“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
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
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.
Step away from the vehicle – and put your novel in a drawer
This is the final piece of advice I wanted to share with you from Zadie Smith in this series on writing wisdom.
When you finish your novel put it in a drawer for as long as possible. A year or more is ideal, says Smith, but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work lies in the fact that you must become a reader instead of a writer. Smith says that there have been many times where she has sat backstage with a line of novelists at a literary festival, all with red pens in hand, frantically editing their published novels so that they might go onstage and read from them. Unfortunately the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is apparently two years after it is published! And ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood are distressingly obvious to you as a writer.
Several years previously, when the proofs arrived, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place. And by the way, that’s true of the professional editors, too; after they have read a manuscript multiple times, they stop being able to see it. You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in 12 different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get into the head of that smart stranger and forget you ever wrote that book.
Personally, I left my novel for three months and began a Masters in Theology. Needless to say, the theology fell by the wayside once I picked up the book again, cut out a whole family, added two chapters, released it into the hands of my editors and completed the edits once they had finished their job. You don’t need to change course or take up something new, but at least begin some other writing and let it rest.
Here are some of my previous articles which you mind find helpful for editing your work:
Some interesting articles on leaving a gap between finishing your book and editing your work:
http://www.scriptmag.com/features/rewriting-is-writing (this advice is for screenwriting but it applies equally to novels.)
A very HAPPY NEW YEAR to all of you and every blessing for 2013.
I thought I would kick off the year with a look back at what I have learned through the process of writing, editing, publishing and marketing my book. Thank you to those of you who have downloaded or ordered a copy. I look forward to reading many of your books this year as I am planning to spend more time reading…hurrah! (and writing short stories).
Here is what I have learned through the process of a book release:
Don’t Sweat The Small Things – Yes, this is a cliché and a badly structured phrase but it is true. Don’t worry about the small things – whether or not everybody will like your book (they won’t, no one book inspires all readers), whether it will become a best seller (the chances are slim, it is more important that you gain readers who want to read more of your work), or whether you will be given good reviews (again, not everyone will engage with your voice/style). You can only write to the best of your ability and keep learning the craft of writing.
Stick to a Daily Writing/Work Schedule At All Costs – Your writing may be a passion but it is probably also your job, so you need to treat it as one and stay at your desk, or wherever you are comfortable writing, for a set period of time each day. It may be in your free time if you are studying, after work or early in the morning if you have a full-time job, small children, or other commitments, or all morning or all day if you have the luxury of time on your side. I have sat down at 8.30/9 a.m almost every weekday morning since I began writing in 2007 and I treat my writing with the same commitment that I did teaching a class of 35 children. They are entirely different experiences but it is easy to let writing slip when you have no pay cheque, schedule or boss on your heels. Take your writing time seriously.
Remember That Your Friends And Family Will Still Be There When you Resurface – Writing can be an isolating pursuit, and even more so for those of your who are extroverts. In the final stages of preparing your work it can be difficult to keep up with birthday cards (I just about managed to remember them all, and Christmas!), the phone calls you didn’t quite make, the social life that might have dwindled. Those who care about you will still be there when your head resurfaces and you exhale, ‘I did it!’ It is all right to hide away when the rubber hits the road and you need to stay up late to keep editing and keep working, when you say, ‘no’ to invites and events. You need to prioritise your writing in order to get it finished. A half written book is an unread book. It is really hard work and requires all of the dedication you can muster. Getting through the first draft alone can sap your creative juices but there is so much more required when it comes to editing your work.
Don’t Spread Your Time Across Too Many Platforms – Faced with the plethora of internet options it is easy to feel overwhelmed by them all. You can use a blog, email, twitter, facebook, google +, linkedin, tumblr, stumbleupon, pinterest. Help!! And there are more. The best advice I can give, having tried many of these, is to find the ones which suit your personality and the ones which generate the most engagement and then focus on these. I would recommend two or three.
Value Your Blog Readers – Your blog readers deserve to be appreciated and valued. They have agreed to let you into their email inbox each time you create a post. This can be invasive and many people are face with far too many emails already. Don’t abuse their trust by posting half-heartedly or by over posting. Most bloggers post between 1-5 times per week, some post each day, but more that that can be a source of irritation. I try to post once or twice a week. Take the time to research, think and plan what you write so that it is valuable. If people have taken the time to comment then be courteous and respond. A lack of response shows a lack of interest and the internet can be very impersonal if people don’t engage.
Engage With Other Writers – I have found twitter and blogs to be a good place to get to know others. It can be a great encouragement when someone asks how you are getting on, promotes your work, or answers questions. It is an unusual profession and it is difficult to talk to non-writers about what you are doing and why. Writers, as I also found with teachers, are like-minded in many ways, they are deep thinkers and are generally inspiring and intelligent people. Engage, encourage and interact with them.
Write Guest Blog Posts – Long before your book is due to be released it can really help to increase your visibility if you offer to post on blogs which you read and enjoy. Ask a few bloggers politely and professionally if they would be happy to let you write a guest post. Choose a run of days, I chose three, and think about what might be an appropriate post for each individual blog. Elizabeth Craig from Mystery Writing is Murder asked me to post on ‘A Sense of Place’ as she knew that I loved travel. Coincidentally, I wrote my Geography dissertation on this subject some years ago. Chose your topic carefully and you will find that you meet people who comment on your posts and are interested in what you have to say. I will add here that I am really happy to accept guest posts.
Be Kind To Yourself – After a few years of writing solidly on one project you need to come up for air, breathe, take stock and relax before you begin again. I plan to write many more novels but I want to focus, as you know, on short story writing and on reading more of a range of fiction and other short stories. A novel is a wonderful thing but it is hard work and can be exhausting if your time is already squeezed. Enjoy the reviews and the feedback, you have worked hard.
Let me know about your experiences with book releases and what you have learned from them. I look forward to hearing from you.
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?