Posts Tagged characters

Self-editing masterclass snapshots: accents and making a character sound distinct in dialogue

guardThis week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings and characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write. When I posted on Tuesday I forgot there would also be an Undercover Soundtrack to disturb the sequence, so here, slightly later than trailered, is Masterclass Snapshots part 4.

Lee carson

Regional accents to make a character sound distinct

One writer had his characters encounter people with strong local dialects. He asked how he should render their speech.

We discussed why he wanted to do this. He explained that it was to include a flavour of the setting and emphasise that the main characters were in unfamiliar territory. The odd speech was one good way to show this – with caution. Strange spellings or contractions will trip up the reader if overused. We discussed other ways of achieving this effect – perhaps by showing local customs and attitudes, lifestyles and so on. All of this will create a sense of a different culture.

This led to another good discussion – how do you make characters look distinct through their dialogue? Favourite phrases are useful, and that might be a way to show foreignness too. Habitual gestures are also good.

Humour styles are a very interesting way to differentiate people. (Curse words too, but some writers might not explore this very thoroughly.) I often see manuscripts where writers have given all their characters the same sense of humour, which makes them look like clones. In reality, you could take any group of people and they’ll all have their individual ways of expressing humour. Some enjoy wordplay. Some will try to grab attention and be the joker of the group. Some will be understated and enjoy the odd ironic quip. These are all ways to use dialogue to create a three-dimensional, distinct character.

nyn2 2014 sml(There’s more about this in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated, including a discussion of phonetic Glaswegian.)

Thanks for the pic Lee Carson

Tomorrow: editing is more than tweaking the language

Have you had difficulty making your characters sound distinct? How have you tackled this?

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots: bland friend and upsetting antagonist

guardThis week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure and endings. Today it’s two questions about difficulties with characters.


The bland friend

One romance writer had a character who was the supportive friend for the protagonist. She worried that, in all the scenes of tea and sympathy, the friend was bland. I suggested giving her a rough edge that showed the limits of this tolerant soul. I drew inspiration from Dave’s mother, easily the most accommodating person I ever met. But she couldn’t abide spiders, and would not have been bothered if you squashed one while removing it from her presence. Suppose, I said to my romance writer, your nice lady is so mortally afraid of spiders that she always stamps on them?

The antagonist you’re afraid to write

Another lady had an antagonist who made her feel inhibited. She knew he should have more darkness than she had written but she feared to explore it. She also recognised this was cheating the book. What if, I said, she put that worry into another character, let them act out her discomfort? Would that free her to unlock the antagonist? She seemed to feel that would do the trick. I also encouraged her to look for the kernel of good that let him feel positive and justified about himself – and maybe even disturbed him.

nyn2 2014 smlContradictions are a great way to make two-dimensional characters into compelling story-people. I’ve written about it at greater length here. And of course, there’s even more about characters here.

Thanks for the pic, heyjoewhereareyougoingwiththatguninyourhand

Tomorrow: accents in dialogue

I’m really curious about this question of the character who upsets us so much we feel inhibited when we write them. Have you had experience of this? Let’s talk.

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots: endings and epilogues

guardThis week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. Yesterday I ran a post about three/four-act structure. Today it’s a great point about how you tie up the end.


Tying up the ends at The End – should you write an epilogue?

One student in the class had written a major climax scene, then another scene to tie up the subplot ends, then an epilogue so we could see what the characters did next. She asked, how many climax scenes could you have? How long should you go on after that? She also felt she didn’t know when to let go and allow the book to end.

Deciding the order of the end events is tricky. You need a main climax, which obviously is the major plot thread. Other threads can be solved in less prominent positions, and often work well in the post-climax scene, as the dust is settling, as a leave-taking for the whole book.

But then what? Do you need an epilogue to show life going on? At what point do you pull the plug and send the reader away?

This is very much a gut decision, but I’ve seen a lot of writers who can’t leave their characters behind. They embark on epic epilogues which dilute the ending, water down its poignance or sweetness, or delay the final punch for too long.

But I know why we write them. I did it myself with My Memories of a Future Life. I wrote several more chapters after the end, page after page, but I recognised that this was so that I could let go. It was an act of exorcism, just for me. I never intended those chapters to be in the book.

Of course, in your mind and in the reader’s there’s always more to tell. So answer this – what will an epilogue add? And who are you adding it for – the reader or yourself?

Thanks for the pic peddhapati

Tomorrow: two difficult types of characters

Do you have trouble tying up the end of a novel? Have you ever written extra chapters so you could ‘let go’? Have you ever had feedback that suggested you’d paced these ending chapters wrong, either too abruptly or too slowly?

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Writing your scenes out of order – and the real title of The Mountains Novel

writing scenes out of orderI’ve nearly finished the first draft of The Mountains Novel and am breaking what has been one of my holy writing habits.

Usually I write from beginning to end with no gaps. This time, I’m writing the characters’ final scenes and retracing.

I usually can’t do this. I need the continuity from one scene to the next, so that I know what each character feels about their mounting troubles as the screws tighten. Indeed I was writing in this orderly way until I hit the half-way point, when a sudden epiphany left everything spinning. By three-quarters, the end was suddenly indubitable, and I was quite unable to concentrate until I’d written it. So I’m finishing the draft by mining my way backwards. The impulse is discharged, and now I can be logical and fill the holes.

Joss Whedon would agree with the new, impulsive me. I recently read an interview where he explained how he assembles his scripts from a series of ‘cool bits’, then gradually fills in where necessary. He says it helps him because he knows he has material he likes, and that keeps him enthusiastic to stitch it together properly. As most of us go through phases where we despair of our manuscripts, this sounds like a good way to keep positive.

On the other hand, the British scriptwriter Robert Holmes would agree with the old me. (We just bought a biography of him because we are devoted fans of original Doctor Who). Robert Holmes hated to plan or write outlines. One producer asked him to write a presentation with ‘a few key scenes’ and he replied: ‘I can’t write a scene before I get to it. I know some writers hop around like this. They’re probably the same people who turn cherry cake into something resembling Gruyere.’

Certainly when I was ghostwriting I was dogged about writing each scene in order. This was partly a discipline to make sure I didn’t avoid scenes I was finding difficult, or where I found a problem I hadn’t solved. And I still find that many good discoveries have come of forcing myself to find a solution on the hoof. But The Mountains Novel has required more discovery (see here and here about my writing methods). It also has more main characters than my other novels. Perhaps it is an ensemble piece, and so an organic assembly seems to suit.

Another reason this hopscotch back and forth feels right is because I know what my characters need. I wrote far enough in formal order to know how they are changing, what will be triumph for them and what will be tragedy. And in the revisions I’ll do more infilling, understanding and reordering.

ideas book cropAnyway, all this means The Mountains Novel is nearly an orderly draft from start to finish. I’ve been incubating it for years, referring to it by this working title, because I was nervous it wouldn’t mature. Its proper name is Ever Rest. I’m sure you’ll probably shrug and say ‘so what’, or wonder why I made an issue of hiding it. Maybe you’ll tell me you like the old title; some people already have. But this is a landmark for me. I now feel secure to declare it: my next novel is called Ever Rest.

Diversion over – do you write your scenes in order? Has any book you’ve written made you revise your working methods? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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The book versus the film – a tip to help writers fix an incoherent and sprawling plot

The English PatientI’ve had this question from Marco Viviani:

I’m stuck. I outlined a setting, characters and events. But when it comes to put all together, they don’t fit. Every time I try to change something (aspects of the setting, adding or removing characters) things don’t work. I tried killing several darlings (and reviving them),but the plot is still not making sense. I feel like I’m forcing a cat to take a bath. I keep seeing logic holes. I rearrange and new holes appear. I tried a lot of things (including the card game from Nail Your Novel), but I feel there is something I can’t see, which is the piece I’m missing to put in (or take away) to make things work.

Oh my, what a familiar litany. You must have been eavesdropping chez Morris. My desk is currently littered with notes and scribbles about The Mountains Novel.

What stands out for me is this phrase:

‘I feel like there’s something I can’t see, the piece I’m missing to make things work.’

So there are two things you are looking for: coherence and clarity.

(And what’s that got to do with the title of this post? We’ll come to that. But first, let’s tackle coherence.)

sidebarcrop1 Coherence

Every time you try to streamline, your inner editor-fairy is telling you that’s not the way. Sometimes we’re like detectives following a hunch, and the only way is a 7% solution or strangle a violin. Just what is the connection that makes sense of all this sprawl?

Here’s what I do – and it’s not very different from what you’ve described. I muddle about with possibilities, subtract things, double them, make lists of pros and cons of a new idea, viewpoint or angle, let the idea settle and come back to it anew.

It particularly helps to return to your themes. Jot them down and consider how your plot events and character issues align with them. Perhaps your themes have changed and this is why the novel is looking too sprawling. Has it suddenly become a novel about ‘everything’?

Sometimes you get more coherence by diving into the first draft regardless. If you have a scene order that makes rough sense but isn’t perfect, start writing anyway. See what happens once you live as the characters and let them inhabit the book. You might find their experience fills those gaps and confirms your hunch on a level you couldn’t get by analysis. Or you might see modifications you can make – rewrite cards, shuffle them if necessary, adjust your map as you go.

With The Mountains Novel, I have two big ideas I’m putting together that don’t appear to naturally fit. That’s one reason I’m not going to tell you what they are in this post – but in my gut I always knew they belonged together. And the further in I write, the more resonance I see.

Which brings me to my more practical tip.

2 Clarity

I’m currently rereading The English Patient. I love both novel and movie – but they are very different, even though they are made from the same characters, setting and story events. Reading the novel and noticing the differences is suggesting new ways I could use my own ideas – and they’re all the kind of changes we might make when refining a plot -

  • characters in the novel have been spliced together to suit the leaner lines of a film
  • scenes that happened in the back story of peripheral characters have been reworked as bonding moments for the main players
  • the scenes featuring the English patient’s romance are very different and very much condensed, yet true to the spirit of the original novel
  • the novel’s climax is not the same as the movie’s, where far more emphasis is on the English patient’s romance
  • the novel’s events are more fragmented, less chronological

So find a novel that has been extensively reworked to make it into a movie, and notice how the demands of each medium – and audience – has reimagined common material.



Marco, you’re doing all the right things. You may feel lost, but sometimes this takes a long time (see this post about how I write and here’s the pics version) It’s often frustrating, and you might feel that all you achieve is a big list of duff stuff. But you might not realise how far you’ve come. Sometimes I look through old notes and smirk at the ideas I was trying to shoehorn in but am now wiser about. (My favourite bookseller, Peter Snell of Barton’s in Leatherhead, points out that I have been mentioning The Mountains Novel in enigmatic hints ever since I first walked into his shop in Christmas 2012 and I’m not nearly done with it yet.) But time and persistence will show you what belongs and what doesn’t.

What would you tell Marco? How have you found clarity in a muddled plot? And can you suggest any movie adaptations that depart interestingly from the original novel?

acxheadedtoretail NEWSFLASH Sandy Spangler and I have finished the files for the audiobook of My Memories of a Future Life (here are the posts about our adventures) and I just noticed today on the ACX dashboard that it’s passed the technical vetting. If you’re signed up to my newsletter I’ll be sending an email as soon as it’s out – and I’ll have a limited number of review copies to offer. If you want the chance to get a free copy of the audiobook, sign up here!

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‘Music prepares me to face a blank page’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Carol Cooper

for logoI’ve long suspected that the music writers work to is not necessarily their favourite listening. My guest this week supports this theory. She says music is her creative Viagra, but that her choices sometimes surprise her – thus confirming for me that Undercover Soundtracks belong to a separate department in the mind. She describes her work as raunchy romance with a heartrending medical strand – she is also a doctor and the author of several health books, as well as a journalist for The Sun newspaper. Her musical colleagues include The Beatles, the BBC proms and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Carol Cooper is on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

Blogging break: I’m taking a short break from my dashboard this week – to work on a few projects and get the files finalised for my upcoming audio book of My Memories of a Future Life. The next post here will be an Undercover Soundtrack, but after that it will be writing and publishing as usual! In the meantime, here’s Carol’s post

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‘A trickle of notes can flood your thoughts with broken things’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Warren FitzGerald

for logoMy guest this week has studied music more closely than some. His previous artistic incarnation was a rock singer – both with a band of his own and performing as a session vocalist to vast venues. (If you’re very good, we’ll include a video of him so you can see for yourself.) Now he has settled into an artform of lower decibel, but he hasn’t left music behind. His latest novel, Tying Down The Sun, is the story of a kidnap in the Sierra Nevada and he used music to help him verbalise the landscape and to mark the plight of his captive characters as their ordeal wears on. He is Warren Fitzgerald and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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3 tips for writing watertight fantasy, science fiction and time travel stories

The Hills Are AliveYou could argue that fantasy and science fiction are the genres where we can be most imaginative and inventive. But this very freedom brings responsibility. I see a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors who confuse the reader because they don’t cover a few very important bases. And I’ve had to address a few of these issues myself in my sci-fi fable Lifeform Three.

1 The logic of the world must be established – and stuck to

You need to establish, early on, what can be done and what can’t. If you have robots, for instance, what can and can’t they do? Are they benevolent? Of course, you don’t have to explain this if your story is a mystery, where the characters have to puzzle out the logic of the world, but otherwise you need to cover those bases as part of the setting description.

This particularly applies with stories of time travel and doppelgangers. One of the reasons readers enjoy them is that they must be cleverly plotted. To do this, you have to set limits and rules, and play within them. If, late in the story, you suddenly make up a new thing that the heroes can do, that annoys the reader. The very thing they wanted was to see how you would use your particular time travel physics in an ingenious way.

Staying with time travel, you must be time-travel savvy. Certain issues are always tackled – meeting yourself, duplicating yourself, leaving messages for yourself, saving your parents, changing history, fixing the lottery and so on. Do what you like with them, but readers need to see you’ve thought through these paradoxes.

You might not reveal all your world rules to the reader, but you still need to know them.

2 Consider the consequences of magic powers or devices

I see a lot of novels where characters have magic powers or gizmos that look far too potent. I was editing a manuscript where a character gets out of a scrape with a device that allows him to melt stone. But it never appeared again – which seems unlikely as it was so useful. Furthermore, the reader expects to see such things used more than once.

Also, the writer hadn’t thought about other consequences if such a device existed. Certainly, it wouldn’t be possible to keep someone a prisoner. Not only that, there would be other consequences in the society. Just to take one example, how would people make their homes secure? The writer hadn’t thought about this; she’d invented the gizmo on the spur of the moment to solve an immediate problem.

Star Trek used to do this all the time. They had a holodeck, yet the scanner on the flight deck was 2D. If you had 3D imaging technology, wouldn’t you use it on all your visualising devices? (No doubt someone will explain this to me in the comments…)

So make your technology (or magic faculties) consistent. And beware of inventing devices or magical powers that are too potent and far-reaching. (Unless you mean to do that deliberately, or want to invent Kryptonite.)

3 Be precise with description

I fell foul of this myself with Lifeform Three. In an invented world, you have to be more careful than usual with description. The reader will scrutinise every word to build the setting in their mind – and it’s easy to mislead them. With Lifeform Three, I had a statue in a dancing pose, and my editor got confused because I described the statue as ‘twirling’. ‘Can she move?’ he said. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s just the statue’s pose.’ ‘Write a description that doesn’t suggest movement,’ he said. I changed it to ‘posed as if about to pirouette’.

Thanks for the pic The Hills Are Alive on Flickr 

Those are my three top rules for writing science fiction, fantasy and time travel stories. Do you have any to add? Or gripes about films, TV shows or novels that have transgressed these rules? Let’s discuss

nyn2 2014 smlI’ve tweaked the title of the characters book. Why? I realised the original title Bring Characters To Life was rather ho-hum and didn’t explain why you should go to the effort of making characters believable. So it’s now called Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated – which is, of course, what it’s all about. Plus it scores better for SEO, which should work magic in searches (nobody would think to search for Bring Characters To Life unless they already knew about it). The new cover and title will take a few days to percolate through all the sales channels, but if you buy it you’ll get the updated look. Do you think it’s an improvement?

Now back to comments. Time travel, fantasy and science fiction, writing rules thereof. Over to you…


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‘The thoughts start flowing again’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Will Overby

for logoI’m finding it so curious to see how many novelists in this series are inspired by Bruce Springsteen. He’s probably not the kind of artiste people would imagine if you mentioned using music as a muse to write, but he’s behind so many characters and character dilemmas. My guest this week has compiled writing soundtracks ever since he was at school, and still keeps mixtapes from that time. He revisits them occasionally out of amused curiosity, and says that Springsteen gave his characters a gritty humanity he couldn’t otherwise have found. Decades on, he’s using soundtracks just as much as ever – sometimes not to write, but to fill himself with the book’s mood before he sits down at the keyboard. He is Will Overby and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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Dialogue special part 3: subtext

8290528771_4ab84a0303_hIn part 1, I discussed how to get into the mental zone for writing dialogue. In part 2, I talked about the non-talking and action elements that also make a dialogue scene come alive. Which brings me to the natural conclusion of this trilogy of posts on dialogue – subtext.

What is subtext?

Put simply, subtext in dialogue is what’s between the lines.

I find it easiest to split it into two aspects – subtext for the characters and subtext for the author.

The former is the hidden agendas or feelings of the characters; these may be deliberate, unconscious or a mixture of the two. The latter is the author’s themes; the universe of the story influencing the language and tone.

Subtext and characters

Novel dialogue has to be more condensed and purposeful than real-life chattering. As writers, we need to pick the encounters that will show something significant about the characters, the way they interact, the way they view the story events.

Subtext is useful when we don’t want to show this significance plainly. Indeed, it might be jarring if a character says ‘I don’t think you love me any more’ or ‘I know you meant to kill Jane’. It’s more human if characters say things indirectly, or the reader can intuit that they are grasping at a thought – perhaps one they haven’t fully acknowledged.

Another use of subtext is to demonstrate that characters know each other well. They might make assumptions about what is said, answer what they think the other person meant, rather than the literal words. Perhaps they’re in a situation where plain speaking isn’t possible. This gives a layer of depth under the superficial conversation, like a kind of code.

So if the characters are having an argument about a washing machine, they might also be displaying what’s wrong with their relationship. Perhaps one of them is always leaving all the household tasks to the other, or is much fussier than the other. Maybe the characters are flirting but not wanting to admit it. If you explore what might be left unsaid, it’s a terrific way to build tension.

When subtext works well, we can feel these agendas vibrating – but it doesn’t look obtrusive.

Subtext and the author’s thematic intentions

Subtext can also be wider than just the characters’ little world. It can resonate with the whole conceptual problem your story is tackling. So in My Memories of a Future Life the narrator remarks that she feels as though she’s in a dream where she’s been thrown out into a hostile world with nothing to protect her. This states one of the themes of the story – the difficulty and pain of a major life-change. (It also arises naturally from the action.)

How to do it

Subtext has to look natural (unless you’re aiming for an artificial effect). You’re building it from a scene where characters need to talk to each other, so that’s where you start. Don’t do it the other way round or the reader will feel jarred out of the spell of the story. Figure out what the characters will say on the superficial level, then make it stand for more than that. As with all aspects of dialogue, you might need a few passes to really hone it. I find this kind of editing very creative and rewarding (but then, I do like editing…).

For character subtext, play with Freudian slips, misunderstandings, questions that one character might be avoiding, coded dialogue, tensions that can’t be expressed. Look for underlying harmony and agreement too; it’s not all negative or sinister.

For thematic subtext, pay attention to your authorly portrayal of the scene. Look for suggestive synonyms, imagery, a dark bird sitting on the skyline that makes an ominous shape, church bells that suggest a celebration. The characters probably won’t demonstrate they are aware of this kind of subtext – unless they’re a first-person narrator.

Does every conversation in a novel need subtext?

By no means. Although subtext is very satisfying, not every line – or scene – has to have a hidden meaning. Sometimes characters just chat. :)

nyn2 2014 smlThere are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2

Thanks for the iceberg pic NOAA’s National Ocean Service


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