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.

Let’s find your plot’s engine

Quentin Crisp said, ‘Other people? They are usually a mistake.’ Sartre agreed: ‘Hell is other people’, he said, though he might have meant other French people. Yet here we are absorbed in making people up and getting to know them better than we know some of the humans we live and work with.

What’s a scribble-chat?

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As usual, settle yourself somewhere comfortable in as close to peace and solitude as you can find, with your favourite writing materials, whatever suits you, and invite your main character to come forward. You know each other pretty well now. Maybe you can hear the tone and lilt of the character’s voice, the accent, age and ethnicity in it, the education, traces of life past and present. Start to engage your character in ‘conversation’ with some chitchat and, like a loving friend, listen and encourage. Keep writing as you go – nobody needs to see it but you and it frees up channels in your writing that go way beyond day-dreaming and conscious planning.

Stage 4

When the time is right, let your character finish these sentences in her/his own words:

  • I regret …
  • I don’t regret though maybe I should …
  • I love most of all …
  • I hate …
  • I’m most afraid of …
  • I want …
  • I need …

Go for short, snappy answers this time, the ones that bypass inner barriers. Don’t think – just write what comes and be ready for surprises. You might not know it yet but these answers drive your story. This disentangling of what we want and really need is at the heart of self-knowledge whoever we are, wherever and whenever we live.

Let’s look at two or three classic stories to explore what I mean.

Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge is a good example of a man passionately pursuing commercial success to find respect; what he really needs (and tragically does not get it until after his death) is steady family love, the very thing he ditched so controversially in the book’s famous opening chapter when he ‘sells’ his own wife and baby.

In Willy Russell’s marvellous Educating Rita, first a play, then a film starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine, Rita longs to be educated, more specifically to be confident among educated people chatting about Blake and Shakespeare. What she needs is to make her own choices about her life. I love the moment in the closing credits where Rita, having said goodbye to the teacher who brought her so much, is walking along the corridor out of the airport, shoulders slumped, missing him – then she straightens, her step quickens and she’s off into a new life that we know she’ll handle beautifully.

Similarly in Titanic. The tension in this story is not about whether Rose survives the wreck or not – we know that early on – though the film has much to say about what makes a survivor. What Rose wants from the start is to escape her gilded cage (later into lifelong love with Jack); what she needs, like Rita, is to take charge of her own life.

Does your main character want money and need love? Need safety rather than what looks like love?

In a complex story, it can take time to bring your character to the clarity you’re after, so – if you are not sure which way to turn –

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you may find it helps to come back to this. Today is more about thinking and feeling your way to answers rather than merrily writing thousands of words, though that’s still a great idea too. It’s about leading your character to insight.

Phew. Stand back for a moment and congratulate yourself. It’s time to treat yourself to a walk or a coffee with a friend and clear your mind. Sleep on what you’ve done so far and praise yourself. You’ve worked hard.

Next week we’ll stand back from your characters for a change, bring a little objectivity to what we’ve done and make sure they can come across as rounded people.

Have a happy writing week!

 

 

Where are we now?

My blog was later than usual this week so here is an extra post to warm us up for the writing weekend…

We’re travelling deep into the hidden furrows of your characters’ hearts and memories now so it’s time for a breather before we go even deeper. Let’s look around at the places in your story where your characters eat, sleep, work, suffer, celebrate and love.

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Your draft flows more quickly, more consistently if you get to know those places early in your writing. Most important of all, find out how your characters feel about them.

This is about more than location: what are the colours, smells, textures and sounds that tell us about your character and are significant for your story? What is the atmosphere in each place? How does the air move there? Is it warm or cold, stuffy or clear-headed, does it bring a taste to the mouth? Does it bring memories? Above all, does your character want to be there? Why? If not, where would they rather be and why?

  • Let’s start at home. Using your scribble-chat technique, let your character invite you to where s/he lives and show you, a room at a time, their kitchen, sofa, bathroom, garden/ view from the rooms, bedroom, bed and so on. Robert Graves’ kitchen in Mallorca is below – I loved that place.

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  • How does your character describe her/his bed. Tracey Emin was right, you’ll learn a lot.
  • Let’s move on to day to day travel – how does your character usually get around? Ask your character to describe her/his car, bike, route to work etc.
  • From there, it’s easy to lead the scribble-chat to your character’s work place. We spend vast chunks of our lives at work and have a wide range of feelings and reactions to it.

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  • What does your character do in spare time? Find out about their gym, choir room and so on.
  • Can you think of other places that are important to your character? Friends’ and relatives’ homes, for example. Worship spaces. Places to socialise.
  • Where is your character’s favourite place in all the world, real or imaginary?

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Different characters will see the same places differently of course and that’s always fun.

As usual, this is just exploration. You could have another go next week and find yourself up to the eyes in different answers. That’s great! You can choose what excites you most and works best for your characters and your story. Above all, you are immersing yourself more and more in your characters and their world, letting your writing flow, and getting closer to a deeply imagined, consistent draft.

On Sunday we move to Stage 4 – where is your plot’s engine? See you then!

 

Family skeletons and state secrets

What is a secret? Something someone knows about you that you hope they’ll never tell? Or something only you know and keep your fingers crossed that nobody else ever finds out? Or something just about everybody knows but hasn’t been admitted out loud?

Secrets are one of the most powerful ingredients in the mix of a great story. They can be international state secrets or personal, from yesterday or years ago, and publishers love the ones that work on both personal and political levels. Let’s see what secrets your main characters have lurking around.

Stage 3 – let’s go digging for secrets:

Take time to settle yourself in peace with your favourite writing materials. Give yourself plenty of time, a tea or coffee and favourite biscuit maybe, and invite your main character to come forward for a scribble-chat.

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We’re after the strange magic that comes whenever our invented people talk to us in our imaginations and we catch the conversation in writing as we go. Something about this process deepens our relationship with our characters in a way that day-dreaming and spread-sheeting our characters can’t hope to match, though those play their parts too.

As before, guide your character gently into the areas you want to cover but let the character be expansive. Have a go with the questions below and see what nuggets of gold turn up. As ever, ‘you’ is the fictional character you’re discovering and you are interviewing gently, like a best friend:

  • Are you now or have you ever been in love? How do you feel about it, looking back? How did it feel at the time? How did things pan out?
  • What was your first sexual experience? How did it feel then? How do you feel about it now? Repercussions?
  • What is your sexual orientation? How do you feel about it?
  • What is your most painful memory?
  • Your happiest memory?
  • Do you have any secrets?
  • Do you have someone else’s secret? How does that feel? Do you want to do anything about it?
  • Have you ever been betrayed? How has it affected your life?
  • Have you ever betrayed someone close to you? If so, how do you justify this to yourself? How has it affected your relationship?
  • What do you most regret having done?
  • And what do you most regret not having done?
  • What would you say is your world view?

Any one of these questions could fill hours if you let it. When you find that your scribble-chat is taking on a life of its own, coming to your page or screen as if it’s not your writing at all but somehow channelled from the gods, please please keep writing as long as you can. These are the pieces of writing that sometimes lead to whole chapters or can go straight, hot-minted, into your draft. For me this adventure is the most intoxicating thing about writing.

Prepare to surprise yourself. As Anthony Powell said, ‘One of the worst things in life is not how the nasty people are. You know that already. It’s how nasty the nice people can be.

Follow your own lead and add to the questions whatever way you like.

Next we will look at how to use your discoveries to unearth the most urgent and exciting parts of your story. I don’t mean that we’ll ditch the raw first-draft wildness – that can be precious and exciting – but these scribble-chats will guide you straight to the hot stuff, saving you maybe several exploratory drafts.

SHORTCUT

Now you’re in a great position to assess the main peaks and troughs in your character’s life. If you have time to write one or two of those turning points as short stories, those scenes will feel less daunting as you approach them later. You might find yourself writing something unexpected and useful.

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I’ll leave you with Robert Graves‘ desk (above) in Mallorca where I paid homage last week. Complete with a pot of fresh rosemary.

Next week, Stage 4 – where is your plot’s engine?

Character is destiny? Why?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve bashed on without bothering with questionnaires and exercises and are staring at a standard rejection or two by now. The kind that maybe misspell your name and give absolutely no clue why your story isn’t right. The main thing I’ve learned the hard way is not to send work out too soon.

It’s a hard fact though that rejections teach us how to improve our work, by which I mean they teach us that our work needs to improve. We all do apprenticeship at this. Rome wasn’t built in a day and good novels take time and skill to write.

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(The original of this cartoon hangs in my hall, by the way.)

So, why do I start with these character sessions? Not only because ‘character is destiny’, as Heraclitus is supposed to have said, but because of the magic trick I learned from playwrights: spend time getting to know your characters deeply, actually being with them, hearing them speak, and you can bypass a whole stage of the drafting process and get to a more sophisticated draft more quickly.

It’s fun to design our plot, move our people like chess pieces into the scenarios we want, building the story in the way that suits our own world view and agenda. It can be all too easy to forget to give thought to whether they would behave like that. And if they would, why.

Characters are always the heart, soul and engine of your story and the better you know them, the more your reader will want to be in your book’s world. Your plan is not irrelevant, not at all, but the space between your plan and what your characters want is where those really memorable fictional characters thrive. It’s also the most exciting place to be when you’re writing.

Darcy cover

So let’s go deeper now – Stage 2:

If it hasn’t happened already, let your character lead the conversation freely from now on (in your scribble-chats on your page or screen) for as long as s/he wants. The questions below are your prompts and any one of these answers could take the two of you a whole day or even a weekend. Good questions come in pairs – feel free to add your own. The ‘you’ below is of-course your invented character though it’s sometimes fun, as a separate exercise, to let the questions guide you down your own memory lane:

  • What is your greatest victory? Your greatest defeat?
  • Your greatest excitement? Greatest boredom?
  • Your idea or experience of perfect happiness? And of perfect misery?
  • When was or would be your experience of the greatest trap in your life? When was your greatest escape?
  • Your greatest delight? Your greatest fear, past, present or future?
  • What would be or has been your greatest happiness and joy? Your greatest sadness?
  • Your greatest achievement? And greatest loss?

A little trick

If you leave these exercises aside, planning to come back later, try to finish with an upbeat one – not the greatest trap or misery for example, unless you’re on to something amazing. That way you’ll come back with a happier heart.

Look how far you and your character have come together! Do you know more about character now than you do about the person you share a bathroom with (or wish you did)? Congratulations, you’ve made a huge step into your novel or story and saved yourself masses of faffing and redrafting later.

Next week I’ll show you how these discoveries take you by the hand to the very core of your story…