Monday, June 29, 2009

Sovereign to my whims: writing character 2

Okay, okay. My few but fabulous blog followers have objected to my nicking Neil Gaiman's tips on writing character in the previous post. I have explained that Gaiman's thoughts are merely a hook to haul in the blog-reader - and there at the end, nicely condensed, are my thoughts on character.

But it seems that's not good enough, or perhaps it's just not enough. I talked in an earlier post about a lecture I gave at Massey University here in Wellington about writing character in fiction, and to illustrate it I showed a photo of a real estate sign in Wellington which said For Lease: Character and pondered on how easy it would be to be able to lease such a thing for a novel or story... [Btw, when I took the pic the little green man on the crossing lights magically lit up like a character ready to lease! He's visiting again in the top corner of this post.]

Anyway, enough rambling. I thought as an offering to blogland, I'd throw up here the handout for my character lecture. It says everything in an orderly and precise fashion with a support comment by a writer after each point. I could try and write this out in lucid prose, but really, I don't have the time right now, and this seems to do the job. Apologies if some of the comments are a bit enigmatic. Feedback welcome!

A LIFE OF THEIR OWN – Writing character in fiction

1. Focus on the character traits you want revealed and when.
Richard Ford: Shed the responsibility towards what your character should do, and make them do what you want them to do.

2. Use a number of ‘blinks’ rather than long steady stares.
Stephen King: I don’t need to give you a pimple by pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown.

3. Avoid clichés. Challenge your ideas about what a character should be.
David Mitchell: A bank robber shouldn’t be tough, mean and scarred, they should be gay and Welsh. That’s a good fresh bank robber.

4. What you omit about the character is as important as what you show.

5. Let your characters escape their author. Give them dialogue and voice.

6. Layer your details bit by bit through the whole story until the character emerges.

7. Pay attention to how people think and act and feel. Characters should be verifiable and authentic.
Damien Wilkins: Men swear more when women aren’t around.

8. Make your characters dynamic, not static. They need to move and change.
Guy de Maupassant: He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.
Annie Proulx: Give them work to do. We all work in one way or another.

9. Use situations and other indirect ways of revealing character e.g. describing someone’s room or using an image (a birdlike woman can peck and flap.)

10. Be curious, let your characters surprise you. The more surprising they are the less knowable they are - which makes them more like people you’ve met.
Rachael King: The best piece of writing advice I ever got was to not make readers wonder what will happen next to your characters, but to make them wonder what they will do next.

Grace Paley: Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.


Rachael King said...

That's more like it! Excellent post, Mary, thanks for sharing.

Damon Young said...


I'm reminded of Jane Austen, writing to her sister from London. She'd seen an art exhibition, and was looking for paintings of Lizzy and Jane Bennet - only they were 'Mrs. Bingley' and 'Mrs Darcy' to her.

She found Jane, but not Lizzy - and said that Mr. Darcy perpaps didn't want paintings of his wife in the public eye ("a mixture of Pride, Love & Delicacy").

This was in 1813, over a decade since she finished P & P. And, yet, the characters still had their own lives for her; their own quirks, inclinations, follies.

Law and Order said...

Great post, Mary. I realised there's a lot of staring going on in my novel; it could do with a few blinks. ;) Thanks. Look forward to more when you get time.

Tina said...

Gotta love David Mitchell (and thanks for the useful post too, Mary!)

Fifi Colston said...

The thing I love about characters when you are really, really and truly in the writing, is how they take over and subvert anything you ever thought they might do at the start. Like living with flatmates you thought you knew...its like 'goddamit stick to my plot!' and they like truculent teenagers say 'nah- you like so don't know anything.' Terrifying and exhilarating for one who loves to call the shots and have everything go a particular way.