Posts Tagged main characters

‘Hacking to music’ – the Undercover Soundtrack, Ian Sutherland

for logoOn The Undercover Soundtrack, we’re used to writers using music to summon the muse. My guest this week goes one better. One of his main characters is a computer hacker, who limbers up by listening to Vangelis’s music for the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise. In real life, the author has a lifetime’s experience in the IT industry and seems adept at opening files in people’s pasts – Dave and I used to play 1492 incessantly as background for our own writings. My guest did it again when his editor revealed she had trained as a musician, like another of his characters.  He is Ian Sutherland and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack – when he’s finished hacking the pasts of his production crew and blog hosts.

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Is your main character you? How to tell – and how to widen your character repertoire

Portrait of Oscar Wilde with Cane

As Oscar Wilde didn’t say: ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken’. (No really, he didn’t.)

In our early novels, we’re more likely to see our main characters as proxies for ourselves. But there comes a stage where we learn more versatility, and to create new hearts, souls and minds to carry our stories. This was one of the interesting findings of a project organised by a team of researchers at Durham University and reported here in The Guardian.

Authors who took part in the survey were asked how they experience their main characters while writing. Those with many books reported that in their early work they saw the main character as a proxy for themselves. Sometimes it was simply wish fulfilment. Sometimes it was a deeper working, perhaps of a problem they couldn’t express in the real world, or an issue they had left undone. It was only in later books that they were aware they were creating individuals who had their own distinct hopes, dreams, values and reactions.

Does it matter?

Interesting though this is, does it matter? It depends. When editing, I’ve certainly seen where it goes wrong. There might be a sense that the main character’s viewpoint is never challenged, or nobody else in the book is as vivid, or all the other characters victimise, worship or pander to the narrator. It can look like the book lacks any perspective that would engage an outsider.

If you’re writing from your own trauma or sense of injustice, no matter how wronged you feel you still have to win the reader round. Indeed Anne R Allen has written hilariously about protagonists who turn readers off – usually because the writer has put themselves too literally into the story.

Here are some of the problems I’ve noticed.

Passive main characters

In a writer’s early books, the main character is often passive. They do very little on their own initiative; they merely react to what is going on. In real life, writing often appeals to people who are observers and analysers. And even if we aren’t, most of us would prefer trouble to go away. But readers find it exasperating if characters don’t at some point take charge or counter-attack. The passive default is generally one of the first reactions a novice writer must unlearn.

Unwillingness to alter events

Sometimes our emotional investment in the book can cloud our critical faculties. At the writing group I used to go to, I remember one lady who read from her novel, which was about a divorce. When we started to question events that seemed far-fetched, she snapped angrily: ‘but that’s what really happened’. Discussions went downhill from there.

Events need to matter more

Drawing on our own experience might produce tunnel vision. It might also stop us taking an idea as far as it could go.

I remember a very early attempt I made to write a story about my experiences with repetitive strain injury when I was a journalist. It was strangely flat. Although I managed to entertain with the strange medical tests, mystery and uncertainty, it was at best lightweight because the stakes weren’t significant. The worst that could happen was that the proxy me might have to get a different job, but that wasn’t a major challenge to my soul that would hook a reader with its urgency. This made me unhappy, because I wanted to write the crisis of somebody’s life…

Then ghostwriting taught me how real life is just material – and material that needs a snappy tailor. (Lots more here about ghostwriting if you’re curious.)

Fast forward.

I had a use for my RSI scenario. It was time to adjust real life and amplify. The major amplification was the main character. Now, after writing a lot of fiction as other people, my first novel was the chance to write as me. But my narrator couldn’t be me, the real me muddling through with average demons and crises. She needed desperation. What’s more, her desperation, although it had to be particular to her, had to speak for a more fundamental essence of the human condition – in this case, a search for meaning and love. Perhaps that potential was in my mind all along in that early story, but it didn’t become fully potent until I invented the character who needed it.

faint mmIf you’ve read My Memories of a Future Life you’ll be recognising her. Carol has elements of my personality and I certainly felt I was her when I wrote her. She comes from things I understand. But she isn’t me. She is herself, created as the person who needs the journey and healing process of that story.

Paftoo of Lifeform Three isn’t me either, though he started with my love of horses and the things we have lost from the past. I then put that in a situation and personality that would cause the utmost trouble, a fight for his very soul. And for Ever Rest I have four, perhaps five viewpoint characters, all with their own consciousnesses, issues and inclinations. I am not those five people.

How to write a character who isn’t like you

Start with something you relate to – what if you lost something that makes you feel alive? Then mine the deeper level and remove yourself. Every time your character reacts, question it. Ask if that’s your own setting, and if it could be bigger, better or different. Find a key for that new character to sing in. Examine their approach to life, betes noires, responses to stress, desires.

In fact, we all have many characters we could create because we already know how to be different. What are you like with your parents? Is it the same as the way you are with your boss? How about the person you are when talking to a person you want to impress, or the head teacher at your child’s school? You already know how to be different at an instinctive level.

So, to mangle the legacy of Oscar even more (because he still didn’t say ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken): don’t be yourself. Use yourself to invent the people your story needs.

Pic of Oscar by Napoleon Sarony, Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

nyn2 2014 smlThere are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated

What stage are you at? Who are your main characters? If you’ve created people who are proxies for you, was that intentional? Unavoidable? Brilliantly effective? Has that caused problems or interesting feedback from readers and editors? Have you created characters who aren’t like you? If you’ve written many books, have you noticed a shift? Let’s share thoughts!

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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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‘Music for the inner wilderness’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anne Stormont

for logoMy guest this week describes her books as stories about and for the sometimes invisible women; the 1960s feminists; women in their late 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond; thinking, feeling, loving, intelligent characters who are steering their lives through choppy waters. She says she uses music as a short-cut to their inner wilderness, with signature songs that conjure their hearts and minds, even on the most uninspired days. She is Anne Stormont and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Pretend your main character isn’t there

You may have developed your main character, but what would your supporting characters be doing if they weren’t there?

As one novel flies the nest, there’s another poking its beak out of the egg.

Its working title is Echo, but so far it’s nothing more than a concept, some exciting developments I must include and two main characters whose story it is.

But I’m not going to do any more work on those two yet. My next job is to look at the other main characters around them – the people who are important, but whose change and resolution is not on the same scale as the MCs’. Not Lizzie and Darcy, but all the Bingleys, other Bennets, Wickhams et al.

What are they doing without my MCs?

Echo won’t be their story, but I’m going to start with them – and what they want to do if my MCs aren’t there. They will have aims, goals, agendas, worries, people they adore, people they loathe, rivals and scores to settle.

It’s a little like what mystery and crime writers do. They create a murder or other crime, then add the people who are investigating, or feretting out what’s going on, perhaps getting into trouble with it themselves.

Then add MCs… and stir

But my MCs aren’t going to be investigator, observer types. They have needs of their own and will get into the biggest trouble of all. Once I add those to the other characters who already have full lives… it should be a good ride.

Writing in a vacuum

Too many writers get into difficulties because they start the other way round. They have an MC who is minutely drawn but seems to exist in a vacuum. It can be a struggle to write because it feels as if the character is walking through an undecorated TV studio with only the props that immediately fly into the writer’s mind – a milk bottle, say. Or the people who pop up to help something along – a mother or a boss.

To write your MC well you also have to write their world – and the most significant factors in that world are not where the corner shop is, but the lives of the other people. If you make them up as you go along it can be a huge mental effort, especially if you need to create people with credible lives.

So the more complete your other characters are, and their problems, the easier it is to throw in your main one. Also, the supporting players will be less like puppets of the main trajectory.

By seeing what they would do without my MCs, I can make sure that when I throw them in, they really start some trouble.

Start your story as if your characters didn’t exist, then add them – and you’ll have a lot more fun.

What do you do to flesh out your world beyond the main characters? Share in the comments!

Thank you, Atmasphere, for the pic

In case you’re curious, my novel My Memories of a Future Life launches on August 30th!

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