Saturday, 18 July 2009

Characterisation in Fiction Writing

The importance of characterisation in fiction can’t be over-stated.

In many cases characters are the story, even when the character is a death-dealing, demonic motor car called ‘Christine’. Where would ‘Treasure Island’ be without Long John Silver? It seems impossible to imagine any other character for that story, no one else could pursue the treasure with such ruthless determination as Long John.

Good characterisation is important for all of the ‘hats’ in your story, Good or bad they must have a believable reason to do what your story asks of them. They must have the will to see it through. A good-hat should be given a few shortcomings. An important turn of plot can hinge on your hero’s secret fear of elevators for instance. Your protagonist has gotten herself into a situation, with an elevator being the only physical way she can keep up the chase. She must use the elevator, despite her fear, and so the plot can turn.

That’s a simplified example, which I hope hints at the importance of knowing your characters fully.

I hear you say, ‘Of course I know my characters. I invented them.’

Well yes you did, but have you invented enough to body them out? For instance do you know the reason why your villain is as evil as he is?

‘Come on,’ you say, ‘he’s a bad guy. He’s bound to be evil.’

For your story he might need to be evil, but he will be much more convincing if he has a genuine reason for his evil ways. You need to justify the things he must do to make your plot go round, because villains are as important to plot as are heroes.

So how do you go about inventing reasons for who and what your character are?
There are probably as many ways as there are writers, but I have a way that works for me, and I’ll share it with you:

What do I do? I ‘interview’ my characters and what follows is an ‘Interview’ I did with the leading character of a novel I was working on; a novel based on the exploits of the SOE during WWll. Harry Craven is the main character, but he is a bit of an ‘anti-hero’. So, it’s especially important to make him real; convincing, so he ‘comes off the page’. To stand a chance of accomplishing that, I needed to ‘know’ him. So here then is my ‘Interview with ex Able-Seaman Harry Craven.


‘So Mr. Writer-man, you want to know what makes me tick.’
‘That’s the general idea Mr. Craven.’
He winked at me and tapped his nose. ‘Lots’a folk would like to know that.’
‘But I’m not just lots of folk Mr. Craven. I’m different, because I made you up.’
He pulled a wry face and nodded slowly. ‘That’s true, and I s’pose if I want a decent existence and maybe a bit of a good time from you, I better tell you a few things about m’self? Yes?’ He grinned again a bit wickedly. ‘Especially the good times.’
‘Well, I wasn’t thinking along those lines at the moment.’
‘But I was.’ He chuckled again. ‘And you have the advantage on me lad. You’re a bit of a mind reader where I am concerned and there’s stuff you know already.’
‘Yes that’s right. But I need more from you.’
‘Will I get the good times?’
I grinned. ‘I should think so, but I won’t bribe you.’
He laughed aloud at that. ‘I didn’t think you would. But… you could try.’
‘You’ll have to wait and see Mr. Craven. Right now there are things I need to know about you.’
‘How I got to be who I am; the way I am.’
‘That sort of thing Mr. Craven, yes please.’
He opened his eyes wide in pleased surprise. ‘So, not all you youngsters are pig-ignorant when it comes to manners.’
‘Wasn’t bought up like that Mr. Craven.’
‘Me neither.’ He shifted in his chair, and lit a well-used Meerschaum pipe. His eyes twinkled as a slow smile formed. ‘Anyway, you didn’t come ‘ere to talk about manners.’ He shook out the match; settled back. ‘You know if you really want to get to know me, you should play me at chess.’ He stabbed towards me with the pipe-stem. ‘You play the game?’
I shook my head. ‘Just know some of the basic rules Mr. Craven, but as you bought it up, you could probably wipe the floor with me.’ I smiled.
‘You and a good few others, I can tell you.’ He checked his pipe again. ‘Not that I’m boasting you know, but I do play a fair game of chess. Won quite a few amateur tournaments before I left school as it happens.’ He smiled. ‘So yes. I could wipe the floor with you..’
I grinned and noted his willingness to acknowledge his strengths and his unashamed way of telling me; and others no doubt. I looked at him. ‘Interesting Mr. Craven, but that’s only a facet of who you are.’
He nodded slightly. ‘Aye, just a facet. But it could be important to you, if you want to write about me. ‘
I nodded and scribbled a bit more down.
‘Not so dim yourself are you.’ He sucked on the pipe. ‘And I reckon you know when you’re beaten.’
‘I can be persistent Mr. Craven.’
‘Like now? Trying to get me to talk?’
‘Something like that.’
‘And patient?’
‘To a point. Yes.’
‘You really should take up chess son.’
‘Err can we get on Mr. Craven?’
‘Patience laddie.’ He grinned then said, ‘You’ll need patience with me. Chess would teach you that.’
I nodded. ‘Fair enough.’ I waited for him
‘He grinned. ‘I can see you’re not like most others I met.’
This was better. He was coming out a bit. ‘How do you mean Mr. Craven?’
He got the tobacco burning a bit more. The smell wasn’t too bad. Reminded me of old oak-panelling and quiet Sundays with my own Father.
‘Well I reckon you can tell I ain’t one for bullshit routines and I don’t think you are either.’
‘Wouldn’t get either of us anywhere at the moment would it?’
‘True enough.’ He nodded. ‘And no need for the Mr. Craven. I think you already got some ideas about me. Enough to know I ain’t the formal type.’
‘I had an idea er... Harry.’
‘That’s better lad.’ He said.
‘So what does make you tick Harry?’
He got himself right in the chair again. ‘I s’pose I really started getting myself together when I was about eight or nine.’ He smiled slightly, obviously reminiscing. ‘I was always a titch you see. Just one of them things; one of the cards you gets dealt.’ He shrugged. ‘I never got to be tall enough to join the Police even, let alone the Guards.’
‘You wanted to do either Harry?’
He shook his head. ‘Not really. Just pointing out I was always a short-arse, and it had its problems.’
I nodded. I knew how he felt. I once suffered the opposite problem being long and gangly as a kid. Now, I have had to learn to put up with the occasional unkind remark about my weight. Life eh?
‘I handled it well enough.’ Harry went on. ‘Didn’t mind the piss-taking too much and let the twits get on with it if it made them happy.’ He shrugged. ‘And it kept them from leaning too hard on me.’ He smiled brightly again. ‘I soon found out the best way to deal was to act the goat.’ He chuckled softly. ‘Craven the Clown’, they called me.’ He winked again. ‘Little men is often funny men, and well-liked, or maybe tolerated for it. You notice that?’
‘You mean like Arthur Askey was funny?’
He nodded ‘Yes, that’s it son. Although I always preferred Tommy Trinder. He was a bit taller, but sharp.’ He pulled a face. ‘I allus felt Askey relied on clowning a bit more than his wit.’
‘Most comics are sharp Harry.’ I said.
‘Aye I s’pose they need to be.’
I felt relieved. Harry’s sense of humour sounded okay too. he also seemed to
So Harry respected another’s point of view then. I jotted that down and said, ‘Maybe comics like taking a chance when they go on stage?’
‘You believe in chance then?’
‘Do you Harry?’
‘Me? Nah… ‘He paused, as if reconsidering, then said. ‘Well it ain’t so much as I don’t believe in chance, but I don’t wait around for it. ‘His grin widened. ‘I ain’t a pessimist, but nor am I as optimistic as old Mr. Micawber.’ He shook his head. ‘I never believed in waiting for something to turn up; for chance to come me way see.’ He winked. ‘But I do recognise a chance when one comes along, and I know when it’s wise to take or leave it.’
I was beginning to respect this old guy. He would have been a bit of a handful as a youngster. ‘Where did you go to school Harry?’
He made the tobacco glow. ‘I was just a Grammar School boy.’
‘Just?’ I said. ‘That’s more than I managed.’
‘Is it now?’ he chuckled. ‘Many are called… and all that eh?’
I nodded ruefully.
‘Well, it weren’t what it was cracked up to be.’ He fiddled with his matches. ‘I still had to play the Clown, even to them what was supposed to be clever kids.’ He chuckled softly. ‘You know the sort of thing; miming some of the crankier teachers, and the odd practical joke. Take the piss out of the Head boy, and his fancy for the Matron.’
I noted that Harry was probably a good mimic. I smiled back. So you kept things stored as ammunition Harry.’
‘Ahhh well, I kept my powder dry, didden’ I? That’s a wise thing to do, when you don’t know what’s likely to happen.’ He went on. ‘Fact is, anything that would help I stowed away for later.’ He drew on the pipe again. ‘And I always had the idea I was a bit smarter than most of them. Not boasting, like I said before. Just something I knew. They made me laugh too, but they didn’t realise it. I had to do it behind their backs like?’
I agreed. I knew what he meant. I was warming to Harry more and more.
‘They can take the Mickey all they like now. Rolls off me like water from a slate roof son.’ He leant back again and looked at the ceiling a moment. ‘I never really understood why I didn’t grasp the nettle and go to University though.’ He chewed his lip. ‘I mean, my old man wanted me to, but I wasn’t sure I could face up to it, run the course like?’
‘Your Father got upset?’
‘No son. Not really. I was lucky. He was the kind of man who recognised we have to do what we have to do.’ He grinned. ‘How about your Dad?’
‘Well it isn’t important really Harry, but yes; he was a bit like that.’
‘What’d he think about you wanting to write?’
I shrugged. ‘He was happy with it. Just wished me luck, but I didn’t make the leap then and never gave up the day-job.’
‘And now you want to make the leap and you want me to help. Right?’
‘That’s the idea of this interview Harry, and I don’t have a day job any more anyway.’ I smiled as I made a few notes and went on. ‘Now, what did you do when you left school Harry?’
‘Well I didn’t fancy diggin’ holes in the road that’s for sure. So I got me a nice apprenticeship with The General Electric Company. On the Engineering side. Making generators and the other big stuff.’
‘Sounds interesting Harry.’ I made the note in my book.
‘You bet your life it was son. But then along came the bloody war, and I got stuck in the Royal Navy for a spell.’
‘I had the idea you volunteered Harry.’
‘See you already know some stuff about me.’
‘Some yes. But what made you answer the call?’
‘Same as all the other fools lad. Stupid ideas of fighting a just war for a just cause, and all that rubbish. ‘He sucked his teeth then and clicked his tongue. ‘Seems we wasted a lot of time and a lot of good men eh?’
I had to agree. ‘You saw action though Harry?’
‘Oh yes I saw action all right.’ He said. ‘I was a gunner on a ‘Bird’ Class Frigate.’
‘Like the Starling?’
‘Yes them’s the ones.’ He paused. ‘You seem to know about the Navy son.’
‘I should do Harry’ I explained about my own service. ‘But I didn’t see much action. Just that skirmish at Port Said in 1956.’
‘I can sense that was enough though son.’
I nodded. Perceptive old bugger too.
‘Got a medal did you?’
‘General Service Medal. Just for being there.’
‘Same as me.’
‘What about your three Mentions in Despatches?’ I said.
‘Oh.’ He said. ‘You know about them?’
‘ I do know some stuff about you. We already agreed. Remember Harry?’
‘Yes we did.’ His pipe had given up and he laid it aside. ‘Well the truth about them is a bit of a let down. I never did nothing brave. Just me job. Stuck to me guns, as y’might say.’
‘But you had to be recommended for MIDs Harry.’
‘That weren’t no difficulty son. My Gunnery officer was a mad keen chess player. He reckoned I gave him the best games he ever had.’ Harry winked. ‘I even let him win now and then.’ He laughed.
I laughed with him. ‘I get you Harry. Chance came along, you took it.’
‘That’s about the size of it son. Although I never thought I’d ever get MIDs for playing me favourite game now did I?’
‘See.’ I said. ‘Chance again.’
‘Yes. It came along I took it. As for the medals, well like I once told a chap on a train. Medals are ok, but they can weigh you down a bit when you have to abandon ship.’
I think I got his meaning. ‘You’d sooner have the life-jacket.’
‘You bet. And the only thing you need to have shining on them is the little red light.’ He paused. ‘I found that out sure enough when we were torpedoed in the Straits of Gibraltar. I was the lucky one. I lost all me mates. The whole bleeding shipful.’
I fancied I could see something glistening in his eyes, as he stared into the flames of his modern gas fire. ‘Then he looked up. ‘That made me think again about ideals and all the bullshit about King and country. When that tin-fish struck son, I thought the gates of Hell had opened up.’ He shook his head slowly. ‘I never told this to anybody before. But if it hadn’t been for that, I would’ve probably gone down on some other bloody ship, or carried on having a pretty ordinary war.’
‘If there’s any such thing eh Harry.’
He nodded slowly ‘You have something there son.’
‘So your war wasn’t ordinary then Harry?’
He smiled that faraway smile again, but it turned weary. ‘But I’ll have to tell you about that another time.’
I nodded, and smiled closing my book. ‘You bet.’ I said, using his vernacular. It was time to leave him with his memories. He was right. I could come and see him any time, for an update. But old salts can be cantankerous at times. He might be a little less co operative next time. Still, I smiled. I had plenty to be going on with. Besides I have an idea what he did and why he did it.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Nothing is Graven in Stone

Writing can be a frustrating business; especially when contemplating a new chapter, or story. With a mind that seems numb, a writer will stare at a fresh sheet of paper, (or maybe these days a blank field in the word processor.) and break into a nervous sweat, wondering just where to start.

From experience, I know that painters have the same problem when starting a new canvas. My cure is simple. I thin out a neutral colour with turps and I wipe this ‘mix’ all over the canvas. The canvas will still be blank, but it will be changed. The painting is started; the first stage of the work is finished. Yet it doesn’t read like a picture yet.

Writers can use a similar technique and seasoned authors often advise the novice to start typing. Get on with it and bang out the first thoughts that come to mind, even if the result is merely nonsense prose. (E.g. Once upon a time there were three brown-nosed foxes, who applied to join the Civil Service.) Hmm! Is there a sniff of truth in that nonsense?

I think you can see what I am getting at. You have a similar result to the artist. The work is started, but it doesn’t read like your story yet. Well that approach is fine, especially if you want to perfect the ‘quick brown fox and the lazy dog’ routine. However, there is a more practical way of defeating your ‘daily-block’. A simple and effective way that I use often.

Just say to yourself. ‘Nothing is graven in stone. I’m going to get on with my story/article/poem. I can return later and edit this.’ In a worst case scenario, you can always use the word processor’s version of tearing out the sheet and crumpling it into the bin. The cut or delete facility.

So don’t cave in under the tyranny of the blank page. You must have some idea which character you are going to be working with or maybe which idea you want to develop. So, crack on with your project. That’s why you sat down with your laptop in the first place isn't it?

I know that what you see on the screen afterwards might look like gibberish, but the chances are there will be a ‘seam’ of gold in there. Something will shine and you'll recognise it as part of your story. You just have to ‘mine’ it. Edit out the ‘spoil’, and extract the precious seam.

Writers can do this, because nothing is graven in stone.
A cliché I know, but an absolute truth.