Tag Archives: Character development

Out of Equilibrium

The other night, we watched Christian Bale in Equilibrium, a 2002 movie about a futuristic world where human emotion is banned in an attempt to keep the peace. ***Warning, this post contains substantial spoilers (for Equilibrium, also for Fahrenheit 451 and 1984)***

If this were a film review blog, I’d tell you that this film has some fantastic cinematography. There’s a great scene towards the beginning where Bale shoots a load of guys in the dark, lit only by the machine gun bursts.

But this is a writing blog, so let’s focus on more relevant aspects. The characters are 2 dimensional, the story is a blatant take -ff of Fahrenheit 451 / 1984 etc, and the casting is terrible (for the record, whenever Sean Bean dies early on, the casting is terrible. Sean can’t get enough screen time in my book). Ok, that last one belongs to a film review. The ending has the potential to be a saving grace; it made sense and was reasonably well thought-out. Except the bit about the kids. I’ll explain that later.

Here are my two big lessons from Equilibrium:

1) Get your promo material right. According to IMDB.com, the taglines for this film were:

In a future where freedom is outlawed outlaws will become heroes.      

This appears on the cover of the DVD box. It’s ridiculous, because the main character isn’t an outlaw. At least not until the final few moments. Until then, he’s the main guy for the secret police, and about as “inlaw” as you can get. Also, in most people’s heads “outlaw” equates to “hero” anyway, because it makes us think of Robin Hood. Or at least Clint Eastwood. Finally, freedom isn’t really what’s outlawed.

Two men.  One battle.  No compromise.      

Not sure where this appeared, but it reflects the box which shows Bale and Taye Diggs next to each other in a Matrix-style stance. Well lovely. Except that this isn’t a film about two men. It’s a film about one man (Bale) and the various challenges he meets including, but probably not principally, Diggs’ character.

The only thing more powerful than the system, is the man that will overthrow it.

This is where I’m going to get all grammar-police on you and say they meant “the man WHO will overthrow it”. Apart from that, though, way to give away the ending of the film in your tagline. Until about 30 minutes before the end, it’s not even his goal to overthrow the system. After that, it’s not clear (except that this is Hollywood and couldn’t possibly end as unsatisfactorily as Fahrenheit 451 or 1984) until pretty much the very end, that he’s going to succeed.

2) Audiences like to love / hate Characters

The premise of Equilibrium is that emotions have been drugged out of the populace. But the question behind it is, without emotion, are we truly human? Fascinating question, difficult premise for a novel. Because without emotion, it’s very hard to build characters, at least ones we could give two hoots about. Bale’s character is in theory off the drugs and therefore has emotions for much of the novel, but he has to hide them from everyone, so we don’t see them much. And even when we do, either he’s a shoddy actor or the script / director didn’t give him much, because apart from a crying scene and a dodgy bit with a puppy, I didn’t get much to care about throughout. At the very end, he watches the bombs going off in the city where he lives. The city where his kids live. Does he get in a flap about whether his kids are OK? Nope, he’s just pleased about the bombs. There’s also a whole bunch of dodgy love nonsense, with his wife (whom he only knew when he didn’t have emotions) and some woman he’s only met twice. Honestly, no.

Like I say, it’s an interesting premise and I’d like to say it made me think about what it is to be human, but mostly, the film just made me wonder how as writers, we can portray emotion-less characters without losing our readers’ emotions too – and normal characters without retreating to ‘don’t kill the puppy’ clichés. Oh, and wondering why directors so often insist on killing Sean Bean off early…

 

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Who Said That?

My story for InMon on Thursday raised a great comment from Stuart, including the observation that he’d sometimes struggled to identify who was speaking. The scene involved three girls, discussing the Narrator’s one night stand the previous night, and I know what Stuart means; it’s a challenge I hate as a reader and face as a writer, so I thought I’d stop and deal with it in more detail today.

When I discussed this with my writing group on Saturday, we decided that sometimes it doesn’t matter which friend is saying every single comment – what’s important may just be their effect on the narrator. But as a writer, that’s a really brave call to make. There will be readers who will be turned off the story by this, and those readers might occasionally be the ones who decide whether you get published or not! So, how do we deal with this problem?

The Easy Answer

The most straightforward way to avoid confusion is to use dialogue tags, most obviously “she said” or “said Alice” etc. Whilst it’s good to occasionally mix things up and have someone squeak, shout or whisper, for the most part, writing guides discourage too much imagination on dialogue tags – we read “said” without slowing down, but anything else disrupts the brain’s concentration on the dialogue itself, apparently.

But putting “said Alice”, “said Louisa”, “I said” after every line of dialogue gets a bit tiresome after a while. And most of the time, dialogue tags come either in the middle or at the end of the speeches they refer to – ideally, the reader doesn’t want to wait that long to find out who’s speaking.

Slightly More Sophisticated

It’s a step up from tags to actions. For example: “Who cares?” Alice had let go of the gain control again.

This allows you to identify Alice as the speaker without any sort of tag. The rule here is, one paragraph per person, so if the action is in the same paragraph as the words, it’s done by the speaker.

Watch out for the tag / action distinction so bemoaned by writing coaches. You can speak and smile, for example, but you cannot smile a speech. Compare the punctuation in:

“Have a biscuit,” Evan smiled.

“Have a biscuit.” Evan smiled.

The first version implied that Evan smiled the words, which is impossible. In the second, someone says the words (and because it’s in the same paragraph, we can assume it’s Evan) and Evan smiles.

Top Marks

The fanciest way to distinguish between speakers is through character. In a super-short story like Thursday’s, that’s not so easy to do, but it’s a skill I definitely need to work on even within those boundaries, and in a longer piece it’s imperative.

The goal is for the reader to know your characters so well, they know who is speaking from the words they say. Think about your favourite book or TV show. If I gave you a few lines from it, you’d probably be able to tell me who is talking.

This is another danger zone: take it too far and the characters become wooden or caricatured. But there’s definitely a happy medium. I struggled to differentiate Louisa and Alice on Thursday because I made them so similar. Of course they are similar, they are friends, of the same age, living in the same place. They have shared idiom and experiences. But even when we lived on top of each other at university, my best friend and I didn’t speak exactly the same way. I’ve been with my husband more than a decade, but he and I are definitely distinguishable in the way we speak too.

So if I were to go back to Thursday’s story and improve it, I’d work on the girls’ characters some more. I’d find the differences between Alice and Louisa in particular, and the Narrator too, and I’d bring them out better in the dialogue.

A note on duologue

All the above still works, but if there are only two people speaking, it’s a little easier. As long as you punctuate and paragraph correctly, the reader can follow the exchange like a singles tennis match between them, with just the occasional tag to orientate us occasionally so we don’t get lost and have to count up half a page.

Sometimes, you can be sneaky and put names into the speech instead. If Sarah and Pete are talking and someone says “What do you think, Sarah?”, we know it must be Pete. But in real life most people rarely actually say each other’s names out loud, so use this sparingly. And still aim for top marks where you can.

I once wrote an entire 7000 word story as a duologue between a brother and sister. There was not a single word outside the quotation marks: no tags or actions, just the words they spoke, like a radio play. But for the most part (not entirely, it still needs work), I think you can tell who is speaking because of a combination of the other tricks mentioned here.

If you’re working on a story right now, how do you make it clear who’s speaking?

 

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Inspiration Monday – Struggling to Communicate

This week’s InMon prompts include the phrase “suspicious click”. That prompted the first few lines of this story, but the rest of it came slowly, as I deliberated what it was that hid behind the mysterious attachment. The resulting story is one that some may find disturbing, but I hope you will take the time to persevere with it.

Struggling to Communicate

Geoffrey opened the email with a single suspicious click. He’d been caught before – Lionel liked to send him loud videos and embarrassing photographs – so the email entitled “check this out” made him wary.

“There was a time when we didn’t send each other stupid things on a whim,” he’d told Lionel on the phone last time a stupid forward made people from neighbouring cubicles stand up and glare at him. “Postage stamps were expensive and going to the postbox put a sort of idiocy filter on even your behaviour!”

His brother had just laughed. Called him a “stick in the mud,” which was Lionel’s way of laying on the age difference between them. Five years had never seemed such a chasm as it did now they were approaching fifty. Geoffrey felt old. Lionel still went out to nightclubs, spent what money he had on drinking and partying. Not something Geoffrey approved of, mind you. It seemed to him that this made Lionel a dirty old man.

The email opened up. The text just said the same as the title of the message, but there was an attachment. “Lindsey.jpg”.

Probably porn Geoffrey thought. He wanted to delete it, but couldn’t quite bring himself to. Lindsey was the name he and Alison had wanted to call their first girl. Had called their first girl, but only for the purpose of a few letters scratched into a piece of stone. Lindsey had never drawn a single breath, and he and Alison had never breathed her name since.

It made the dilemma of the attachment even worse. If it was porn, he would never forgive himself for looking at a girl called Lindsey in that way. She’d be seventeen now. He felt something swell in his throat. Old enough for boys to be looking at her just that way. He swallowed, feeling a mixture of despair and anger washing over him.

Geoffrey picked up his mug, took a swig of cold coffee. He couldn’t bring himself to open the attachment, but deleting it wasn’t an option either.

He closed the email program and opened up a spreadsheet. Work: that was the solution. Numbers swirled across the screen, forming themselves into faces: Alison’s when they discovered she was pregnant; Alison’s on the day Lindsey was born; Lindsey’s scrunched up little features, too blue and too still. He didn’t know anything about babies, but he knew this was wrong. The faces were sharp but the numbers were blurred by tears. He took another swig of coffee and picked up the phone to call her. Alison’s voice would calm him. And she would know what to do with the email.

But he couldn’t tell her. Alison liked Lionel. She said he just struggled to communicate – an accusation she’d levelled at Geoffrey enough times too. The numbers on the phone’s screen caught his eye. 7/12/13. He hated the stupid American phone system. The sun was shining and the thermometer in the car this morning had read 28 degrees. It was the twelfth of July, not the seventh of December.

Twelfth of July, he thought. He couldn’t believe he’d made it almost to lunchtime without realising. He opened the email program again and clicked on the attachment.

The picture opened slowly on the screen. Lionel’s head and another man’s appeared first. They were looking at the camera and smiling. Behind them, a blue and orange logo said simply “Sands”. As the picture loaded, he saw that Lionel and the man were holding a giant cheque: the kind they used on TV. It was payable to Sands and signed with his brother’s elaborate signature. The amount on the cheque was staggering.

At the bottom of the picture, there was some writing, put on with a picture editing program.

Happy 18th Birthday to my beloved and much-missed niece.

Geoffrey looked around. No faces had appeared over the walls of his cubicle; the colleagues who had heard bad sound effects and dubious music from Lionel’s previous emails were oblivious to this one. His fingers thick and his vision blurred, Geoffrey dialled his brother’s number.

logo_sands

Sands is a UK charity which helps and supports those affected by the death of a baby. The characters in this story are entirely fictional but sadly their situation is not. If you have a little spare in your charity pot this month, please consider a donation to Sands. You can view their website by clicking on the logo above, and make a secure online donation there.

 Whatever force or power gave us Sebastian, I’m grateful for him today and every day.

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In Mon – Farewell to Words

Well now. When I first got the email with this week’s InMon prompt, I thought I’d be writing a tribute to Steph, who runs it. I also began to consider how I might replace InMon in my blogging schedule. And then I thought about the date. And then I read the post in full. And then I sighed.

So, no tribute to you, Steph. And you almost did yourself out of a participant!

Instead, here’s a story…

A Farewell To Words

“I put them there for a reason,” sighed Joanna, trying to keep the whine out of her voice. “I don’t go in for gratuity, you know I don’t, but sometimes you have to include the character’s language for realism.”

“I know, but the publishers won’t take it.” Ian flicked through the redacted copy in front of him. He could almost hear the author’s brain trying to come up with arguments through the silence on the telephone. “Sometimes you have to sacrifice perfection.”

“For what? Market share? There is no way Bilton would say ‘Shoot’ when he sees those bodies. No way! There’s perfection, Ian, and then there’s…” She stumbled over the words; she wanted to pick up the phone and throw it across the room.

“I know it’s frustrating, Jo, but that’s what they are telling me. They want the novel. They want to give it publicity, a good launch date … hell, they’re even offering you an advance. That’s unheard of for a first novel in this market.”

“Did you say hell?”

Ian took a breath. Now she was mad.

“Did you say HELL, Ian? Not heck? Not gee, or shoot? You said hell, because hell is what came to your lips when you heard I might get some money for seven years of researching and writing. Now imagine you’d just seen a room full of carved up little children. Imagine you had spent chapters and chapters looking for those children, talking to their parents, hoping against hope that they were alive somewhere. Are you imagining it, Ian? Are you imagining you open that door and see the bodies piled up, bits missing, unseeing eyes staring at you … Now, tell me you would say ‘Shoot’.”

“Jo…”

“No, Ian. Go back to them. Tell them the swearing stays. And if they don’t like it, they can go shoot themselves.”

******

A bit of backstory, for those who are interested.

The prompt “Farewell to words” reminded me of the Hemingway title, A Farewell To Arms. One of his most famous and successful novels, this book was originally published censored, with the swear words replaced by dashes. It was America, in the inter-war period, and such language was too much for the publishers and readership. But this is a bleak, tragic novel, set during the First World War. Undoubtedly the real-life soldiers for whom those events were real didn’t hold back their language, but Hemingway was obliged to when he depicted them.

Even now, authors face a conundrum of how and when to use blasphemy, swear words and other controversial language. It’s a difficult balance to strike – between realism and toning it down for the market. Graphic, horrific scenes seem to get a much easier ride, and yet as a reader, I think I struggle much more with some of the images created than the odd F- or S-. I thought that might be an interesting subject for a short, and the story above was born.

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Inspiration Monday – Name From A Hat

Here’s my story for Inspiration Monday – others will be posted on the host site on monday. This one is just a little scene – I found the prompt challenging and making time to write something even more so this week, so it’s not a story in itself I’m afraid.

Selection Process

The Head was droning on about playground games. Sarah nudged Gavin and whispered, “So, what are you doing for Valentine’s?”

“Just chocolates and a card,” Gavin replied. “Flowers are such a rip off in February.”

“Last of the great romantics. But I meant for them.” She gestured to the rows of heads in front of them. A few were whispering and fidgeting but she let it go for now.

“Oh. Names from a hat, I guess. Bit like Secret Santa.”

“Better than car keys in a bowl, I suppose.”

“Or spin the bottle!” Gavin laughed. “Actually, that’s how I met Alice. Did I ever tell you? Never did get the stains out of the carpet – my Mum thought it was blood!”

“Blood?”

“Ketchup. It was fine until the lid fell off!”

Sarah noticed two of her class pushing each other. She tapped the closer of the two on the knee with her foot and shook her head when they looked up. They looked a little sheepish and stopped. “I thought you were supposed to use a bottle of wine.”

“Probably, but our parties … shhh.” Gavin smiled at the Head who was now glaring at him. Sarah leant down and pulled on the blazer of one of the boys who had been pushing, although in truth he’d stopped after her foot tap. It got her out of eyeballing the Head anyway.

120px-Valentinesdaytree

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Any resemblance…

All_persons_fictitious_disclaimer_English

We’ve all seem the disclaimer at the end of movies – covering the production team from any allegations of libel if someone thinks they have been portrayed unfairly. It’s a danger of any fictional work, of course, because as writers, we draw inevitably from our own experiences to a greater or lesser degree, and as humans, we are inclined to see ourselves in the stories we read.

To some extent, of course, it’s a sign of successful writing. All novels, most obviously those with a clear hero or heroine, play on the reader’s ability to empathise with the main character. Romances work because the readers fall in love with the beau(x), thrillers thrill when we feel the MC’s fear and tension.

But when you know the author, that’s when it becomes a potential problem. Suddenly, you’re reading about a villain who has one or two of your physical traits or quirky habits … suddenly you think the author is writing about you … you decide he or she has secretly thought of you as a villain, a philanderer, murderer, whatever.

Well, no. Here’s my disclaimer. All the characters I write are entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is … actually, not exactly coincidental, but it is specific. I may well have stolen a trait, quirk or anecdote from you, and if that upsets you, let me know and I’ll do my best to remove it. However, one feature does not a character make – whatever I’ve taken from you to build this character, you can assume that’s all I’ve taken. Everything else about the character is either taken from someone else, or is entirely fictitious. Using specific elements from real life makes my characters feels more 3-dimensional; inserting real people into my stories would entirely stifle my creativity and exercising my creativity is the entire reason I write.

The best example I can give is a song. Two years ago, my husband and I did February Album Writing Month. I wrote the lyrics, he composed the music. For one comic song, I wrote lyrics some of which were based on my husband’s anecdotes of youthful drinking exploits. The bits that he recognises are about him, everything else is not. The father and son characters portrayed in the song are entirely fictional, the “banshee” wife is certainly neither me nor my lovely mother in law, and the song is a work of fiction.

So next time you’re reading something where you know the author, feel free to look out for something of you in the story, but if you find it, be flattered that they find you so interesting, and don’t worry that the whole story is about you.

And if you don’t believe me, I’ll leave the last word to Carly Simon

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Inspiration Monday – True Myth

Another Thursday, another post for InMon. Of this week’s prompts, the phrase “true myth” jumped out at me. There are a lot of true myths around at this time of year – not least the idea that Christmas is the most important festival of the year (if you’re Christian, you know that’s Easter, and if you’re not, you are celebrating something that isn’t a holyday [sic] for you at all! And yet, it the Western world, the propagators of the myth have made it true.) Of course, a true myth could mean something that truly is a myth and as such would need to fit the dictionary definition. For example:

a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.

In that case, most of the things we associate with Christmas aren’t true myths at all. Except, of course, the Christmas Story itself.

But, all that postulating aside, my story in response to the prompt is far less highbrow, and is the opening to a Bridget Jones-esque romance novel I will probably never write. I’d love to hear what you think.

True Myth

It’s a myth universally acknowledged that a single woman of a certain age must be in want of a husband. Or a wife, I suppose. Unless she has a houseful of cats, in which case she is probably happy just the way she is. Do cats make one happy, I wonder, or does a girl only fill the house with cats when she has already ruled out the possibility of happiness?

It’s clearly a myth. I know at least one woman who has neither cats nor life partner, and appears not to be desirous of either. Amy doesn’t just claim to be content, the way we single women do when our married friends flaunt their gorgeous, rich husbands in our faces, and subject us to their two-point-four perfect children. I’ve got that act down to a fine art: I can coo over a baby without the slightest hint of envy audible in my voice, and I genuinely don’t feel jealous when those perfect children are screaming, vomiting or tearing down shelves full of expensive crockery in Debenhams. But Amy really genuinely doesn’t seem to want all that. She’s a wildly-successful career woman, she has a one-week stand occasionally with some cute guy she finds in a bar, and then she goes home to her expensive flat in the Docklands, and is happy.

Single girls can tell. Sure, our married friends probably think we are all Amys, but we know better. I know for a fact that Sarah would have married Peter Proctor if he’d only asked her, even if it meant living out in Oman and wearing the hijab for the rest of her life; and I know that Josie is still hoping to turn up Mr Right among the other hunt protesters, regardless of their dodgy facial hair and obsession with injuring horses in the name of animal rights.

And they know about me. Because, for all that it’s a myth, where I’m concerned, the problem is it’s true.

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