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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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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.


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Creating Intriguing Characters

Human male face made of several different people, artistic concept vertical collage

Creating interesting, engaging and intriguing characters can be most of the battle when it comes to writing fiction. It is the characters who draw the reader deep into the story and who make a compelling case for why the reader should care about the the people involved in the story. This is relevant for almost any genre of fiction and some non-fiction, although there may be some exceptions.

So how do you go about creating the kind of people who readers will be unable to leave behind? Some characters will be kind and generous, others spiteful or deceitful, some will resist elements of the plot and its events, others will be dislikeable but their flaws might resonate with the reader by exposing a certain vulnerability.

Think about the people who you have met, seen in films, read about in compelling books, or interacted with in business or by other means. Who do you remember and why? What sort of character traits make a person likeable or dislikeable? What has happened in their life to make them behave in a certain way? There are cultural differences to consider – how does the character’s ethnicity and cultural background shape them as a person?

Dig deep into the each character’s psyche and tease out the details of their life, their surroundings, family, experiences, passions, dislikes and fears. Often a character’s fears, especially that of your protagonist, will be rooted in an event or a set of events which might be familiar to people on a larger scale. Are they afraid of change, restrictions, loss, death, illness? Do they have an inability to make decisions?

Take time to profile your characters – brainstorm, make notes, paste photographs into a notebook or onto a Pinterest board (see my post on using Pinterest to improve your writing). Make sure that you know your characters to the very core and then let them loose in a situation, a setting, a crisis and you will know how they respond and why, you will know the decisions they need to make or are afraid to make.

Can you think of interesting characters you have read about recently? Do you have any tips on creating realistic and engaging characters?


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Hemmingway’s Tip Of The Iceberg: Omit What the Reader Knows

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If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon[1

This quote from Hemmingway’s, Death in the Afternoon, is a timely reminder that most of what the reader picks up from a really good piece of prose is submerged. Writers sometimes go to great lengths to make sure that the reader understands every detail and assumes a lack of understanding. Writing can, in this instance, lose it’s subtlety and and crush the flow of the words. You can feel what a good writer is implying without the words actually reaching the page. A good book is charged with these undercurrents and the reader can dig down and grasp emotions and ideas which are never actually written.

To give an example, yesterday I read the Costa Short Story Award winner Avril Joy’s beautiful piece, Millie and Bird. I won’t give anything away but the key theme is always implied, never stated, and deftly written in the hands of a writer who knows her craft. Her story is both lyrical and compelling. Those of you who have been following know that I am currently immersed in short stories (both reading and writing) and I was particularly struck by this one. A well deserving winner, I would say.

Alison Moore’s, The Lighthouse, also follows a strong theme of rejection and loneliness without it ever being stated. The reader is swept away by the desperation of the protagonist’s situations in both his past and present.

I particularly like Hemmingway’s description of the dignity of an iceberg’s movement. Remembering that those critical seven eights of its mass are under water should serve as a warning not to push everything up to the surface or to write all the words into the frame of your picture.


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What Makes a Page Turner

An interview with Maeve Binchy

This wonderful author was a favourite of mine as a young teenager. Maeve Binchy had a way of making me feel the characters emotions and kept me turning the pages until the very last one. I was almost surprised when I finished her book ‘Circle of Friends‘ as it was the first of her books that I had read and I couldn’t believe it had finished so soon. The experience was like a few hours with a great friend. You know when you cease to look at the clock, stop running though all the things you still need to do, and get so immersed in conversation that you have no idea where the time went? Well, that was what her books were like to me. There was a warmth in her writing and an understanding of people, and of life, which made me pick up and finish one book after the next. Every writer wants to emulate this in their books and every reader seeks this kind of book – a page turner. She shares her experiences.

So, what does she have to say about make a book a page turner?

Use your experiences – 

She emphasises the need for characters to do ordinary things, and draws on her experience of staying a hotel and not knowing whether or not to make the bed, as she had never stayed in a hotel before. Amazingly, many readers sent her letters to say that they had the same question. It seems basic, but finding every day situations that will help the reader to connect with a character and will add to the emotional connection is important.

People need to get to know the characters quite well –

Readers often feel the same way as a character in a given situation, and characters make mistakes. We all make mistakes and part of the reading experience, I think, is to have that ‘me too’ moment when you feel for the character because you have been in that situation or you are rooting for them and want things to work out. That is the mark of a good book.

Good doesn’t always triumph –

Good does not always win over evil in a book but it is important for the characters to make life as good as it can be. Maeve says that all her heroes always make life as good as possible in her books. You might have an antagonist who obviously choses a different route but it is important for the protagonist get to a point where they find the best of life.

Not every book needs to have an epic story line to be successful – 

Plot is important but a book does not need to be Lord of the Rings to succeed. Take a look at Fifty Shades of Grey! The key element of a book for readers and writers alike should be the characters and what they are striving for, or avoiding, or delaying. Whatever the purpose of their actions, their thoughts and actions need to be compelling.