfie or Iago in Othello.) How do we know what’s genuinely going on?

Poems and non-fiction can pull this off sometimes too but, if you ask me, fiction is far and away best at it. This single ingredient in powerful novels has changed the world.

Why all the POV fuss?

Sometimes when POV is ‘taught’ to fiction writers, the thing strays into spreadsheets and Graeco-Roman labels of almost medical complexity. We can end up more confused than when we started and that gets in the way of our writing flow.

Two things are going on what’s usually described as POV. They are linked – all storytelling is – but there’s nothing to lose in treating them separately and everything to gain.

The two elements are these:

  • Whose head are we in as we read this story? and
  • Are you as author choosing to let your characters tell the story in their own voices (as I or we: 1st person) or are they telling it through you as she, he, it or they (known as 3rd person)? This is what grammarians mean when they talk about point of view, hence the overlap.

One of the big leaps into writing to a professional standard is clear use of ‘Whose head are we in’ so let’s leave the discussion of 1st, 2nd and 3rd person for another day.

What are our POV alternatives?

You can stay in the point of view of a single character for your whole story, or you can guide your readers through several viewpoints in turn. It’s up to you. The important thing is to decide and stick to it.

Advantages of one character’s POV:

  • Your story has a better chance of being immediate, clear and gripping.
  • Writing internal thoughts, hopes and dreams comes easily if you’re used to the scribble-chats we do here with characters.
  • Your character describes and judges others, which can be fun.
  • You can show the character’s voice, tone and accent without being restricted to dialogue, although a thick accent or dialect for a whole book can be off-putting.
  • It gets you as writer out of the way.
  • Your character could be honest with the reader or could be an ‘unreliable narrator’ who bit by bit allows his/her self-deception to creep out and take the reader by surprise.

Disadvantages of a single POV:

  • Your character has to be engaging or the reader won’t stay with you.
  • You do need to know that character very well to be convincing.
  • You’re restricted to the knowledge, perspective and experience of that one character. There are ways to get information onto your page other than through that a single viewpoint (news reports, found letters, misdirected or wrongly cc’d emails etc., nosey informers about another’s behaviour, facebook, overhearing, searching another’s phone for texts etc., finding journals, bank or other statements, mistakes eg. the wrong flat) but it takes some thinking about.
  • How do you describe your character externally? The truth is, you don’t have to. Readers are surprisingly happy to make it up for themselves. It’s more engaging anyway to describe how people feel about themselves from the inside and in other people’s reactions. If you really do want the reader to see your character, please avoid the mirror scene in the first chapter, it’s been done to death.

Which single character do I choose?

We will come to that another day. Meanwhile imagine The Great Gatsby told to us by Gatsby himself instead of his slightly shy cousin, Nick. Or Brideshead Revisited told by Cordelia, the youngest member of the Marchmain family. Or The Wolf Wilder told by the boy soldier, Alexei, instead of by Feo herself. Or Pride and Prejudice told as Lydia’s story. Any of these versions could have worked brilliantly too.

Several viewpoints

The advantages of writing from the point of view of several characters are:

  • Information comes from several sources, layering on the suspense and mystery.
  • Readers can identify better with several characters.
  • We all have different truths – it feels real.
  • You avoid shoe-horning in information that a single viewpoint character could not know.
  • You can use dramatic irony more easily, where the reader knows more than a character.
  • It gives the reader a breadth of experience in terms of location, experience and company.

Disadvantages of several POVs:

First, it’s important to make it absolutely clear to the reader who we are with from time to time. We write from the top of our concentration and emotional reserves. Readers often read to relax. They might be in noisy places like family kitchens or train carriages. They may be feeling less than well or enjoying your book with wine beside them at the end of a workday.

Clarity is vital. It’s a big part of your reader’s sense of your authority as a writer: if you lose their confidence, they might well put your book down with a vague sense of dissatisfaction and forget to pick it up again. It’s not just about being kind to tired readers. It’s about strong storytelling.

Many writers give characters a chapter each at a time, e.g.: Junk by Melvyn Burgess, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin. The character’s name makes a good, clear chapter heading. In the first three or four lines the character’s voice and thought patterns should make it obvious.

The second disadvantage of handling several POVs is the temptation to switch viewpoint within sections. Many fledgling writers swivel in and out of the minds of several characters within a paragraph, even within a single sentence. That can give a panoramic view, if it’s what you’re after, but it risks dizzying your reader, interrupting immersion in your story. It can also distract you as author from plumbing down to the levels of emotional honesty your readers want.

That said, I’ve just turned up a POV subtlety in a book called Longbourn by Jo Baker. It’s a wonderful example of a success by a first-time author – hurray! – and she uses POV to bring her lovers together. Copyright law forbids me to quote at length but on page 208 of my copy, we experience the scene first through Sarah: ‘She could feel his hand on the back of her neck.’ Then six lines later: ‘For a long moment she didn’t move or speak. Then he felt it against his chest: she shook her head.’ Knitting the two viewpoints like this has the magical effect of lifting us away from one character’s mind to see the two of them and their hug. At the same time we experience their closeness, heart to heart, alongside them.

  • Don’t be afraid to go in close beside your character and stay there.
  • Stay as close as you can to one character at a time. It’s more satisfying for your reader and easier for you to write.
  • By being aware of how you use POV, you can avoid dizzying pitfalls and use it to create magical effects.

Happy writing!

 

 

How to make characters feel complex, real and vital

Last night was party night here in the UK with bonfires, fireworks and beverages of one sort and another. We were celebrating the failure of a terrorist plot to blow up our Parliament in 1605, which goes to show there isn’t much new under the sun.

If you don’t have time to write, does it ever feel as if your characters have wandered away to a party without you and are too busy having fun to come back to your desk to work?

Let’s lure one of your main characters back into a scribble-chat where the two of you are chatting together like old friends while you catch it all on your page or screen. Ask your character, in their own voice and words, to finish these three sentences – quick-fire is best, around five minutes for each one:

  • I regret
  • I regret not …
  • I do not regret though maybe I should …

The essence of any of us is right there. And yes, even children have regrets.

Now it’s time to step back from your fictional character. Have a coffee or a breather outside, but not for too long. It’s time to be objective for a change. When you’re ready, step out of scribble-chat mode and ask yourself, on the page/screen as always, these important questions:

  • What do I (as author) like about this character?
  • What do I (as author) dislike about this character?

Write freely now. Take as long as you like. While you’re submerged in writing your first draft, it can be all too easy to paint yourself into a corner where your main character is mostly nasty or all nice. Every one of us has selfless and nasty traits in our character. I know of no simpler way to ensure that our characters feel complex, real and vital than to give these two questions our deepest attention. When the Churchill Writers were writing together yesterday, I was fascinated to see them all take off in that last section and surprise themselves.

Everybody is full of nuance, contradictions and surprises.

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Not everyone is as nice as they seem. Long John Silver (Treasure Island), Toad of Toad Hall (Wind in the Willows, my favourite version), and Uncle Monty (in Withnail and I) for example are all monsters but they ooze generosity, charm and their own kind of sincerity. In Pride and Prejudice Wickham, who turns out to be a cad who is likely to leave poor Lydia alone, pregnant and miserable, is so charming to everyone around him that even sensible Lizzie Bennet is half way to falling for him. IMG_0314And nobody is evil all the time: even Hitler had friends.

Now, having taken a dispassionate look at your fictional character, ask yourself:

  • What is this character’s greatest anguish, their most significant pain or wound? This may take you a few long walks to discover, or you may know it in the snap of your fingers.
  • Whatever it is, does it explain the aspect you don’t like?
  • What do you as author see now that this character wants most in this story?
  • What does s/he actually need?

By now do you feel important plot ingredients pushing to the fore? A sense of everything – character, plot, theme, even place – coming together? Do you have a greater sense of what your main character is after and deserves, of how their own plot arc is taking shape? A new sense of the shape of your whole story, where it should start and end? Maybe a new idea for the title?

If easy answers don’t come quickly, never mind. Don’t bother to be conscious about this, just keep walking and pondering and all will be well. Keep writing too, exercises and your draft. What you need will come when you need it.

Next Sunday, how do we put all this character work into action? We’ll talk about Point of View and I’ll be keeping it simple.

Have a happy writing week.