Archive for the ‘characters’ Category

Over Christmas, in the normal lazy Christmas traditions, I was lolling around in my pyjamas watching wonderful films and drinking excessive amounts of wine, as one does. About halfway through When Harry Met Sally, during the scene where Harry and Sally are singing ‘Surrey with a Fringe on Top’ into a karaoke machine, I had a minor revelation:

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

I am probably stating something really obvious, but if it’s obvious to others, it’s not something I’ve thought about extensively before. There’s the scene with the karaoke machine, when Harry bumps into his ex-wife and her new partner. The purpose of this scene is to show the audience that Harry isn’t over his ex-wife, and that he’s embarrassed to be seen with Sally in this situation.

This scene could have taken place at any time and in any place: Harry could have been walking down the street, alone, on any nondescript evening. But, no: he’s having  a great day with his best friend, and he’s doing something which is a lot of fun, until he sees himself through his ex’s eyes and shrivels up with embarrassment. What’s more, the sheer contrast between the mood at the beginning of the scene and at the end is striking.

The writers have put the characters in a situation which is doing as much work to push the story forward as possible: we learn so much about Harry’s feelings for Sally, his feelings for Helen (and Ira), and the friendship between Sally and Harry, all because the scene takes place within a situation which can draw out these revelations, and showing not telling the audience.

At no point does Harry need to say ‘Gosh, I feel so awkward that Helen has a new partner and I am still messing about on karaoke machines with my mates.’  He doesn’t need to say this because the audience see it perfectly, mainly because of the choices made by the writers.

I think that’s very clever, and I hope to use this little lesson in my writing. Any other examples you can think of?

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While learning to write and soaking up every possible piece of advice anyone’s proffered (and then ignoring them if I fancy breaking a couple of rules), one of the nuggets which seems applicable again and again is “Show, don’t tell“. Much of the time, “Paula looked sad” becomes a lot more powerful when rewritten as “Paula’s whole body seemed to crumple and her cheeks were wet with tears”, for example.

I had a meeting with one of our course tutors yesterday which went very well. She said that the next step I need to take with my writing is to render the inner lives of characters more fully on the page. She gave me some reading recommendations of writers who do this well (Margaret Atwood and Edith Wharton, for example), and a handout which might help, but she said that this is generally something which can’t be taught.

She said also that she’s aware that this depiction of the inner lives of characters will seem a bit like it goes against the aforementioned ‘show, don’t tell’ rule.

She’s right: often when I’m writing, I try to depict a character’s thoughts through their actions instead of telling the reader how the character is feeling or what they’re thinking. Instead of telling the reader that my character feels frustrated, a character will take a sharp intake of breath or purse their lips. This probably comes from reading a bit too much early Raymond Carver when I first started writing. So maybe it’s better if that character not only purses their lips, but also thinks about their frustration, why it’s happened, how it makes them feel or what it makes them remember.

Perhaps it’s time now to slowly and delicately unravel my ingrained habits; to tell the reader what my characters might be thinking.

What do you lot  reckon?

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My last post vaguely skirted around the worry I had about whether a character with a particular condition was adding anything to a story. I was very aware that the story should not be about the character’s condition, but should be a story with a character who  just happens to have that condition. My friend Martin made a very interesting comment, which I’m reposting here so everyone can read it:

(thanks Martin)

> The rule is generally that if something isn’t
> pushing the story forwards and there for a
> reason, it shouldn’t be in the story, right?

Generally, yes. But look at it from the viewpoint of a lexical-gustatory synaesthete. Your story would be describing the events from their default point of view (more-or-less, although the specifics will vary from person to person), and so they wouldn’t see anything extraneous to cut out.

I can remember Mat once getting feedback on a story he’d written with a lesbian protagonist, where one of the BWG members commented something along the lines of “Why is she a lesbian – it doesn’t add anything to the story” (despite the fact that, in this particular case, it actually *did*). From the point of view of this particular non-heterosexual, though, *i* always wonder why everyone tends to write about straight people all the time when it doesn’t add anything to the story; i’m also frustrated at how many stories featuring non-straight protagonists have to revolve around the fact they’re non-straight, as if it’s some insuperable obstacle that all non-straight people’s lives must revolve around, and we can never be shown being *incidentally* gay (or whatever) whilst robbing a bank (or something else rendering our sexuality ‘irrelevant’ to the story).

Ditto issues of ethnicity, disability, gender, and age. Even if you *should* slice away character’s “redundant” personal traits until you pared them down to whichever kind of “everyman” would fit the demands of the story, you’d still be making assumptions about which kinds of individuals constitute the human norm, and (by extension) which kinds of individuals get to have stories written about them (and therefore get to read about people like themselves).

Lexical-gustatory synaesthesia is pretty rare. I’m not *really* suggesting that there are oodles of lexical-gustatory synaesthetes out there wondering why people keep writing stories about non-synaesthetes whose non-synaesthesia adds nothing to the story. But i would nevertheless strongly counsel *against* treating character traits as story features you can pare away until you’re left with an able-bodied straight white male middle-class protagonist who experiences the world just like everyone else, because it’s boring, and the real world doesn’t actually work that way. You wanted to write this story because there was something about that viewpoint that intrigued you, that inspired you – go with your gut instinct, and see what happens.

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I’ve got 2000 words of TMA5 written down. It’s far from finished, and will get to at least 3000 before I consider the first draft complete. That’s how I work: I write the ‘vomit draft’, which contains as much material as possible (and a lot of repetition), and then I cut it so that the final draft is the bare bones of the story: saying as much as I can with as little words as possible.

I am worried about this story so far, though.

It’s about a girl who wakes up in the middle of the night, and certain decisions she makes about her life while in that half-awake difficult state when you can’t sleep. She writes a letter, and packs a bag.

A potential problem with this, however, is that there is not much action and little dialogue. I’m worried that a story can’t function and engage a reader without these things. I may have to add something (maybe a flashback?)…. it just seems a shame. She’s an interesting character: selfish and self-absorbed, and that’s why I’d like to write this story. I’m worried it just won’t work.

What does everyone think?

And, another potential problem: is it a little silly to write a story when the main character is unlikable? I know it’s been done to great effect by many famous authors, but they can get away with it because they did it well. It may not work so well coming from an amateur.

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He’s back, only this time he’s female. I have a recurring character, and quite frankly, he is beginning to get on my goat.

Since I read this article, I’ve been constantly aware of a recurring character in most of my stories. His age changes in each story, but he’s basically the same:

At first, he’s always called Sam or Pete. Then I think of a more interesting name and change it about 500 words into the first draft. He’s miserable: he doesn’t enjoy his job and his relationship is probably bitter and riddled with problems. Either that or his girlfriend has recently left him. He is melancholy, directionless, and feeling sorry for himself. He wants to get down onto his knees into the flowerbeds and bury his face in the dirt. This is because he lives in a smoggy city and he needs to feel the countryside. He wants to stand on top of a hill and scream into the wind.

Sometimes, he’s not even a character at all. He can be a general feeling of pervasive melancholy or a whimsical sentence… but he’s always there. Sam/Pete is indulgent, repetitive, boring and irritating and he won’t go away.

In the story I began tonight (draft 1 of TMA05), the main character is a girl of my age. She is also Sam/Pete. So is the story.

On the plus side, I think the Sam/Pete Effect tends to dissipate between Draft 1 and Draft 2. Perhaps it’s just something I need to get out of my system. I’ll keep you updated.

Does anyone else have a Sam/Pete?

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