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Pull Those Underpants on Over your Trousers and Fly!

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In this monthly series of blogposts on Writing Skills (both the course and the subject) we’ve been concentrating on various aspects of Part One, making the most of early strategies such as employing speedwriting, using notebooks, compiling a commonplace book and learning how to ‘zone in’ when describing. (Click here to read these posts.)
It’s time to move onto Part Two of Writing Skills, which is all about character. You might wonder what took us so long, seeing that character is considered the most essential part of writing fiction. Sol Stein, the American novelist, is quoted as saying…There’s a book called Characters Make Your Story that you don’t have to read because the title says it all: characters make you story…
Perhaps that’s why Writing Skills choses to move on to this subject once things like description are already under the student’s belt. It’s such a big a subject, you need to take a deep breath before thinking about it intellectually.
Of course, there’s nothing intellectual about our relationship with fictional personas. As kids, we all loved the heroes and heroines in our books and on our screens, and played out their roles in our games.
Character is under all our skins. But as we start to become writers, it’s soon apparent that there’s more to the subject than pulling our underpants on over our trousers and pretending to fly. Portraying character is hard work. It takes up a lot of time and effort.
When I’m newly imagining a character, I might go to sleep thinking about them. I’ll take a long walk and listen to their conversations (even have a chat with them myself). I’ll start, but never really finish, a character sketch, in which I can describe them physically from the outside, emotionally from inside their heads, even perhaps spiritually from within their souls. I will try to make an account of their pasts. But to know them perfectly, I’ll need to start writing their story.
Anne Tyler, recently shortlisted for the Man Booker and Bailey’s Prize for A Spool of Blue Thread, once said, when asked about writing…It’s true that writing is a solitary occupation, but you would be surprised at how much companionship a group of imaginary characters can offer when you get to know them…
It’s that last phrase that tells all. When you get to know them. Entering a newly invented character’s world is like entering a sterile environment; it is dust-free, there are no hidden corners. Developing them out of thin air is something that comes with practice. I discovered this when I started to write a crime fiction series; my protagonist, Sabbie Dare only became truly real for me as I drafted and redrafted that first book. As I now begin writing the fourth in the series, I finally feel like she’s a sister, who I have known all my life. Her childhood memories, her stuttering starts as an adolescent, and her flowering into adulthood, are as much part of my memories as is my own past.
Your first reaction might understandably be; but you’ve written hundreds of thousands of words about Sabbie Dare. I’m only writing 2000 about this character, in this short story. Surely I don’t need to know that much?
I guess not. But if you don’t have empathy with your protagonist, readers’ interest will quickly dull. The reader wants, more than any other thing, to be able to feel for the character in the story they are reading. If you don’t empathise with them, neither will the reader. What we are aiming for is verisimilitude; the idea that something has the perfect appearance of truth. All the time the reader is engaged in a story, they want to believe that this character is as real as they are themselves.
This makes creating characters, especially protagonists, one of the hardest aspects of writing to master. Even after learning how to motivate your characters, even once you realise that complex characters are flawed, even when you believe in them yourself, you may still hear from your tutor that your character is not yet full-formed.
Creating character is an ongoing, demanding challenge – the bedrock of writing good stories. Even so, there are quick-check ways to get realised, complex characters onto the page, especially when writing short stories for assignment.

  1. Stop inventing your plots first. For your story to function, it must be based around human (or alien or animal!) activities and adventures…the actions of your characters. For your characters to function, their activities and adventures must be driven by their deep-seated needs, wants, fears and desires. Their needs must be dramatic, their wants must be compulsions, their fears must be powerful and graphic, and their desires should be thwarted for as long as possible.
  2. Believe in your character by becoming a reader. As a reader, you’d never believe in an immaculate protagonist; perfect, blameless and shallow-rooted. By reading your character, you’ll spot such problems and endeavour to solve them by spending more time getting to know who this person is. This means the character may have to subtly change from your first perception. That’s great – that’s what has to happen.
  3. Writing the story takes hard work, time and effort. Dashing off a story won’t help your characters grow. What you need is a writing process that consists of dreaming–thinking–writing, then thinking–dreaming–writing again, to let your character properly develop until they live and breathe on the page.

When your character finally drops into their story as if they’ve always been around, waiting for it to start, you are almost there. Encourage that process by trying this one exercise.
Sit comfortably in a silent environment and close your eyes. Conjure up the character you want to develop. Note anything you see about them; how they dress, any mannerisms – but don’t dwell on this, as you may find they quickly fade away under such scrutiny. Instead, get them talking. Ask them things about themselves that won’t ‘spook’ them. Don’t ask, ‘Okay, what is your great desire, and by the way do you have any phobias that might be useful to me?’ Just ask how their day has been, what their plans for tomorrow are. Listen to them on every level; at their speech patterns and accent, at any hesitation to admit something, the moment they give away some deep-seated memory.
Characters can be shy, but if you put them at their ease and get them chatting, you’ll be surprised how much they let slip about themselves.
Nina Milton. OCA Tutor and Assessor

Posted by author: Nina
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4 thoughts on “Pull Those Underpants on Over your Trousers and Fly!

  • Maybe this question(s) is because I have never studied writing – something that I’m considering for the future – but when I’ve written fiction I will admit to talking to my principle characters and, as you say, have discussions with them. But I’m wondering about what you say here: ‘What we are aiming for is verisimilitude; the idea that something has the perfect appearance of truth.” Is this about the perfection of character depiction – with all is flaws and imperfections? Or about a perfect comprehension of a character? Isn’t ‘truth’ is a difficult currency in any art-form, and knowing anyone perfectly will surely deplete narrative flow opportunities?

  • Ah, yes, that could be construed as conflicting evidence, sorry Jsumb. What I mean is, that if you depict your character well, they will feel real, even though they are only (or partly) figments of the writer’s imagination. Real people are extremely flawed. It is hard to know a character so well that you feel you’re inside their skin. It’s something writers attain to but often know they can’t reach. But when you’ve read a novel with characters which have gripped you, you will find yourself saying afterwards, something along the lines of ‘they felt like they were talking directl to me’. In fact, we probably don’t know anyone in this world with perfect knowledged.
    Also don’t forget that verisimilitude doesn’t mean truth; it means (to quote the Oxford English) ‘The appearance of being true or real’.

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