Posts Tagged Tips and Techniques

Characters: Now in 3D

As part of my continuing series following on my tongue-in-cheek Twelve Rules of Writing post, today we are discussing characters. First, though, let me remind you of Rule  4:

4. Characters must be three dimensional

Creating characters is difficult enough, but you must also make them three dimensional by describing them in excruciating detail. In order for your readers to be able to picture your character in 3D, they must know what underwear they have chosen and whether they floss their teeth.  It may help if you can get your readers to wear those cardboard spectacles with red and green filters.

This is one of the most cryptic pieces of advice to new writers – Make your characters three dimensional – make them stand out! It made my comment about the red and green glasses all the more poignant until my son reminded me that it was all done with polarized light these days. Writing advice like this is not very helpful unless you already know what three-dimensional characters are supposed to be, in which case you probably don’t need the advice. So what do we mean?

The reference to three dimensions really comes from the third dimension – remember in school we had (1) length, (2) height and (3) depth, and depth is what we’re looking for here. It helps to look at synonyms and antonyms:

~ Synonyms – complex, intense, profound
~ Antonyms – shallow, facile, superficial

Be aware that we are not talking about deep or shallow people as characters – it’s perfectly possible to have a shallow, superficially person as a character, represented in a way that would give them depth – someone profoundly shallow. It’s the way they are portrayed that is key to the depth of a character.

What can you do, then, to give your characters depth? Here are some suggestions:

  • Find out what drives your characters. When you are writing a character, a key question is to know what they want, and what they will do to get it. Make sure they want something, even if it’s to be left alone. If they don’t want anything, why are they in the story?
  • Give them an outlook on life. Are they a pessimist or an optimist? Are they confrontational or withdrawn? Do they have an attitude problem or are they a shrinking violet? Crucially, how do they deal with conflict? We all know people who deal with opposition in very different ways, and conflict is crucial to stories.
  • Once you have outlook and motivation, think about what made them that way. What happened to them in their life that colours their decisions and guides their actions? What’s their story, and how does that colour their responses.

The temptation will be to include this material in your story, after all, you spent time and energy coming up with it, so why not use it? The danger here is that you get side-tracked into back story and lose the thread of the narrative exploring character background. The back-story can be revealed, but only when it is relevant and timely to the story.

Notice that I haven’t mentioned what the character looks like. My comment about describing characters in excruciating detail in Rule 4 refers to appearance, not substance. When we talk about shallow, superficial characters, we’re talking about appearances, and as we all know these are misleading. In fact they’re a great opportunity for an author to play with pre-conceptions, setting expectations only to twist them later to reveal something new and interesting.

Now that you know the character as a person, it’s time to introduce another dimension – time. The one thing that will define a character more than anything else is the decisions they make over time. Ultimately it’s not what we say that matters, but what we do, and by presenting characters with a dilemma and forcing them to make a choice, we see what kind of person they really are. When those decisions are profound, we gain insight into the depth of that character.

That allow us to explore their reaction in three critical ways:

  • How do they react physically: Do they start shaking, screaming, fighting, hiding, running..?
  • How do they react emotionally: Are they happy, sad, afraid, bewildered, resentful, amused..?
  • How do they react spiritually: Are they changed? Have their values shifted? Is this a crisis of belief? Is it a moral choice..?

The other aspect of this is that when the dilemma is decided it must ring true for that character in that circumstance at that time. If the reaction is out of character then the reader will not accept it and the character will appear random or unpredictable – revealing little but the surface. So the development of the character over time through the story must support the dilemma that the character must eventually face and lead the reader to understand that the decision is neither straight-forward or simple, making the decision valid and understandable, even if it’s the ‘wrong’ decision.

A character faced with a true dilemma making a genuine choice reveals depth – whether we agree with the decision or not, we know them better as a person and that’s what it takes to bring a character into 3D.

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Words: Choosing, Selecting, Deciding, Opting For

Rule 3 in my Twelve Rules of Writing went like this: ~

3. Words are interchangeable, it’s what you mean that’s important.

The English language was created to mislead you.  Take the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  Clearly, the word ‘right’ is misspelled, since ‘write’ goes with ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ should be paired with ‘left’.

Also, ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and ‘there’ should be synonymous and interchangeable.  Feel free to impose your own logic on the language as many people have before you.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the English language was indeed created to mislead.  The language is complex, inconsistent and, at times, preverse. Take the words bough, through, thought, cough and rough. In five similar words, the letters ‘ough’ are sounded out as five different vowel sounds.  Even for native English speakers, this makes spelling a matter of learning and familiarity, not of systematic understanding. This can make it seem daunting.

My comment about imposing logic is not without grounds, either. In some ways English isn’t one language, but many.  In a survey done by computer in 1973, it was estimated that English was in origin: 28% old Norman, 28% Latin, 25% Old Germanic and 5% Greek with the rest being made up of fragments from elsewhere or even made-up words – the word television, for instance, is a composite of the Greek TELE, meaning far and the Latin VISIO, to see in person.

To put this in perspective, Basic English includes about 850 words, and the General Service List (compiled of words from which most English can be understood) includes about 2,000 words.  If you have excellent facility with English then your vocabulary might be as high as 60,000 to even 100,000 words – still a fraction of language as a whole which may be over 600,000 words.

That brings us to meaning: ~

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” ~ Through the Looking Glass: Lewis Carroll.

This may be true for Humpty Dumpty, but writing is about conveying meaning and building a shared understanding between writer and reader. When your writing is published, you send it out into the world without the chance to clarify its meaning. People will either understand it or they won’t. It’s rare, particularly with fiction, for the reader to keep a dictionary handy in case they encounter a word they don’t understand, and if they take a moment to look up a word then they’ve broken out of the story, de-pacing the plot and breaking the suspension of disbelief.

You might think, therefore, that it is best to use only the simplest of language, to choose words perhaps from the basic list of 850 and therefore keep your reader’s attention. That has its own risks, though, as readers tire of the same words being used repetitively, the prose lacking depth and colour, the character voices all the same.

Too little and you risk boredom and disconnection – too much and your prose will become purple and elaborate beyond the needs of your story

This is the dilemma that writers face. They must choose a word, a phrase, an epithet, which illustrates the meaning while maintaining the rhythm and tone of the story. Each choice is crucial and characterises the writer’s skill in communicating the plot while depicting the characters in the context of the scene. It doesn’t always have to be a word the reader would know – context is all and, with skill, the writer can build a framework around an esoteric word to support a reader who doesn’t have the word in their vocabulary. This in turn expands their lexicon, building in richness and variety.

Developing these skills means reading, not as a reader – immersed in the story and blind to the words – but as a writer, examining the author’s word selection and deciding whether you would have chosen a better word, something more apposite. Give yourself a moment to appreciate a new or unexpected word-choice and become conscious of timbre, rhythm, tone, pace and harmonic form.

Develop an interest in etymology, the origins of words, for they have surprises in store for you. Look up, for instance, the evolution of the word ‘nice’. Its usage today is in contrast to its history, and that gives it a new context and a depth of meaning when you use it. A nice shot, a nice day, a nice cake, playing nice, niceness.

To write well, you need to learn to love words. it’s one of the subtler pleasures of writing to find the right word for the moment and use it sparingly and precisely, delivering exactly the nuance you require. It has the satisfaction of an accurate shot or a dive that leaves only ripples, something done perfectly and apparently without effort. Like many things it comes easier with practice and repetition, but it takes concentration and effort, just like that perfect dive.

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Good Writing is Invisible

Continuing my series on the Twelve Rules of Writing, here is rule 2: ~

2. Spelling and grammer are what copy editors are for.

Clearly, as a creative person, you do not want to be burdened with the task of spelling things correctly or constructing sentences that are grammatically correct.  This is, after all, what copy editors are for and you will be depriving them of their livelihood if you do their job for them.

Did you spot the deliberate mistake?  This is one of my blind-spots – I consistently type grammar with an ‘e’ when I know it’s spelled with two ‘a’s. It’s the sort of thing that I rely upon copy editors to spot for me because I just don’t see it for myself. That’s what copy editors do – except it isn’t. They will do it, but only when you don’t.

What your copy editor is really there for is to sense-check what’s been submitted, enforce a consistent style, and make sure there are no unexpected surprises in the text. For instance, did your character wake up with blue eyes and now they’re brown? Has your character been drinking from the same wine-glass for five hours without ever filling it? Are names consistently used throughout the text – is it Catherine or Katherine? These are the sort of things that trip writers up, and copy editors are there to make sure you don’t fall on your face.

So what about spelling and grammar (see, I caught it that time)?  Well, curiously enough, that’s your job. You’re the writer and words are supposed to be your thing. More importantly words are meaning, and so is punctuation. Take the following passage: ~

he slaked his thirst taking long gulps form the glass realizing that no matter how much he drank he would never loose his thirst again: the eternal thirst

Starting a sentence with a capital letter and ending with a full stop (a period in the USA) is not optional. These, like commas, are clues that allow the reader to break sentences into digestible pieces. Learn where to use a semi-colon, a dash and a colon. You may think that this advice is obvious, but ask any agent or editor and they will tell you that there are those who believe they are unnecessary.

A spell checker is not a cure-all. The word form instead of from, and loose instead of lose, would not be picked up by a spell check. They are valid words, they’re just not the right words in that context.  Is it realizing or realising?

Is it single quotes around speech or double? Do you put one space after a full stop or two?  Is full-on hyphenated? These are things that may be adjusted by a copy editor to conform with house style, but if you don’t use them correctly in the first place then it makes the job of preserving your meaning that much harder.

Readers like to be drawn into a story. You know you’re winning when people can’t remember reading the words, they just remember what happened. Good writing is invisible, but spelling mistakes, poor grammar and bad sentence construction will have your readers puzzling out what you mean, and at that point they’ve left the story and are focused on the text – exactly what you don’t want.

In the next post in this series I’ll talk about meaning and how you select the words you need. Have your thesaurus at the ready.

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Write What You Know – Part 2

Continuing my series of posts on my tongue-in-cheek article, the Twelve Rules of Writing and in support of those people participating in this year’s NaNoWriMo, this is the second on the subject of Rule 1 – Write What You Know.

In my previous post, I discussed the need for research and why using what you know can help you establish a vivid and believable setting for your story, together with the dangers of too much detail and data dumping. This is an important aspect of writing, especially in Fantasy, but it is not enough on its own. Having a believable world is only the first step in bringing a story to life.

Writing fiction is an art – it is about creating something, not reporting something. While you can include a beautifully described world with a developed ecology, an eon-spanning history, a viable economy and a vibrant culture, that does not provide a story. We’ve painted the scenery, but the play has yet to begin.

It is tempting to make a special case for Fantasy and SF. After all, these genres are specifically about creating situations that are inherently unreal, but actually this is true of most fiction. The fact that one genre explores alternate worlds and another trawls the depths of the criminal mind is looking at the same thing inside-out – we’re in another country in both cases. That one is set in the past and another in the future is simply a matter of perspective. Even in a historical novel, the writer is making things up. The one exception is perhaps Literature, where it can be more about stye and technique than about story-telling, though the best Literature is all that and more.

So what is the purpose of fiction? For me, it is encapsulated in the following quotation:

Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures – Jessamyn West (1902-84)

If you want to discover facts you should read non-fiction. History, biography, travel, science – all will increase your knowledge and perhaps your understanding of the world. If you want truth, though, you need to read fiction.  And if you want to write fiction, you need to be able to write the truth.

“Write the Truth” was what Robert McKee wrote inside my copy of Story, his seminal work on the art of screenwriting. If you don’t have a copy then buy or borrow one.  Better still, pay to go and listen to him at one of his occasional lectures. He’s irascible and cantankerous, but you learn a hell of a lot in three days.  It’s simple enough, then.  If you want to write fiction, simply tell the truth.

That’s not an easy burden, though. If you want to discover how easy it is, simply resolve to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (as they say in court) for a single day. Careful, though – if you’re wise you’ll lock yourself in a room and neither see nor speak to anyone. The truth isn’t kind or considerate, it doesn’t take prisoners and it will trash your friendships, ruin your relationships and wreck your career.  You’re going to have to tell the butcher that she has dirty fingernails, your boss that he’s greedy and selfish, your husband/wife that they’re overweight (while you’re no sylph), and your children that they’ve disappointed you. If you make it to the end of the day with your life intact, you will be very lucky indeed.

There’s a paradox here, then. I’m saying you should write the truth, but at the same time I’m telling you that if you do, it will ruin your life – the writer destroys himself. The saving grace is that while you write the truth, you make the characters up. Your characters become your proxies for the purpose of telling the story.  But if you want your characters to be full and rounded then you need to have them react in the way that real people do and for that to reveal some truth about them, or about the situation they are in, and in doing so reveal some truth about yourself.

That can mean taking yourself and your characters into some dark places, and being honest with yourself about how you feel and how you would react in that situation in order that you can transfer those feelings to your characters and say, “That’s me, how about you?”

This is what you know. This is your truth.  You know how you feel and you can imagine how you would feel if you were in that situation. How you feel makes you unique and individual, but it also connects you to everyone else.

Maybe your characters feel the same as you and react accordingly, or maybe they sneer at your reaction and go their own way. Perhaps their reaction is prompted by yours through empathy or revulsion, either is valid, or perhaps you are greeted with incomprehension. Whatever their reaction, it must be true to you and to the story you are telling.  You don’t have to explain why they react the way they do, that should come from the story and be revealed as part of that character’s development, but the reaction should be true to that character in that situation.

As an example, take the funeral scene from The Road to Bedlam. Niall is drawn into participating in a joint memorial ceremony after the tragic death of his daughter. His initial reaction is to revert to his default behaviour and throw himself into work, organising the event. This allows him to distance himself from the shock and the grief, but it doesn’t allow him to escape. It’s only when he comes to stand before the assembly and speak about his daughter that his grief hits him, suddenly and profoundly.

As a piece of writing, that scene meant visiting the idea that I might lose my own child, and how that would feel.  It was an extremely difficult piece to write and it meant treading a very fine line between sentimentality and honesty.  It was challenging both technically and emotionally.  Personally I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written, but not everyone reacts the same way to it.  For some people, the scene leaves them bemused and untouched, while others have told me that it made them cry in public. Unsurprisingly, it’s the parents who found it the most difficult to read.

So in order to write the truth successfully, you have to be able to imagine the best and the worst, then transfer that to your characters in such a way that it becomes true for your readers, connecting back to your readers through their own empathic response and delivering a direct emotional reaction in a way that feels right and true.

Or to put it more simply, write as if it were the truth, no matter how hard that might be.

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Write What You Know – Part 1

A few weeks ago I posted a rather tongue-in-cheek article entitle The Twelve Rules of Writing, which some of you may have read and which it was nice to see a number of people commenting upon.  For me, one of the surprising comments was that people didn’t realise it was humorously intended until they got some way through it, perhaps because there are any number of articles out there where people say this sort of thing in all seriousness.

I’m also conscious that we are in the middle of NaNoWriMo and there are lots of people focused on upping their word-count with the intention of delivering a first draft by end of month.  It seemed a good time to offer some advice and encouragement, and I thought I might try and follow the themes in the original article but address them in a more serious manner.

This is the first of those articles, which I have split into two parts, the first part covering factual accuracy and the second to cover authenticity of experience, but to remind you of the original post – here it is: ~

1. Write what you know

In order for readers to engage in what you are writing and be drawn into the story, your writing must be authentic and genuine. You must therefore write about what you already know. There’s no point in researching stuff that you don’t know about, since that will immediately appear false to your readers. Stick to safe ground and it will save you a lot of effort.
As a side-effect of this, obviously science fiction and fantasy are not proper writing as you cannot possibly know about things you only imagined in the first place.

The reason I chose this as the first rule is that it seemed to me to be one of the most common pieces of advice, frequently offered without any explanation of how to follow it.  It’s trite, but it’s also true.  The key to this particular gem is authenticity.  It’s about getting inside the experience and making it immediate and personal, but it’s also about the suspension of disbelief.

Take the following example: ~

Sherlock Holmes went to the window of 221b Baker Street and glanced at the distant face of Big Ben.  It was almost midnight.  The game was afoot! (with apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

There’s nothing wrong with this as a piece of writing.  It is spelled and punctuated correctly and, though it is brief, it encapsulates a moment.  However, twenty seconds with Google Maps will show you that from any window in a flat on Baker Street it is not possible to see the face of Big Ben – it’s in the wrong direction.  Using the iconic landmark gives us a sense of place, but it’s the wrong place, and it jars the reader out of the flow of the story.

This is an obvious example, but small things can be just as damaging. I am reminded of the character living in England who opened a tin of beetroot (which is almost always sold in jars in Britain) or Robin Hood arriving at Hastings and then riding to Nottingham in a day (not possible at the time, given the roads and the available modes of transport).  These are failures of fact and highlight the importance of research. If you are going to set a story in a location then you need to know not just the geographical layout, but also the culture, the smell, the clothing, the road-markings – everything that would bring that place alive for someone who actually lived there.

The danger then is that you include this in your story. Having done your research in painful detail, you then walk your reader through it, item by item. We’ve all done it.  At the beginning of Sixty-One Nails, I describe Niall mentally mapping his tube journey in detail after a line closure. It’s a small thing, and I needed to know he could make the journey for the story to be realistic, but it was a mistake to include it. It is enough for the reader to know that it could be done. Now I know better.

A little later in Sixty-One Nails, there is a scene where the police take Niall back to his flat where he believes there is something waiting to get him.  The scene has been described as “creepy” and “chilling” and is one of my favourite scenes from the book. In the initial draft the police broke into the flat, trying to catch the intruder.  They worked quietly and moved quickly to surprise the suspect.

Later, though, I talked to serving police officers and walked them through the scene (thank you Steve and Rachel) and discovered that this is far from what would happen in reality. The police do not want to surprise intruders or catch them unawares. Surprised people are unpredictable and irrational, they can be violent to others or hurt themselves. When entering a premises where an intruder is suspected to be, the officers shout, “Police! We’re coming in!” to warn the intruder and let them prepare themselves psychologically for arrest. Of course, they also have someone at the back to prevent escape, but they do not surprise intruders if they can avoid it.

This changed the entire scene for me and resulted in a complete re-write of that section of the book.  The result is grittier, more realistic (despite the other-worldly aspects) and rings true for the reader. It also changed my impressions of the police and the work they do, the way they are trained and the professionalism with which they approach their job. That added to the richness of the narrative and the portrayal of their role in the story.

In general, the people I talk to when researching a book are pleased to be consulted and interested in the writing process. Often they seem gratified that someone in interested enough in what they do to get the detail right. My experience is that this is true of most professionals, so all you really need to do is ask. Generally people want to help.

So when you reach the end of your NaNo novel, don’t be afraid to go back and revisit the material with a critical eye.  Think who might have a perspective on what you’ve written.  Talk it through with people you know – you might be surprised by the response and enlightened as to the experiences of your friends and acquaintances. Be prepared to rewrite where you find inaccuracy, but treat the factual content with a light touch. Like salt, research makes a fine seasoning, but a poor main course.

In the next article I’m going to discuss the other aspect of Write What You Know – emotional authenticity and realistic experience – and how you write about something you’ve never seen, not done and haven’t known.

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