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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?


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The Power of Words

In losing a great man, a human rights activist, a disturber of the peace to some, Nelson Mandela is remembered across the globe as a leader who endured twenty seven years in prison for the sake of his people, a man who fought against injustice and stood for what he believed to be a better way. He became the first black South African to hold the office of President, focusing on the dismantling of apartheid through tackling racism, poverty and inequality. I am reminded, as I read more of his life and his influence and words, that words hold great power in people’s minds and lives, words have the power to influence, to change and to move barriers in our society, our political systems and in our hearts. Words both written and spoken have the power to create change.

In losing Mandela yesterday, I can’t help thinking of a recent loss of a man remembered for a similar struggle, a man whose integrity and perseverance won the hearts of many in a country also affected by great political change and a turbulent history. I am reminded also of the power of his words and his influence. Vaclav Havel died on 18 December 2011: Playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and politician, his prominence as a participant in the liberal reforms of Czechoslovakia in 1968 were followed by his plays being banned during the totalitarian regime. His words continued to hold power through that time and he became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, becoming the country’s first non-communist leader since 1948.

Both men spent time as political prisoners, incarcerated for standing up against powers that threatened to crush their countries. They believed in justice and equality and had the strength of character and tenacity to keep going in the face of great opposition because they believed in a better future. Both men spoke words that hold great power today, words which helped to shape their society, culture and politics. Their influence in the world and their contribution to their countries cannot be underplayed. In sharing these two incredible lives I want to remind us that the words we read and the words we write can have the power to shape, to heal, and to influence lives, to change the way people think and see the world. With this in mind I want to leave you with some of the great words that have become the legacies of these men.

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NELSON MANDELA

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

“I like friends who have independent minds because they tend to make you see problems from all angles.”

“A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”

“A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of.”

havel

VACAV HAVEL

“I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government.”
“Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
“Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties?”
“None of us know all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population.”
 
“The period you grow up in and mature in always influences your thinking.”


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Writing Advice And Inspiration

download‘A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn’t spin a bit of magic, it’s missing something.’ Esther Freud

download (6)‘Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.’ Will Self

Nobel-Prize-Literature‘I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth–what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc . . . And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with.’ Alice Munro

download (7)‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. This sounds easy, but in practice is incredibly difficult… Common phrases have become so comfortable that they create no emotional response. Take the time to invent fresh, powerful images.’ George Orwell
images (10)‘Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.’ Zadie Smith

download (8)‘Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.’ Elmore Leonard
images (11)‘Don’t say it was delightful; make us say delightful when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers Please will you do the job for me.’  CS Lewis
images (12)‘Be daring, take on anything. Don’t labor over little cameo works in which every word is to be perfect. Technique holds a reader from sentence to sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.’ Joyce Carol Oates
images (13)‘My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.’ Anton Chekhov

download (11)‘Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.’ Margaret Atwood
download (7)‘Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion.’ Franz Kafka
images (15)‘Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other ­people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.’ PD James


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What Do Authors Have in Common with Orchestra Conductors?

Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco (Guadalajara...

Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco (Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The more I write, the more I am aware of  the variety of elements involved in creating a compelling story. These elements are all individual parts but they have to be pulled together to work effectively.  Alone, each part would sound  musical, lyrical, but together they create a depth of sound which cannot be created alone.

I used to play the clarinet in various orchestras and jazz bands and, while I also enjoyed playing music alone, nothing matches the sound of an entire section, woodwind in my case, or a whole orchestra. Some sections alone sound fragmented, have you ever listened to a double bass playing an orchestra piece without the rest of the string section? Unless it’s a jazz improvisation it might sound staccatoed and uncomfortable.

When you create a book you look at the story arc, the balance of dialogue and narrative, points of view, pace, action, language. When you conduct an orchestra, you need to see the different sections: string, wind, brass and percussion. Within each section are the individual groups of instruments. In the strings you would hear the violins, violas, chellos, double basses, and so the list would go on with each of the other sections. The conductor needs to be able to hear each section and filter out the other sounds as well as to be able to hear the collective sound. He or she needs to pull the instruments in at the right time, control the tempo and the volume, and to be able to create an even balance.

In the same way an author needs to be able to look at the different sections of the book, and to hear the sounds and feel the rhythm of the story; to be able to create balance in pace and point of view, a balance between high emotion and lower points of tension, a balance between dialogue and narrative prose.

The threads within a story weave together in a similar way to the instruments within an orchestra. If anything sounds off it can run the risk of throwing the rest of the story off kilter. There is a delicate balance between the threads, requiring the skill of a competent author or conductor, and at different points in the story and the music there will be certain elements that will be louder and clearer, more dominant, while others subside. The balance can make or break the overall sound and quality.


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Creating Believable Characters

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“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.


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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.


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The Best Characters Are Broken

Broken Glass

‘The best characters are broken.’

I came across this quote yesterday and it has stayed with me. I started to think about why this is the case and how the reader identifies with broken characters. The quote was a little nugget in a much longer article by writer Faith Hunter. She writes in the fantasy/thriller genre but this concept travels across all genres of fiction and, I should add, non-fiction.

Why? 

Psychologists suggest there is a part in many of us that is broken and often hidden from the world, a part of us which we are afraid to reveal for fear of other people’s reactions. As children we have no qualms about crying or screaming if something is wrong, or throwing ourselves onto the floor and lying prostrate with fists pounding the carpet. Anyone seen this? Yes, well. Somewhere along the line, though, we are told to temper our responses with phrases like –  ‘don’t cry,’ ‘try to behave,’ ‘big girls/boys don’t shout.’

While this helps to create a society which is relatively restrained (most of the time), it also teaches us to suppress our fears or pain. It tells us that emotions should be dealt with quietly and privately, and not in public. It pushes us into corners where we have to wrestle and fight against feelings of fear, inadequacy, rejection, pain and even phobias. It’s not unlike snake charming gone awry. These are just a few of the murky areas of our lives which we have been taught to just sit on and ignore, in the hope that they will just vanish.

Why do readers need this in a story?

Why do we read books at all? For a vast majority it is a means of escape, a way of entering into an imaginary world where the rules have changed and events are happening to other people, events which stir up emotions in the reader and trigger memories of their own fears. We need to feel that we are not alone and books can provide an intense range of emotions in the reader. The level of which is down to the craftsmanship of the writer.

In a good novel we are taken on a journey with a roller coaster of emotions which vary in intensity throughout the pages. The journey can be frightening and it can be comforting, it call tell us that our fears are universal, it can navigate us through the choppy waters of disbelief, it can heal the deeper parts of our soul and can remind us that all of humanity lives with these bundles of hidden thoughts, and all in the safety and privacy of a collection of words, neatly bound in a cover without us having to leave the house or to communicate these fears.

How can we find the ideas?

As writers we have fears which need to be exploited to form a convincing plot, fears which will leave the reader turning page after page. Some of these fears begin in childhood, others might be more recent, but they are there and they need to be dug up, excavated and displayed in the pages of your books. Readers connect with writers who artfully pull at these strings – strings of challenge, of hopelessness, of a fear of change. Whatever the issues with your key characters, you need to delve into the murky waters surrounding an event and pull out the rawness of the emotions.

If there is no tension or emotion in your story it won’t fly.

Open up the corridors of your inner world and pull out all that lurks in the darkness. You will help your readers to relate to the characters and bring a believable plot to life.