Tag Archives: Character

The Day Job…

The day job…

A wise writer once said to me that it’s not so much the pram in the hall that’s the impediment to a writing career, but the bills on the door-mat. Money worries are the bane of creativity. And unless independently wealthy, the emerging writer will have to make a living while waiting for that book/film deal (and probably for a while after that fact too). Writers need to work; the question is what kind of jobs are out there?

Many will consider other (more lucrative) forms of writing to bring home the bucks. Journalism is an obvious  choice and is still, probably, the most common second career for many creative writers. Moreover, a journalistic background provides marvelous training re editing and brevity of approach. Copy-writing, particularly website copy, is also a popular income booster for writer but both copy-writing and journalism are less satisfying forms of writing for the creative writer and spending all day writing on the day job can make it difficult to come home and do the same at night.

Teaching English and/or creative writing is another common earner for writers. My TEFL training and experience has given me a sound grip of grammar and the intricacies of the English language – all of which is of great practical use to a writer. A TEFL teacher also (usually) travels and such experiences can feed into your work. Teaching creative writing allows you to deconstruct the tools of creative writing, which may benefit your own writing. However, you usually need a track record of publication before you begin to look for work in this area.

It is not uncommon for writers to work a mundane job such as on a factory line or as a manual laborer. Such tasks sit quite well with a writing career as they give the writer time to think, to let ideas bubble and boil ready to write down after the shift has finished. Also, with a job so utterly removed from writing, you will be fresh and eager to sit at your laptop of an evening. The downside of any brain numbing, repetitive work is that it has no status. This fact should not be important but it is because writers are human, so for a writer to stay in a lowly job, s/he needs determination, focus and confidence in their reason for doing this type of work.

Writers, of course, come from all walks of life and all career backgrounds. For those of you who may be considering giving up your job to write full time, you need to remember that you’ll (most likely) still need to make a living. Maybe the job you have is not glamorous or interesting, but these are often the best complementary jobs for writing. So, if you really want to be a writer, the greatest sacrifice you make may be NOT giving up the day job –  but staying with it.


What’s the story, Rory?

I’ll tell you a story about Johnny McGory.

Will I begin it?

That’s all that’s in it.

Irish nursery rhyme.

What’s the story?

Story trumps all. The toppermost bough of the literary elite tree may disagree and say literature is about language, the perfect sentence, la mot juste. However, for most writers in today’s economic climate – if you don’t have a sound story, you don’t have a publishing deal. Having a well-constructed plot and a good story means you’ll be forgiven all sorts of other failings (blingy adverbs, oddball syntax, clichéd characters). It’s simply today’s reality.

Firstly, in order to have a story, you have to have some sort of conflict. These conflicts usually fall into one or more of the following categories:

man vs. nature

man vs. man

man vs. the environment

man vs. machines/technology

man vs. the supernatural

man vs. self

man vs. god/religion

Examples of good conflict ridden plots can be found everywhere, in the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, ethnic folk tales and even jokes.

Structure

A typical story structure might be plotted thus:

Stasis – the status quo. The reader is introduced to the character and setting.

Disturbance. Something occurs which upsets the normal run of things. For example, a stranger arrives in town.

The main character is affected by the disturbance.

The main character decides on a plan of action to rectify or improve matters.

Obstacles stand in the way of the plan of action succeeding.

Complications occur in the guise of choices/new characters/new ideas/discovery.

These lead to a crisis, when the focus of a play comes together in an unavoidable way.

The crisis usually leads to a climax or the major confrontation.

Finally comes the denouement or resolution which results in a new stasis.

The above will often feature a character development arc whereby the protagonist is changed in a fundamental way by the events.

 

A good exercise in plotting is to take a book or a film you’ve really enjoyed and try to break it down into a series of plot-steps, like the ones I’ve outlined above. Now, change the setting, the gender of the protagonist, the era, the goal and the type of obstacles that stand in the way. Yet, stay true to the plot template. When you’ve finished you’ll find you have a completely new story. Don’t feel as though you’ve stolen another’s plot. In truth, there are no new plots, each is a retelling of an older version. You’ve simply adapted and updated a classic plot line and in the process have created a unique story.

That’s all that’s in it.

 


Character reference

What’s their favourite pizza?

If you want to hook your readers, you’ll need a character that leaps off the page. A good character is believable and interesting. Firstly, be careful your character is not of music-hall-cliche stock (dumb blonde, greedy banker, uber-organized German, upper class twit etc…) – the problem here is that the reader will have met your character far too many times before to find them interesting now. As usual, turning the cliche on its head can be a good place to start getting ideas (chess-master page three girl, a banker who secretly gives away money etc…)

Also, don’t focus on describing what they look like from head to toe. In fact, their general physical appearance is not so revealing – the key is often in the interesting quirks and blemishes. Moreover, you ought to climb inside your character’s skin, get to know them intimately and let the reader see how they tick. It  is  good if there is something unusual about them. Here’s a sample list of questions you could mull in order to give your character depth:

Rather than describe the colour of their hair and eyes, write instead about their height, posture and walk.

If you first met this character, what would strike you most?

What is their natural scent or preferred perfume or aftershave.

What sort of diet do they have and what has been the physical impact of this regime?

What does their best friend think of them?

What happens when your character gets drunk?

What does your character have in his/her pockets/handbag?

What is your character’s favourite joke?

Also, to make your character particularly memorable, give him/her/it a singular physical attribute your reader will long associate with them. Think of it this way, if you were going to a costume party dressed as Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Havisham or Liesbeth Salander – what would you need? My guesses are, respectively: a lightening bolt scar, a deerhunter hat and pipe, an old wedding dress, and a dragon tattoo. Try to imagine what you’d need to be recognizable as your character.


Truth Will Set You Free

A Truthful Shop, Brighton.

Truth is not fact.  A fact is, well, a fact – something undeniable like ‘the sun rises in the east’. Truth is far less easy to quantify, to prove, to grasp. Truth is more subjective than fact, and depends on the belief system of the beholder.Truth is the reality you feel it to be and the artist’s job is to capture and communicate that truth.

Writing from truth, what you feel passionate about, can lend work real emotion, emotion difficult to conjure otherwise. Tears in a writer will bring tears to a reader. And as an artist, it is often your job to stand naked in front of the world, truth in hand. Truth is writing what you believe.

Writing from fact is reportage, when you write using ‘truth’ you add extra spice and colour to the mixture to make it fiction, more interesting, and more moving.

And remember, an issue with writing from reality is that ironically, fact is often too weird and too unbelievable to work as fiction. Your readers will say, ‘oh, come on, that would never happen.’ And you can’t phone them all up and say, ‘actually, it did. I’m not making it up. I once knew this bloke…’ Instead, you’ve often got to tone down the story to make it more credible. Real-life coincidences can be particularly problematic here.

So, be careful with facts… but always write with truth.


The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Me at breakfast, Ireland, September 2012. Am I good or bad?

 

Probably the most common question a writer gets asked is ‘Where do you get your story ideas from?’ Well, from everywhere. From newspapers, from life, from events that upset, move you or fill you with passion, or anger. You can get a lot of good material from bad situations.

As a writer you have a built in advantage over non-writers in that you can put bad events in life to good use. A broken heart can (with some distance from the event) give plot and substance to a short story – as they say, no tears in the writer, no tears in the story. Ditto a betrayal or some such extreme circumstance.

These difficult personal experiences, often awful, also lend opportunity to observe human behaviour in its rawest form – a crucial study for any writer. Take note re who behaves in an altruistic manner (and does that even exist) in the circumstance? Who looks for the easy option? What type of person sticks their head in the sand and hides behind others? Who makes a stand despite risks of personal loss? The answers are often surprising. The meekest are often the bravest, the erstwhile idealistic often less so when faced with a truth that is inconvenient to their own life and circumstance. Bad situations make for rich people study material.

Alternatively, another story prompter is to use the ‘what if’ question. The ‘what if’ question prompts you to consider alternative endings to a real situation. A good example of this question is Stephen Fry’s Making History, in which he explores a world where Hitler was killed in WWI but an even more dastardly figure comes to prominence, and wins. Apply the ‘what if’ scenario to your personal difficulty and see where it takes you storywise…


He Said, She Said

What she did…

 

The third person (he/she/it) is the most common narrative point-of-view. The third person observes the main character(s) from a distance, describing how others might see/consider your protagonist. In other words, it gives the narrator greater scope and view privileges than the first person narrator.

If you are writing an extended piece of fiction, you might find it easier and more accommodating to work with a third person narrator. The following are some varieties of this narrative point-of-view

* Nowadays, it is common to have a third person narrator that observes your main character whilst simultaneously looking over his/her shoulder and seeing the story almost from his/her point of view. This ‘over-the-shoulder’ third person narrator can provide some of the advantages of the first person without the drawbacks – however, it is somewhat limited as you are largely viewing events from your character’s POV. For emerging writers, this third person narrative may be a safer bet if wanting to attract an agent.

* You may want your narrator to be quite separate from your character, however. In which case, you could have your narrator follow him/her from a distance, observing actions as if a camera and not directly informing the reader of the character’s inner thoughts.

* Or you could have an omniscient third person narrator – a ‘God-like’ storyteller who sees all and knows all.

The “It” narrative

This is an unusual form of third person narration that tells a tale from the point of view of an object or an animal. An “it” narrative might conceivably be the story of a ring, told by the ring, as it recounts its many owners etc…

Multi narrators

Some books/plays/films are narratives told from various POVs. More common in Victorian prose than in contemporary writing, multi narrators allow for a vigorous description of a community and is useful if the author wants to concentrate on the interconnectivity of a place.

Whichever variety you choose, it is important to be style consistent throughout your work (or if you aren’t, have a reason for that).


Quite a Character

Name her. Now answer the questions below about her.

If you want to hook your readers, you’ll need a character that leaps off the page. A good character is believable and interesting. Firstly, be careful your character is not of music-hall-cliche stock (dumb blonde, greedy banker, uber-organized German, upper class twit etc…) – the problem here is that the reader will have met your character far too many times before to find them interesting now. As usual, turning the cliche on its head can be a good place to start getting ideas (chess-master page three girl, a banker who secretly gives away money etc…)

Also, don’t focus on describing what they look like from head to toe. In fact, their general physical appearance is not so revealing – the key is often in the interesting quirks and blemishes. Moreover, you ought to climb inside your character’s skin, get to know them intimately and let the reader see how they tick. It  is  good if there is something unusual about them. Here’s a sample list of questions you could mull in order to give your character depth:

Rather than describe the colour of their hair and eyes, write instead about their height.

What about their gait, posture and walk? Does he flutter, jerk, flap or glide?

If you first met this character, what would strike you most?

Does s/he resemble an animal?

What is their natural scent?

What sort of diet do they have and what has been the physical impact of this regime?

What does their best friend think of them?

What happens when your character gets drunk?

What does your character have in his/her pockets/handbag/beside table?

What is your character’s favourite joke?

Also, to make your character particularly memorable, give him/her/it a singular physical attribute your reader will long associate with them. Think of it this way, if you were going to a costume party dressed as Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Havisham or Liesbeth Salander – what would you need? My guesses are, respectively: a lightening bolt scar, a deerhunter hat and pipe, an old wedding dress, and a dragon tattoo. Try to imagine what you’d need to be recognizable as your character.


Naked truth

Self portrai in oil pastel, self-portrait in mirror.

 

Writing from truth, using a real event, can lend work real emotion, emotion difficult to conjure otherwise. Tears in a writer will bring tears to a reader, so they say. And as an artist, it is often your job to stand naked in front of the world.

 

Writing from fact does have its downside, however. Firstly, a straight account is reportage, not fiction so you must add extra spice and colour to the mixture to make it fiction, and interesting.

 

It is important to get to the naked crux of what your story is ‘saying’ and make sure your narrative never loses sight of this point and – so, even if when you were all driving to the hospital, Brad told a joke so funny you’ve just got to mention it. No, don’t mention it. Stick to the point of the story – the story is the hospital, remember, not Brad’s unrelated joke.

 

You may also have to leave out years of backstory if it does not serve to drive your own story on in any way. You may have been brought up by the funniest, most eccentric, most loving or most dysfunctional family in the world, but if they have no role in the story at hand, don’t mention them.

 

Another issue with writing from real memory is that ironically, fact is often too weird and too unbelievable to work as fiction. Your readers will say, ‘oh, come on, that would never happen.’ And you can’t phone them all up and say, ‘actually, it did. I’m not making it up. I once knew this bloke…’ Instead, you’ve often got to tone down the story to make it more credible. Real-life coincidences can be particularly problematic here.

 

And remember if you stick too close to the truth, you may be setting yourself up for some legal headaches, especially if you are presenting another person in an unflattering light. It’s best to change names and/or genders, and settings. Once you make those factual changes, most people will fail to recognize themselves in fiction, simply because we don’t see ourselves as we are seen by others….


The Lenin of the Sexual Revolution

An article I submitted this month to Live Encounters, on Maurice Girodias, the “Lenin of the sexual revolution” –  a Paris based publisher who dared to first publish many of the mid-late 20th century classics.

http://liveencounters.net/?p=454


The Show Me State

 

Don't tell me, show me!

 

 

Telling: “Close the door,” she said nervously.

Showing: Her cigarette trembled in her hand: “Close the door.”

Telling: Peter was a fussy, neat sort of man.

Showing: Every Monday, Peter ironed and folded his towels into perfect squares and stacked them in the airing press, according to size and colour.

“Showing” your reader what your protagonist is thinking/doing, encourages your reader to engage more with your book/story/play, to interpret and  picture what is going on. Showing also allows for more atmosphere and lends insight into character. Conversely, “telling” tends to deliver all the information neatly wrapped and can deny the reader all the fun of involvement and imagining.

Therefore, rather than telling the reader, ‘Bob was depressed,’ you might describe what Bob was doing and saying and the reader will also get a greater sense of ‘Bob’ if you do so.

Having said that, if the writer “shows” every inch of their novel it may bore the reader and slow the pace. There are times, for the sake of speed and economy, the writer needs to “tell”, so they can quickly move on to the next stage of the story.

If I could suggest a rule of thumb, it would be “show” the most important parts/events of the story and “tell” the minor linking passages. It’s your judgement call as to when and where to show or tell, but do give it thought.

Finally, please bear in mind the general consensus is that you always avoid telling via adverbs in speech attribution: “he said arrogantly”, “she shouted defiantly”, “we mumbled apologetically”. Instead, try to think of ways you could show this arrogance, defiance or apology.