Tag Archives: Getting to know your characters

Write Like A Man!

When a female writer writes a male lead, there’s always a question: “How do you get into a man’s head?” (and vice versa, I’m just going to stick this way round to save a lot of s/he-ing!)

It’s interesting, because the same debate doesn’t appear to come up to the same degree with “How do you get into a Elf’s head?”, “How do you get into a murderer’s head?” etc. Even within the same sex, different genders don’t seem to cause as much of a problem – straight women writing lesbian characters, for example.

I suspect part of the problem is one of audience-accuracy. I find it fascinating, for example, that if I write a character I think seems “Canadian”, carefully using their words and syntax and customs, locals will pick up a lot of problems with it, and if the tables are turned, I rip their British characters to shreds in the same way. Similarly, I suspect a man reading a male character written by a woman, will pick up on things “no man would say”, whereas there are unlikely to be many elves or murderers reading those novels.

Nevertheless, it seems to me an incomplete answer. Lesbians definitely read books, so do murderers and cops and adulterers and all the other characters who get written about by people without first-hand experience. As a writer, I would definitely want a few guys to read my male-centric novels before sending them to publishers, and if I ever write from the POV of a lesbian, cop, etc, I would look for a proof-reader with that sort of expertise too.

But is there also an element of stereotyping? Do we feel more comfortable saying men act / think / feel a certain way than we do with other classes of character?

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Any resemblance…

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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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Editing The Phoenix Fire: The Plan

My first NaNoWriMo novel, The Phoenix Fire, was a real learning curve for me. I wrote it at speed, left it for a month or so and then tried to edit it. In terms of length, it was about right, the plot largely matched what I had planned, and after a month I was still far too close to it to do more than edit the text.

I let a few friends read it, and their response was mixed. The biggest issue they had was with the main character. I saw him as troubled but ultimately redeemable, they all hated him or, worse, didn’t give a damn about him. Still too close to it, I dealt with their more specific comments, picking at the text but ignoring the big issues of character and structure. Then I had a single copy printed, stuffed it on my bookshelf and left it there.

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We’re now almost 3 years later and I’m going to let myself take it down from its shelf. Because, in spite of its clear failings, I believe it’s a story worth telling and I believe I have the skill to tell it. I’ve learned a lot about writing over the last couple of years, I’ve honed my craft and more importantly I’ve put a lot of mileage between myself and this novel.

I’m dreading reading it, because I think much of it will make me cringe. But I’m also looking forward to giving it another chance. My goal is to do this slowly, over the course of 2013, so I’m setting up some not-too-ambitious targets for each month. I’m going to try to post on the last day of each month with an update on how that’s going.

January: Plan the plan. So far so good, here it is!

February: Read through the whole thing once. If I spot any textual errors, I will pacify my inner editor by highlighting them, but this read-through is intended to reacquaint myself with the story, the plot and the characters. And to identify the big-picture problems. I’ll keep a notebook beside me to keep a record of anything that strikes me as wrong, then if I have time at the end of the month, I’ll try to organise what’s in it into different elements – plot, character, style, etc.

March: Complete steps 1-9 of the planning plan here (http://fandelyon.com/?p=329). This is about identifying problems, not fixing them, so by the end of March I don’t intend to have made a single change to the text of the novel.

April: Taking the notes from February and March, plan out the structure of the novel as if writing it afresh. Work out which scenes, chapters or subplots need to be cut / rewritten / added. Re-assess the character arcs and work out if characters need to be cut / changed / added. Again, this won’t involve any work on the text itself.

May – July: Rewrite, based on the plan from April. This is likely to involve quite a lot of new text, so I’m allowing three months.

August: Read through the whole piece. Again, I’ll have a highlighter for textual errors, but the focus will be on big-picture stuff and on making sure I’ve fixed everything identified in Feb – April.

September: Rewrites based on August’s read-through and picking up any textual errors highlighted in previous read-throughs.

October: Read through. Look for big and – in particular – little errors, check for things like: clichés, anachronisms, repetition, overuse of adverbs / adjectives.

November: Leave it alone. I’ll hopefully be doing NaNoWriMo again this year, and a month away from PF will give me the breather I need before December’s read-through.

December: Final read-through. Careful check for typos and minor textual issues.

Are you editing anything this year? Is there anything here you think I’ve missed or should do differently? I’d love to hear from you.

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Following up or digging deeper

It’s been a while since I featured any writing exercises or games on a Monday and I know they used to be popular. One which I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is BeKindRewrite’s “Voice Week” which takes place in the first week of October. The idea is to write the same story five times, each using a different voice or point of view. You can find out more, and join in, here: http://voiceweek.wordpress.com/

I’ve decided to participate, probably using the story I wrote for Friday Fictioneers last week, because I feel it lends itself to further investigation, and Voice Week feels like one way to do that.

There’s another way, however, and that’s today’s game. Short stories – and flash fiction in particular – often invite the reader to make their own interpretation and impressions about what’s going on, what’s just happened, and what happens next. Among readers, it’s pretty common to see comments along the lines of “please write the next scene,” or “you could turn this into a novel”. Of course, the key to good short fiction is to tell a whole story within the confines of the piece, but that doesn’t mean these commenters have missed the point. After all, where does a story begin and end? And what is the story without a background to shape the character’s situation and the future to shape their hopes and fears?

So here’s the latest writing game, and it’s one I plan to work on sometime when I have a week to dedicate to it: Take a short story or ideally a piece of flash fiction that fired your imagination, but left you with unanswered questions. It could be your own, or someone else’s (provided you get their permission and give proper credit to the original author). Write up to five different scenes from either before or after, which give the answers to some of the questions raised, or shed more light on the characters’ motivations, personalities or behaviour. These scenes could show what happens immediately before or after, or they could be separated by vast swathes of time and space. They could feature the same characters or other people. And they can definitely contradict each other.

For example, if I took A Mother’s Legacy as my starting point, I could write two scenes from immediately before – one showing a political catastrophe which causes the Mother to need to escape the country quickly; the other showing that the narrator is manipulating her mother to take control of the family inheritance. Then I could write one scene from years before, echoing this one but with Mother taking her daughter to the shore for some alternative purpose, perhaps a pleasure trip on her birthday. Finally, I could write 2 scenes set after the original story, one showing the narrator (this time a son) taking his mother to a literal boat which promises safety, and the other making it clear that the whole story is metaphorical and the mother is dying.

 

If you take a stab at this, whether now or in the future, I’d love to hear how it works for you, and to take a look at the results if you choose to blog about them. Feel free to post thoughts, suggestions or links below.

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Write who you know?

It’s an oft-quoted piece of writing advice to write what you know, but it’s as oft-flouted as it is quoted. After all, if writers stuck to it religiously, there could be no fiction at all, and certainly no fantasy, historical fiction or sci-fi.

The best writers draw on their own experiences, mixing them with research and good old-fashioned imagination. Emotions, for example, are extremely transferable and to some extent scalable. I’ve experienced the fear of hearing strange noises in the house or of seeing a suspicious-looking character walking towards me on a dark street, so it’s escalation rather than invention, to imagine how I, or my characters, would react if those fears turned out to be real, or to other frightening circumstances. If grief can be measured (as with love, I’m not persuaded it’s a ratio scale), I have been fortunate only to experience milder forms – for pets, grandparents and not-incredibly-close friends. But I know enough of it from both inside and outside to conjure some of the emotion that loss causes into my characters. It works like empathy – I can’t imagine how it feels to lose one’s partner, child or parent, but I can begin to, and that is why my heart goes out to friends, family and even strangers who have.

Emotions aren’t the only place where writers mix experience and imagination. We do it in every scene and virtually every sentence, as we craft a story which we want to ring true. Like watching a singer miming, readers pick up on inconsistencies in stories almost subconsciously. You can’t always point to the problem, but you know it doesn’t ring true.

to me, that’s one reason that writing realism can be harder than fantasy. If I write about a dwarf speaking to an elf, fantasy fans may say that my dwarf is not accurately portrayed, but what they are really saying is that my vision of dwarves doesn’t match that of Tolkien, or some other master of the fantasy cannon. Although I might be wise to follow the crowd (or to create  anew name for the race I’m creating from scratch), I cannot be “wrong” because I am creating something out of nothing. But if I write about two plumbers, discussing the nature of a problem in the pipework, I’d better be sure I’ve done my background reading, because plumbers and their wives / mothers / assistants / apprentices everywhere will pick me up right away if I muddle caulking with grout.

All of which is probably why a lot of writers pick a career and stick to it (Crime writers cling to detectives, John Grisham churns out lawyers…) or avoid involving careers as far as possible (who knows or cares what the majority of Stephen King’s characters do to earn their crust?). We also tend to choose a genre and a time period, whether that’s our own (Jane Austen, Jodi Picoult…) or a particular one we’ve researched endlessly (Catherine Cookson, Philippa Gregory).

And, most writers stick to the gender they know best, at least for the narrator or principal character. “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is about a teenage boy, but the narrator and in many ways the main character is a woman, as is Lionel Shriver, and all her books, however well they depict men, do it from the outside.

Age is tougher, but also more flexible. Most published writers are over 25, yet young adult fiction is immensely popular and children’s fiction fills a huge area in every bookshop and library. But at least we’ve been there, and many adults have a pretty close view of childhood through their own families. And maybe age makes less of a difference than we would like to think. 60 year olds, 30 year olds, even 18 year olds don’t think that differently. Our hopes and fears change, as do our priorities, but the emotions that embody them aren’t so different however old we are.

But still … I look at my draft novels and I wonder why I’ve got a third person close narrative from the point of view of a thirty year old man, and a first person diary written by a middle-aged father. Do I just like to make things difficult?!

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Planning: So what do you do?

When starting a writing project, there are lots of things to think about, but one of the most important is almost always going to be the characters.

I tend to write mainstream fiction, which means the vast majority of my characters are human beings, people you might meet in the street. Occasionally I might throw in a pet, or I might set the story in a place or time I’m less familiar with, but generally speaking, these kinds of stories don’t take as much world-building it would to write a sci-fi or fantasy piece. To me, that makes it easier, but in some ways it also adds a challenge. So many novels, plays, poems and scripts have been written about human beings, that it’s easy to slip into something that’s been done before or even that’s become hackneyed and stereotyped.

If I say “Priest”, you probably immediately assume male, Irish, Roman Catholic and possibly also quiet, gay… I could go on. If I say “Firefighter”, the ladies amongst you are already swooning. And if I say “Secretary”, you’ve almost certainly got a woman of a certain age wearing spectacles and a staid skirt and cardigan combo (or else a hot young thing distracting her middle-aged boss). Even more than names, we use job titles as a shorthand, and to some extent it’s useful and necessary. But when these characters become stereotypes, it feel to the reader as though we are cheating.

This is usually more of a problem with side characters than the main ones. We put a lot of time and effort into fleshing out main characters, showing them in different environments and with different moods and personality traits. But with the people they meet, we are often just looking for a cameo or a trigger to the next plot point. And this is where we need to guard against stereotypes, but without distracting readers in a long and complicated ramble about how this priest is in fact a born-again Muslim woman from Tehran, who saw the light, converted to Greek Orthodoxy, and likes nothing more than to sing “It’s Raining Men” from the pulpit on Sundays!

Like everything in life, characterisation is a balancing act – adding a single unusual quirk to our side characters can be enough to save them from being cardboard cut outs, and finding that quirk can be hard, but it can also be fun. It can also, mercifully, be saved for the editing process if something doesn’t jump out straight away, which allows the main story to flow, without getting bogged down in the fact that, for now, the secretary is wearing a twin set and glasses, with a pencil twisted efficiently into her bun.

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It’s Alive!

In response to my introductory post about planning last week, Ivan commented that as a reader he couldn’t understand writers who say that characters take over – surely those characters are our own creations and will do anything we want – no more or less?

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a satisfactory explanation of this, which makes me wonder if it’s possible. But I am going to try my best here, and I welcome the comments, thoughts or disagreement of other writers and of readers too.

Of course, on a basic level, we control what the characters do in the stories we write. We can choose to write something down any way we please – even at its smoothest and most inspired, writing is not automatic writing. But that’s not what we’re talking about when we say that the characters take over.

Sometimes, writing is like transcribing the movie in your head. The story flows as naturally as a dream, and the writer merely watches it and describes it on paper (or keyboard). Of course, it’s a waking dream, so we could step in and change the events, but how often do you feel in control of your daydreams? If you picture yourself lying on a beach, watching the waves lap on the shore, you certainly could consciously decide to have a waiter appear at your arm with a pina colada, but it’s more likely that this will happen unconsciously as your mind builds its image of escape.

But a lot of writing isn’t like that. it’s more conscious. The art of writing is not precise. Even a writer with a detailed plan will be filling in details as he or she goes along. You might have planned that your main character (MC) goes to a high school reunion and meets an old flame there, but when you write the reunion scene you will be adding other characters – teachers and students from her past – and having to flesh out their history. In doing so, you might “discover” (by which I mean create, more on this in a moment) that your MC got a detention from her Science teacher for something she didn’t do. This new information feeds into your picture of your MC, so that suddenly the argument she had with her teenage son three chapters ago about doing his Science homework takes on a new significance. When you wrote it, it was just an excuse to get the son to storm out of the house so that you could have her home alone when her lover phoned. Now, out of nowhere, Science is a feature and you will want to return to it later. Her experiences will also influence how she goes on to deal with her son’s problems in school for the rest of the novel. You might even have to go back and change how she dealt with her daughter getting a detention in Chapter 1.

What I am trying to show here, is that while we do control what we write, we don’t make all the minor decisions in advance, and we don’t necessarily even make them with a great deal of awareness. In the planning stage, we knew that MC was going to meet her old flame at the reunion. We knew that she would have to go through a bit of mindless small talk with the other people at the reunion to build the tension and suspense before she caught up with him. But what that small-talk was going to be didn’t seem to matter until we started writing it. We just threw a few bodies between MC and the ex-boyfriend. Those bodies needed form and something to say and, being a reunion, they needed history. So we created one, but really, we looked into our minds (or muses or our own memories or wherever else we search for extras in the cast of our novels) and discovered something at random.

These apparently minor decisions about something that happens to our MC or about something our MC thinks or feels can have a profound effect on how we view her. And then, when we come to the part of the story where the MC makes a life-changing decision, we come to realise that she wouldn’t go the way we’d planned all along at all. She would pull the trigger, or say yes or whatever it is. And bam, you’ve got a completely different story on your hands from the one you planned.

Sometimes, the extras (whether they are people, events, places or whatever) in a novel as just that, extras. They float in, pad the scenery, and then they float out again without ever really having done anything. But other times, they sneakily become pivotal. They get ideas above their station and they flap their wings like a butterfly in an English meadow. And before you know it, there’s an earthquake out in California and you’re wondering how it got there.

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