fcmalby

writing


2 Comments

What Portrait Photography Can Teach Us About Characterisation…

I enjoy spending time in galleries and, whether it is a collection of paintings, sculptures or photography, I can while away a few hours looking at art. Photography stimulates ideas and sparks my creativity perhaps more than any other art form. I used to spend a lot of time at the Portrait Gallery in London and Vienna has an equally impressive collection of galleries. I was thankful to find that the World Press Photo Awards made a stop here each year, so I haven’t missed out!

I particularly like the work of David Bailey, Mario Testino and Annie Leibovitz. This week I discovered a portrait photographer who was new to me: Michel Comte. Based in Zurich, Comte is a trained art restorer whose first photography contract was with Karl Lagerfeld. He has worked for Vanity Fair, Vogue, Armani, Ferrari, Jaguar and Mercedes Benz, to name a few, and has photographed Miles Davis, Jeremy Irons, Mike Tyson and Michael Schumacher, with whom he became good friends.

He is one of the few professional photographers I know to have photographed both for international advertising companies and for documentaries covering war zones. Comte has increasingly moved towards a more reportage and documentary style of photography, and has travelled to unstable areas in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sudan and Cambodia. If you are interested in his work, the video below shares some of his thoughts on what makes a good photograph.

So, what does this have to do with writing, I hear you thinking? Comte got me thinking about the idea of how much of a person’s soul and character can be captured in a split second, and how so much of what you – the viewer – see forms an impression of who they are as a person. Very quickly you form a judgement from the eyes, the body language, the clothing, the expression and the feel of the picture. This is what Comte says, ‘the person projects.’

As a writer we have the exciting and difficult job of ‘capturing’ each character almost as a snapshot, and portraying who they are through their movements, body language and expressions. Writers have the advantage of using dialogue, actions and the responses of other characters, but the essence of character description comes down to much of what is captured in a moment with a lens. Comte talks about Catherine Deneuve, and the way that a normally confident woman shows a moment of unusual vulnerability in the his photographs. These are the moments which, as a writer, need to be drawn out and put down on the page.

Have a look at the video, if you haven’t already, and think about what strikes you from each image. Think about how you would describe the person and why. Ask yourself what it is about one person that stands out and makes them unique or memorable. It might be a look of vulnerability or mystery, it could be the stance or the eye contact. Sometimes what people wear or how they stand and move, dictates your response to them as a person.

What do you think about character description? How has art or other media inspired your work?


3 Comments

Creating Believable Characters

images (3)        images (2)        images (4)

 

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

― Ray BradburyZen in the Art of Writing

Character description is crucial to a good story that is both readable and convincing. For a reader to get inside your story, the characters have to seem real. They need to have characteristics which are compelling and hook a reader at an early point in the story. As writers, there are so many elements to plotting a novel which need to be considered, that it can at times be head spinning.

You have to focus on scene setting, dialogue, narrative, pace, story arc, point of view, voice and many other aspects. Without good characters, involving skillful characterisation from the author, the story will fail to bring the reader to the last page. So how do you pen characters who are enticing, captivating, abrupt, frustrating, lovable or frightening?

Study real people – Watch people’s behaviour, body language and conversations. Fictional characters need to take elements from real life. Even sci-fi has elements that can be observed from  every day life. Study human behaviour and you will be much closer to creating characters who resonate with the reader.

“By the end, you should be inside your character, actually operating from within somebody else, and knowing him pretty well, as that person knows himself or herself. You’re sort of a predator, an invader of people.” ― William Trevor

Watch films – They can be a good way of observing character traits and provide ideas for your characters. Look for what is not being said, look at the body language and each character when put into different situations and learn from great scriptwriters. Remember that you have to put together in words what a director will create with images and action. The two forms are similar but the difference is that you have a blank canvas with the reader’s imagination. Create atmosphere through your characters.

“As a writer, I demand the right to writer any character in the world that I want to writer. I demand the right to be them, I demand the right to think them and I demand the right to tell the truth as I see they are.” – Quentin Tarantino

Read books (classics, if you enjoy them) – The classics are still being read because they are timeless and because they contain characters who readers can relate to, characters they love and hate. This is the essence of good story telling.

“I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.” ― G.K. Chesterton

Write character profiles – Imagine that your character needs a curriculum vitae for a job interview. What would you write for each one? Think about their individual skills and experiences. Push it further and consider locations or events which might have affected them and shaped their character.

“The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented.” ― Milan Kundera

Put together a pin board of images – this helps if you are very visual. I use Pinterest for this and I find it also engages readers who are interested in your work. Having a selection of portraits can help to remind you of features and posture, if you wish to use this method. Some people would rather writer freely with no prompts and therein lies the truth that no two writers work the same way.

“Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.” (Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886)” ― Anton Chekhov

Related articles:

Andrew Miller, Booker and Whitbread shortlisted author, wrote a Guardian article on Creating Characters.

Melissa Donovan has written a good blog post on tips for character writing.

Writer’s Digest wrote an article on How to Craft Compelling Characters.


7 Comments

Argo: What We Can Learn From Film About Not Overwriting

I watched Argo over the weekend, having seen it win an impressive collection of awards. Among it’s accolades were:

Seven nominations for the 85th Academy Awards, winning three, for Best Film EditingBest Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture. The film also earned five Golden Globe nominations, winning Best Picture – Drama and Best Director, while being nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Arkin. It won the award for the Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the 19th Screen Actors Guild Awards and Best Film, Best Editing, and Best Director at the 66th British Academy Film Awards.

As you can imagine, I had high expectations and the film didn’t disappoint.

Here is a brief synopsis:

In 1979, the American embassy in Iran was invaded by Iranian revolutionaries and several Americans were taken hostage. However, six managed to escape to the official residence of the Canadian Ambassador and the CIA was eventually ordered to get them out of the country. With few options, exfiltration expert Tony Mendez devised a daring plan: to create a phony Canadian film project looking to shoot in Iran and smuggle the Americans out as its production crew. With the help of some trusted Hollywood contacts, Mendez created the ruse and proceed to Iran as its associate producer. However, time was running out with the Iranian security forces closing in on the truth while both his charges and the White House had grave doubts about the operation themselves.

The film is adapted from a true story, written about in the book The Master of Disguise by CIA operative Tony Mendez.

I spent a lot of time wondering how it would translate into a written story (I do this very often when watching films) and one thing stood out to me on several occasions – None of the script was overwritten. There were a small handful of tense or sensitive moments where, as a writer, it would be tempting to fill the space with dialogue, but that didn’t happen. Instead, there were delightful silences where you, the audience, knew exactly what each character was thinking, purely from the situation and from the expressions on their faces.

There was one key moment at the end of the film where, without spoiling the plot for those of you who haven’t seen it, there was a handshake, and so many things could have been said but neither character said a word. The handshake and ensuing silence was far more powerful than any dialogue which would, I expect, have destroyed the scene.

It has been rumbling through my mind for a while, the film and it’s highlights. Most of the highlight were moments where there were no words, no fill-ins from the scriptwriter to destroy the impact. The topic is of a sensitive nature and it could have easily been crushed with careless writing. It was a stark reminder for me not to overwrite, not to fill the moments with words and flowery descriptions. Sometimes, when you are writing, just a snapshot of a character’s movement or their body posture can be enough.


8 Comments

How to Write a Character From Start to Finish

The best fiction is about a character who changes in some significant wayThe selfish brute learns to put others first. The woman marrying for money decides to marry for love. The career ladder climber learns to cut back on his hours to enjoy his family. The bitter old crone learns to let others in. The independent pilot of the Millennium Falcon learns to care about a cause. The owner of Rick’s Café Américain decides he will stick his neck out for somebody after all.

We love to see characters transformed. Mainly because we are being transformed. We know the painful but liberating feeling of ceasing to be one way and beginning to be another, especially if the new way results in more success in relationships or other areas of life we value.

—by Jeff Gerke

Most of the time, main characters in fiction are changing for the better. It’s uplifting to see someone make good choices and improve as a person. Probably your book will be about a character who changes for the best.

But there’s also room for characters who change for the worse. Indeed, though they may lead to depressing, poor-selling books if given the lead role, these tragic characters are fascinating to watch. Before our very eyes, Roger in Lord of the Flies, Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast and Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars saga all devolve into villains. It’s terrible and we want them to stop. But part of us doesn’t want them to stop.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is a “bad” character who flirts for a while with the idea of being good, but then decides that his true self is on the dark side of the street. Gollum/Sméagol in The Lord of the Rings is a famous example.

Of course, not every story has to be about a character who changes. Certainly we don’t expect much change from Indiana Jones. He simply is who he is. And there are wonderful stories about people whose character is so complete at the beginning of the tale that everyone else must change around them. Anne of Green Gables is a terrific example of this. Anne is out of step with everyone. She doesn’t fit in. And yet as those around her try to change her to conform, they discover that it is they who are in need of becoming a bit more like Anne. Forrest Gump, WALL-E, Don Quixote, Mary Poppins and even Jesus Christ are the agents of change though they themselves do not transform. But these characters can be difficult to write well—and they’re more the exception than the norm. So let’s focus here on a main character who changes.

Whether your protagonist ultimately turns toward or away from the light will be up to you, but we’ll look at ways to send her on a journey in which she’s transformed.

The Inner Journey

In fiction terms, a character’s transformation is called his inner journey or character arc. I like the former term as it suggests an odyssey, which it certainly will be for this poor creature you’re about to place on stage and commence to torturing.

The heart of this system is your main character’s inner journey. Other characters may be on journeys of their own, but it is the protagonist’s transformation with which we (and our readers) will be most concerned. The core temperament, the birth order, the way others respond to her, her major life events—all of those are essentialbackground, but they are background all the same, for the main event, which is her inner journey as it will be explored in your novel. A character’s inner journey has five major phases:

•                  Initial Condition (including the “Knot”)
•                  Inciting Event
•                  Escalation
•                  Moment of Truth
•                  Final State.

The Nexus

It’s imperative you understand these five phases are steps on a voyage between two points: the “knot” and the moment of truth. The journey itself is a measure of where the character is along the progression between these two points:character-writing-beginning-to-end

Everything else is preparation for this quest, progress along this quest, and aftermath of this quest. The simple graph you see is the thing that is going to ensure that your novel has both incredible characters and satisfying plot.

The Seeds of Change

The knot is the thing that is wrong with your character. It’s her flaw, her besetting sin, the unhealthy lifestyle she’s gotten herself into. It’s the harmful thing that the story’s whole point is to expose and give her the opportunity to change. In short, the knot is the thing that is messing up your character’s life.

You as novelist act as Fate or God over this character. You know exactly what’s wrong with this person, you see how it’s harming her, and you know how to bring it to her attention. You decide you’re going to force her to deal with it. You care about her too much to leave her in this handicapped state, so you’re going to make her see it and make a decision about it once and for all. This moment is your hero’s Inciting Event.

So you begin sending difficulties into her life. She wants to keep things the way they are—stay in an abu- sive relationship, give up on her dreams, not stand up for herself, hang on to her bitterness, etc.—because, despite the pain of the status quo, it beats the potential pain of change. But you won’t let her. So you, as a good fiction deity, rain on her parade. You make it progres- sively harder for her to ignore the folly of the choices she’s making. You bring in positive examples of what her life could be like if she were to try an alternative way. And then you put the squeeze on her (something I like to call Escalation). It’s all about getting her to the point where she will choose, her Moment of Truth. At the outset of the story, she had arrived at an unhappy medium, an imperfect solution that is not good but is at least better than all the other alternatives she’s found so far. But through the course of the tale you will show her clearly how her solu- tion is harming her and you will show her the bright, happy land she could enter if she went the new way. When she gets to this moment of truth, it will be as if she’s standing at a crossroads. She needs to be able to perceive what her alternatives are. “I can stay as I am and suffer these real and potential consequences, or I can make this change—at this cost—and enjoy these real and potential benefits.”

It’s that hanging-in-the-balance moment that is the point to which your entire story is heading. You could go so far as to say that this moment is the one and only purpose of the story. What the character chooses in that moment is the all-important thing, the infinite pause when heaven and earth hold their breath to see what this person elects to do in her instant of perfect free choice.

The aftermath of that choice leads to the Final State and the end of the story. That is your character’s inner journey in a nutshell. Make no mistake: Your book is about what your main character decides at her moment of truth. Everything else is just the vehicle to drive her to that pen- ultimate moment.

Can you see how this is an application of our simple graphic? If the destination we’re driving to is the moment of truth, then the starting point—the causation point, really—is the knot, the issue causing the problem in the first place. The trip from one to the other is your story. If you build your novel as I recommend, 75 percent of your book will consist of your main character’s inner journey.

The Role of Change

When you’re first concepting your character, you might be tempted to think only about who a character is. But to keep your characters interesting you must also think about what your character can become. Given this starting point, this temperament, and these layers, how will this character respond when shown she’s wrong or dysfunctional in some way and offered a better alternative? People don’t like to change. It’s so much easier to stay as we are, even if it’s hurting us. In fiction, as in life, people resist change.

Right up until the moment when it hurts too much. People dislike change, but they dislike unacceptable pain and consequences even more. Wait, you mean I could go to jail for that? You mean I won’t be able to see my girl- friend anymore—ever? You mean I really am, for sure, 100 percent, going to die if I do this one more time? Dude, what do I need to do to make that not happen?

Your job as story god over this pathetic, synthetic human you’ve created is to bring the pain. You have to dislodge her from her comfortable dysfunction like a pebble you have to remove from a block of mud. The crowbar you use is pain. You have to make it more painful to stay the same than it is to contemplate some manner of char- acter revision. People don’t change until it hurts too much to stay the same. Bring that pain to enable that change, and you’ll have uncovered the inner journey.

Reblogged from Writer’s Digest, by Brian Klems. Too good not to share.

 

 


7 Comments

5 Ways to Write More Effectively

IMG_9529

W.H. Auden’s Desk (copyright F.C. Malby)

I know there are many lists of ‘to to-dos’ and ‘not-to-dos’ for writing and endless amounts of advice, but I just wanted to add a few things which I have found really helpful (some of them dietary!)

  • Write first thing in the morning if you can. I know that people work to different schedules and many people are writing around full-time jobs and some, well into the night. If you have the time, though, I think the mornings are a time when your mind is fresh and uncluttered from everything you might have read on email, twitter, facebook, and the news. Interestingly, I have heard several writers this week saying that they are pulling back from the internet because it is hampering their creativity (but that is another post all together).
  • Cut out caffeine for a while. Yes, I really did say that. I know it sounds like a lot to ask and, believe me, I LOVE coffee but before Christmas I was feeling tired and lethargic and I realised that I was drinking far too much coffee in the form of very strong nespressos. I’m now having a detox for a few months and it really does help. I can only do this because I know that it won’t be forever. I wake up feeling less tired and my mind is much clearer. The difference to my writing output is phenomenal. Since the New Year, I have written 9 short stories, 9 pieces of flash fiction, and mapped out the next novel. I drink peppermint tea and water and I can’t tell you how much it has helped. Getting enough water is really important for brain function. When I teach, I can spot the children who haven’t had a drink in the mornings. They can’t focus.
  • Have a rough plan of where you are going. Whether you are a detailed planner or are more relaxed with your writing, it helps to know where you are heading for the day/week/month. I carved out time during January and February to write short fiction and have achieved my goals. Your targets can be large or small, long-term or short-term but I would encourage you to make some goals rather than to drift through the days.
  • Use visuals to help with details of characters and settings. I use mood boards and Pinterest to give me the fine details, especially for short fiction. See the article I wrote recently on using Pinterest to help your writing. To be able to see images, beyond what is already in your mind, can give a fresh perspective and trigger new ideas.
  • Take a break. You can’t really focus for more than 90 minutes without loosing a certain amount of efficiency and concentration. Some people use timers but you’ll have a clock on your screen/wrist/wall, so make sure that you get out of your seat and move around. It will get the blood flowing to your brain and your muscles, especially the leg muscles which have been squashed into a chair for longer than they were designed to handle.


4 Comments

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing Fiction

typewriter

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.


7 Comments

Writer’s Block: 5 Top Tips for Finding Inspiration

#ds139 "Writer's Block"

There are those who say ‘Don’t look for inspiration, just write.’ What about the days when you are stuck with a scene that feels clunky or one of your characters doesn’t seem consistent or exciting enough. Maybe you are are about to embark on a new book, a first book, a short story, or a poem…and the list goes on. Finding ideas for blog posts can sometimes be difficult when many key topics have been covered from all angles.

Here are 5 top tips:

Go for a walk. Get out and stretch your legs. Writing can keep you pinned to a chair for longer than you realise and the exercise alone will get the blood circulating to your brain. Einstein came up with the Theory of Relativity while riding a bike. Emerson said of Thoreau: ‘The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.’ Haruki Murukami runs 10K a day when in writing mode and says, ‘Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.’ The Neuroscience of Imagination is a really interesting article on this topic.

See a film. It is a good idea to see films which stretch your imagination, especially if it is a difference genre to your own writing. The visual stimulus and the way the characters are played out often spark ideas for characterisation or scene setting and plot momentum.

Read. Read as much as you can of as many different genres as you can get your hands on. Ian McEwan writes all morning and reads all afternoon. Some agents recommend reading at least as many words as you write each day! With the rise of ereaders it is quick and easy to access a vast range of books.

Pick up a paper if you want to find inspiration from non-fiction.

Dip into a short story if you want a short burst of inspiration. They are packed full of description and swift characterisation. See my recent post on short stories.

Head to a cafe. Go somewhere which is guaranteed to be full of people! You are most probably writing about people, so study them. Watch people’s body language, the way they dress, how they talk. Go and write or meet a friend and observe. You’ll be amazed by how much it helps. I was writing a difficult scene in my novel in a cafe. The scene involved a particular character and, by chance, a guy with similar features and mannerisms to my character sat down at a table nearby. Needless to say the scene was wrapped up by the time I had finished my coffee. It was a complete coincidence but you never know who will walk by or sit down and inspire a particular character in your writing.

Go to a gallery. Or a football match, or any thing that you enjoy and find inspiring. I love art galleries and there is something about art which, for me, crosses over into writing and ideas. I see a painting and think of a story behind the image or wonder about the life of the artist. The biographies on the wall often inspire ideas about a different time frame or issue.

So, go and be inspired then come back and tell us what it is that helps you to get around writer’s block. Do you have any tips for inspiration?