Posts Tagged introducing characters
It’s often a struggle to bring a character alive the first time they appear in a book. Here’s one of the things I do
I once made Alan Titchmarsh the Prime Minister of Canada.
I hope he’d be amused to know that, and let me make it clear that it was only in the privacy of my study and the pages I was writing. I was ghosting a novel and needed to drum up a distinguished-looking presence for a few scenes. I didn’t have an internet connection to look up the real PM so I flicked through a magazine, happened on a picture of gardening broadcaster and novelist Mr Titchmarsh – and the vibe from it was exactly what I needed. The Prime Minister of Canada came alive on the page.
One of the things that can trip us up when we’re writing a scene is when we need to describe something we haven’t yet given any thought to. It’s easy enough to get visual prompts for physical places. But characters – who don’t really exist except in our heads – can be tougher.
Stephanie Ebbert of the blog Beyond The Margins wrote a short while ago about finding a picture of someone who looks like the character in your WIP. I’ve been doing this for years. I hoard faces for future use, a mugshot gallery of people I want to cast in novels. It’s rarely about such literal characteristics as eye colour and nose shape. I choose them for their expression – something that suggests the way they talk, what they care about and who they will be friends with.
Mr Titchmarsh is an unusual addition to my mugshot library. Most of them are not famous folk, as they come with obvious associations. What I’m looking for is someone into whom my character can descend, like a spirit, or someone who already carries an essence of them. I’m probably the only person who is fascinated by magazine pictures of people I do not know at all, wondering if they could inhabit one of my worlds. Flickr’s another great resource too.
The pictures with this post are some of the characters from my literary novel, My Memories of a Future Life. I’ve long forgotten who they really are or where I found them. Now they are a pianist, a hypnotist and an artist and their destinies are intricately connected.
Do you have pictures of your main characters? If you do, let’s try an experiment – post them on your blog, if copyright or confidentiality allows – and post a link in the comments.
In the meantime, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you… the Prime Minister of Canada.
This week, a picture popped into my inbox. It’s a frame from the manga graphic novel Cloud 109, the latest WIP by artist Peter Richardson and writer David Orme. Peter sent it because he’s put me and Dave into the background as a cameo.
This is something arty folk do regularly, of course; we’re forever using each other as cameos and walk-ons in our stories.
But this is only for cameos. Not main characters.
In fact, this topic has been hot all week. Mysteries writer Elizabeth Craig started it when she asked, should you write about people you know? Non-writers assume that everything we write is recycled from our own lives – but they don’t realise how much invention is added. The debate carried on on Twitter, where the consensus from writers was this: sometimes real people go into novels, but if they are to play major parts, they require a lot of tweaking. What comes out is not necessarily that similar to the raw materials that went in.
No character from real life, however remarkable, is going to be completely suitable just as they are.
And that’s just when they start off in the story. If characters are to be explored in any great depth they will probably – and should – evolve as the story goes. They may surprise you, develop a will of their own – that oft-repeated phrase ‘the characters took over’. Not only do they do what they want, they go through their own changes which you can’t necessarily predict when you start.
To use real life well in a novel, you have to allow everything to go its own way.
This doesn’t just apply to characters, but also to events.
I used to go to a critique group, and one week a lady read from her novel about a couple divorcing. There were many scenes featuring bitter arguments. Everyone agreed the characters’ distress was plain to see but following it all was difficult. We started to make suggestions that would help us find a way in – so that we could engage with the characters and why they were so upset with each other. There were suggestions to amalgamate two characters, show some of the other person’s point of view, tone down the villainous behaviour. Every comment was answered with ‘but I can’t change that, it’s what really happened’.
Really, she was writing the novel as therapy, so telling it exactly as she saw it was the point. Inviting the reader to become involved was not her purpose.
But if inviting the reader in is your purpose, you have to be prepared to change things.
You have to know the difference between real truth and dramatic truth. Dramatic truth is universal, in some ways it is about us all. Real truth is messy, overblown, particular to one situation. For instance, coincidences – in real life they happen all the time. In novels coincidences usually look like lazy storytelling. In real life, people behave in ways we will probably never understand. Real life is a terrible template for a story – it only gets away with it because we can’t turn it off.
Truth is stranger than fiction – or, if you’re a storyteller, fiction cannot be as messy and strange as truth. In a novel, the reader knows you have made up the events – therefore the events themselves are not as important as what they signify, or their part in a coherent whole. This is an absolute rule, no matter what kind of material you are basing your novel on – and I’ve helped clients make novels out of truly horrific childhoods, which you might think gave the writer a free pass for the reader’s indulgence.
If you’re basing a story or characters on real life, don’t get hung up on what really happened. You are not giving evidence for the police. When you write fiction, no matter what you are making it out of, you cross a line. Telling the real truth isn’t your job. Telling the dramatic truth is.
If you’re going to write about real life, be prepared to let it change to make a better story.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
If your book is about a relationship (and most are in some way), you often like to explain how it started. But if the characters’ first encounter was average and unremarkable, how do you write it? The kind where there are no bells and whistles, fights or thunderbolts – where the two people don’t take any special notice of each other?
In real life, many of our friendships may have started with encounters that are unmemorable. I was reading a friend’s novel the other day and she had just this problem. A meeting that isn’t notable in any way, except for being the first time two characters meet. There was some dull chit-chat and it was dead on the page.
So how do you make it interesting? Here are two possibilities.
Maybe you don’t have to make a scene of it. You could do a montage of snapshots to build up a sense of these people being in each other’s lives. ‘They met often at the same parties; coinciding at the fridge for another beer, squashing down the crowded corridor at the same time to get their coats. One rainy evening in November he found her browsing the film books at Foyles.’ A few little encounters, compressed artfully, can add up to a growing connection – while leaving out the dull bits.
Many of us learn our storytelling, consciously or unconsciously, from films – which generally show everything blow by blow. But in prose, the narrator is a versatile lens that can telescope out or zoom in with far more agility. You can describe time in the way it feels internally, capturing how the experience is more accurately than if it was shown literally: ‘There she was in the corner, as she usually was at this time of year. I wondered whether to talk to her, then I thought, no I’ll do it next year.’
Of course, summarizing a scene can be distancing – unless there’s a good reason to. Here, though, it makes the material far more engaging.
Or don’t show the first meeting at all. Yes, if it’s that unremarkable, perhaps you should start with the third meeting: ‘It’s you. I can never remember your name.’ And there you have the beginnings of a fun conversation.
If nothing particularly memorable happens when your characters first meet, then don’t show it. Break out of the step-by-step unfolding and get creative with what you show and the way you show it.
Have you had to solve the ‘unremarkable first meeting’ scenario?