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Posts Tagged villains
This 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, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write and making a character distinct through dialogue. Today I’m tackling a fundamental misconception about self-editing.
Editing is not just tweaking the language
One lady in the masterclass shared a story that illustrates a common misapprehension of novice writers. She said she had come close to a publishing deal, but the imprint folded. Before that, they mentioned the book had some problems and were talking about editing. On her own again, and unable to ask them any more details, she assumed they must be talking about the language, and so she worked to write it in a more suitable way. Still, though, she was unhappy with it and she knew she hadn’t solved the problems.
Editing veterans will be nodding sagely here, knowing that language is only one of our considerations. I’ve leaped into this trap myself. In the early days when I was querying agents, I’d get feedback that mentioned a few rough areas. I made the only possible assumption – that I needed to make the ‘writing’ somehow better. And so I fiddled, line by line, adding and pruning here and there. I probably ended up with an over-bloated muddle and didn’t touch the underlying problems. I had no idea about the mechanisms that work under the words, and that language is really the skin on top of the structure, pacing and character arcs.
Tomorrow: Putting the book away to get distance
How about you? Have you made the same rookie mistake about editing? Or a different one? Let’s discuss!
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This 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.
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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Why is all good fiction driven by characters? How can we widen our repertoire so our fictional people aren’t carbon copies of ourselves? What kind of research can give us greater understanding of situations we have no experience of? Should we bother to create our villains with as much empathy and insight as we lavish on our protagonists? If our MC’s enemy is utterly evil, how can we possibly crawl inside their minds – and why would we?
In the yellow corner is Joanna Penn. In the pinkish corner is me, answering her questions. We’re at her blog The Creative Penn, and you can read a text summary, download a 50-minute audio podcast or watch us grin and and wave our hands while we discuss how to write convincing and compelling fictional people. Do come over.
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Many years ago, my writer friend Cathryn Atkinson told me she found inspiration for characters by reading obituaries, especially those in the Daily Telegraph. By gum she was right, and I was soon curating my own file of the fascinating dead. I called it my morgue, of course.
Reading obits is still a habit, and not just to discover queer folk. I’m inspired by the way obit writers tackle certain problems we also have in novels.
Although famous people obviously get obits, so do obscure achievers.
For the writer, it’s easy to describe a person who is already well known; you just tick their recognisable characteristics. For Elizabeth Taylor, reference the violet eyes, voluptuous proportions and bawdy persona – and that’s enough to summon their physical presence.
But the obit writer often has to describe a person the reader hasn’t seen before. Which is also what the novelist does.
Crucially, they don’t rely on visual descriptions. Blue eyes and a crooked front tooth don’t mean much if the reader doesn’t already have a mental picture. So the obituarist adds another dimension – the sense of what it’s like to be in a room with the subject. One of the earliest entrants to my morgue file was an eminent female chemist who always had a worried expression, as though she feared a catastrophe was happening in the next room. I’ve long forgotten her name or what she was responsible for (alas), but I still know what it would be like to spend time with her. Another unforgettable was the religious leader who had the disconcerting habit of closing his eyes while he spoke.
The obit’s subjects may not always be nice or heroic.
Take The Economist’s obituary of UK reality TV star Jade Goody. She was infamous for squalid incidents, astonishing ignorance and racist remarks. She was also a shameless publicity hound. The obit didn’t whitewash any of this, but their unsparing portrait also uncovered her battles, hardships, goals and happinesses. The result gives her remarkable dignity.
This is so interesting for novelists. Even if we’re writing nasty characters, they become more potent if we approach them with respect and curiosity.
Back story and context
Obits generally follow a formula. First they hook your interest – tell you why the character is significant, conjure up a conundrum that gets you curious. Then there will be defining incidents from their prime. Details about childhood don’t come until late in the piece. After we have read about the achievements or ignominies, we are shown how the person started with similar stuff to ourselves – parents, a local library or sports ground, school teachers. There they are, just like we were, unaware of their destiny.
It might be peculiar to follow that backwards chronology in most novels, of course, but it’s a reminder that back story works because of context. Deployed in the wrong place, back story will be boring. In the right place, it can be humanising and even powerful.
Are there any non-fictional places you go for inspiration, such as obituaries? Why do you like them? Share in the comments
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- 9 tips to nail dialogue – guest post at Ingram Spark July 8, 2019
- The ‘under-arrest’ test – how to see the holes in your story’s ending June 20, 2019
- Roger Ebert, Werner Herzog, Antarctica … and a manifesto for maverick creatives May 23, 2019
- Writing multiple projects and keeping in touch with a book when you take a break – interview at Joined Up Writing podcast May 12, 2019
- ‘Something elusively wistful’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Gwendolyn Womack April 28, 2019
- On interrupting the story for your brilliant philosophical ideas April 22, 2019
- Write a brilliant novel by asking the right questions – guest post at The Creative Penn April 5, 2019