Posts Tagged bland characters

Two days of writer’s block unlocked a character’s secret

3422912206_c3c79e15f5_oI’ve spent the last couple of days blocked about a scene in Ever Rest. Solving it became a bit of a saga – and an unexpected and rather important answer.

The first symptom I noticed was irritation. A character in a scene I was revising was annoying me. I quickly figured out why. In previous scenes I’d been writing from her point of view. Although I had a strong idea of what she wanted from the inside, when viewed by another character she was a blank nothing. She didn’t feel like real flesh and blood. I couldn’t describe her.

(I’m not talking here about whether her eyes are blue or she likes sharp suits – the physical attributes we can bestow almost without thought. I mean the essence of her. A good character description makes you understand what it’s like to be in their presence. For instance: this is from William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach, which I’m currently reading:

She had unusual eyes, the upper lids seemed heavy, as if she were dying to go to sleep but was making a special effort for you… She was very thin. I imagined that in the right clothes she would look elegant. I had never seen her in anything but a shirt and trousers.’)

A presence
So I needed to give my nebulous character some physical heft to make her more real. I considered which actress might play her in a movie, no one seemed right. I considered whether real-life friends or acquaintances had a quality I could borrow to start her off. No one fitted. She remained faceless, presenceless.

A name
Perhaps I’d given her the wrong name, which had then conjured the wrong impression about her. I wondered whether to rechristen to appreciate her afresh. I rolled some possibilities around. None seemed to suit her better than her existing name.

Accessing a difficult personality
I’ve often written characters who I found hard to access immediately; this is the challenge of creating people who are not like you. Gene in My Memories of a Future Life was the stubbornest beast to channel. Writing his dialogue was like trying to guess the desires of an inscrutable and unpredictable monarch – endless patience and guesswork. When I made the audiobook, he gave my voice actor unsettling dreams.

A line she would not say
So I did what I often do in that situation – began editing, guessing new dialogue, and hoped the character would join in. In the first draft she’d asked an important question – and this became the sticking point. Now, she wouldn’t do it.

I tried all sorts of segues to allow it to arise naturally, but it felt fake. I tried the opposite – to let her avoid tackling the situation so that another character could step up. That wasn’t right.

A hole in my knowledge – and the clue

It was clear the problem went much further than her physical presence. There was a hole in my knowledge of her. Despite all the work I’d done on what she wanted or didn’t want, there was something important I hadn’t yet identified. I was writing someone whose true motives and feelings were very unclear to her, and confused. And this scene was bumping up against it.
The lines she wouldn’t say were the clue.

And then I got it. They weren’t my block after all. They were hers. They were the issue she didn’t want to confront – and didn’t realise.

Two days it took me to guess that minx’s heart. But now I have, I’ve pinned her down. I’ve found the inner voice that justified her during this scene. I knew what she’d say. And it fits. It flows. And not just with her, but with the overall arc for that episode of the story. Understanding this question about her was a valve to let the entire narrative flow again.

And so…
I’ve reminded myself of three principles I consistently return to:

  1. The truth about a scene may lie much deeper than we think. Even with a lot of preparation work, there may be more to learn. We must listen to the instinct that something is wrong.
  2. The thing your character refuses to say or do may not be a story problem. It might be their most important issue. Try working with it.
  3. So much of our work is done away from the page, from carrying the problem with us as we walk to the station, from thinking, refining and persisting.

And my character? Now she’s not bland at all. She’s in a lot more trouble than I’d suspected.

nyn2 2014 smlThere’s more about characters in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.

Thanks for the pic Smabs Sputzer

Has an episode of writer’s block helped you solve a problem? What do you do if a character refuses to enact the plot? Do you have any tips on how you create fictional characters? Let’s discuss!

Advertisements

, , , , , , , , , ,

27 Comments

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?

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

12 Comments

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.

heyjowwhereyougoingwiththatguninyourhand

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.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

12 Comments

In your character’s shoes: give your everyman character a strong presence

Seven thingsSome central characters are intended to be a proxy for the reader – a person who’s thrown into a situation and acts as a conduit for the reader to have the experience.

However, there’s a big pitfall with this kind of character: writers are sometimes reluctant to make them people in their own right. They’re worried about being too specific and instead they create a bland nobody.

These are the symptoms of the nobody everyman:

The character doesn’t react to dramatic situations

– because the writer assumes the reader will apply their own reactions. But readers don’t want to do this. They want to share the character’s reaction. I particularly see this in writers who learn a lot of their storytelling from films and TV. But novels are an internal medium, a landscape of emotion, and the reader needs to be guided more.

In prose, if the character doesn’t react, it looks as though the event made no impression on them. In any case, you can’t guarantee what a reader’s reaction will be, and that it will be the one you want. (Readers certainly aren’t everymen!)

The character has very little history, background or personal preferences

Again, the writer is afraid of making the character unlike the reader, and so they don’t fill in any home background, hobbies or back story. This makes them look curiously empty. Think of when you meet somebody for the first time – there are certain things you want to know about them. What they do; whether they have kids; what hobbies they have. In real life, we need context about people. And so do readers.

They’re passive

Because the writer doesn’t want to presume any reactions, they make their everyman character wait around for the more interesting people to cause adventures. This can make us wonder why we are spending the most time with the dullest person. Even if the viewpoint character is surrounded by troublemakers and simply wants a quiet life, they need to fight back instead of being pushed around. That’s not to say the other characters can’t get them into scrapes; but our main character must also seem to cause some of the situations they find themselves in. If they simply wait to be shepherded, it’s frustrating to read about.

So how do we write an effective everyman character?

Is there even such a thing as an everyman character? We are all different. My reaction to a life dilemma won’t be the same as yours. If our characters are to be convincing, it doesn’t make sense to leave them as empty vessels for the reader to fill.

And besides, if we look at what readers respond to, it’s not as superficial as tastes, social background etc. Readers respond to something that’s deeper down – and that’s emotions that are universal for everyone: fear, difficult choices and dilemmas.

If you evoke those well enough, the reader will put themselves in that character’s shoes regardless of their circumstances or even the era the book was written. Think how many classic novels are still finding new readers because their protagonists strike a chord. A lonely orphan becomes a governess and falls in impossible love with her employer – Jane Eyre. A timid, inhibited girl is overwhelmed by her new position as wife in a grand house – Rebecca. These aren’t everyman characters by any means, but we connect with their stories and experience them vividly. It doesn’t matter at all that they don’t do what we would do, or that their circumstances are not like ours. They have loneliness, dilemmas and fears, which is enough to put us in their shoes.

So don’t make your everyman viewpoint character an undefined nobody. Make them a definite somebody who, deep down, is exactly like us. Let’s discuss some great viewpoint characters in the comments!

nyn2 2014 smlNEWSFLASH This seems a good moment to mention that I’ve got a whole bookful of advice on characters. And the eagle-eyed among you will notice that the title has been tweaked. 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?

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

15 Comments