Creating believable characters

The Writing Bit

Have you ever been handed a sheet of paper with a list of questions, like: what is the colour of your character’s eyes /hair; where was s/he born; what did his/her parents do for a living; what sort of clothes does s/he wear? Who is his/ her best friend?  And so on.

I know some people find these ‘Character Generators’ genuinely helpful in creating characters, but I personally have a major problem with them, and I think they can sometimes set you off on the wrong track.

I believe that characters in fiction should develop organically; that fictional characters, like real people, are formed partly by where they come from and what their parents did, but also by the things that happen to them and the people they come into contact with. I tend to think about new characters almost as new babies; now if you’re a parent, you’ll know that a newborn baby, despite being the most precious, wonderful thing that ever happened to you, doesn’t appear to have much of a character when it’s first born. But gradually, over the weeks and months, as your child comes into contact with various people, goes to new places and has new experiences, he or she begins to develop a very definite and unique personality and character. If you decide before you start writing how your characters dress, who their friends are, what they eat and so forth, it’s like trying to impose a ready-made character on your newborn baby. Parents help to gently shape their child’s character over many years; they don’t dictate it at the moment (or even before!) of birth. 

So before you start writing, by all means decide that you want to write about a forty-something doctor living in a caravan in Aberdeen, or a twenty-something mother at Greenham Common in the eighties. But let the characters themselves tell you the finer details by putting them in situations and seeing how they react. If you send your character on a date or for a job interview, let us see her choosing what outfit she’ll wear; if a character has just had some news he needs to share with a friend, let us see who he calls and what he says.

Character should be slowly revealed;  don’t tell us she’s shy and lacks confidence; show  her trying to think up excuses to avoid a party, or rejecting a red dress  in favour of something less noticeable. Try to show, through thoughts, action and dialogue, not only how your character acts, but how s/he reacts. Obviously, you need to orchestrate your characters to a certain extent – you don’t want to give them a completely free hand, in the same way you don’t let your kids do exactly as they please. But if you put your characters in a situation and let them react, hopefully they’ll surprise you now and again and do things you didn’t expect – and that is the real joy of fiction!

 

The Reading Bit
I was immediately engaged by Isabel Ashdown’s Glasshopper. The narrative alternates between  thirteen-year-old Jake and his alcoholic mother, Mary.  When we first meet Mary, she’s recently separated from Jake’s father and she’s in a bad way. In the absence of a competent parent (Mary spends much of her time in bed, drunk) Jake does his best to hold things together, clearing up his mum’s sick, doing the household chores and looking after his younger brother, Andy.  Jake is a thoroughly likeable character but he’s not whiter-than-white, so he’s convincing. True, he steals from the kindly newsagent a couple of times , and sometimes he thumps his brother unnecessarily. But we forgive him, because he’s hard-working and intelligent and kind and vulnerable. 

The book opens in 1985 and goes back in time to Mary’s childhood. As we follow her life through her teens, twenties and thirties, we see the choices she’s made and the consequences of those choices, and we begin to understand what has led her to the depths she’s reached when we first meet her.  Both Jake’s and Mary’s voices are strong and convincing, and as the family’s history unfolds and the narratives move closer together, there are moments of both joy and heartbreak as a number of secrets are revealed.  I enjoyed the period detail, and I loved the minor characters. I felt Jake’s voice was slightly stronger than Mary’s, but maybe that actually emphasises the fact that Mary is in some ways a slightly diminished  character. I found her story convincing and tragic, and I felt hugely sympathetic to her; if anything, I wanted more of Mary. I found this an immensely engaging and satisfying read.

The Food Bit

Butternut squash and walnut risotto
Even though they can be a faff to make, I absolutely love a good risotto, so when my husband became vegan, I set about trying to find a decent vegan alternative. Now, I have to be honest, real butter and parmesan definitely give this a more gorgeous flavour and texture than the vegan alternative, but this version is really most acceptable, and still counts as comfort food (especially when served with a large glass of red!)

Take one small or half a large butternut squash, peel and dice into cubes a bit bigger than 1cm. Season, coat with olive oil then roast in the oven until soft and slightly caremelised. While the squash is cooking, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a pan, then add a finely chopped shallot (or half an onion). Fry for a couple of minutes. Make about 600ml of vegetable stock in a small saucepan and keep it on a low heat. Add 150g Arborio rice and a crushed clove of garlic to the onions. Stir so the rice is coated in oil. Pour in a slug of white wine (if you’re vegan, check that the wine is suitable) and when that has evaporated, add a ladleful of hot stock. Stir. When this has been absorbed, add another ladleful. Repeat until most of the stock has been absorbed and the rice is cooked, but still ‘al dente’. Stir the risotto every couple of minutes. When the risotto is cooked, add a heaped teaspoon of vegan sunflower spread, a good shake of vegan ‘parmesan’ – it’s called Parmezano and you find it in the ‘free from’ section of the supermarket. Taste to get the amount right. For non-vegans, add butter and grated parmesan at this stage instead. Add the roasted squash , a handful of chopped walnuts and a good grind of coarse black pepper. Serve in the centre of the plate, topped with rocket and drizzled with olive oil.

No man (or woman) is an island

The Writing Bit
This week, I taught my first creative writing class of the new term.  Twelve lovely writers turned up, some I’ve taught before, some were new faces, but all were  fizzing with enthusiasm. They are writers at different levels of experience, from those just starting to experiment with their creative talents to those who’ve been writing for years and/or are working on novels.
What often strikes me with a newly-formed group is how, when reading back an exercise, the writer will often preface the reading with ‘it’s not very good’, or ‘I don’t think I’ve done it right’. They then usually go on to read something with a particularly vivid image, or a beautifully lyrical sentence, or a striking and memorable character, and they’re often genuinely surprised at the positive response they get from the  rest of the class.
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Gradually, over the weeks and months, confidence starts to improve and the apologies stop. Ok, it may be partly to do with the fact that the writer starts to notice the improvements in his or her own work, but it may have more to do with the positive reinforcement provided by the other writers. This is why I believe that one of the most important aspects of the writer’s life is to have contact with people who are doing the same thing you’re doing, whether it’s face-to-face, or by telephone, email or social networking.
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When my new group took a break for tea, there was an immediate buzz of conversation as existing members caught up with what they’d been writing (or not writing!) over the summer and new members joined in with their own experiences and quickly became part of the group. 
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Of course, it’s always going to happen that lasting friendships develop when a group of like-minded people  get together, but I’d love to know whether creative writing classes have a higher friendship rate than, say, art classes, or French cookery. Because it seems to me that writers face a unique set of challenges that only other writers can truly understand, and for that reason, we have the inclination and ability to ‘bond’  quite easily. Once we’ve bonded, we support one another to aid survival in the world of non-writers, where  people tend not to have their heads full of fictional  characters constantly  demanding  attention.
As well as simply ‘understanding’, writing chums are invaluable for helping you to solve plot and character problems. I have one friend in particular who is great at this. When either of us hits a tricky phase in our work, we meet up or chat on the phone. Sometimes, one of us makes a helpful suggestion about the other’s work, but often, it’s the very act of discussion that stimulates ideas and raises possible solutions.  ‘Talking it out’ seems to be the answer.
What do you think? Do you find contact with writing friends essential to your writing life? Or do you prefer to solve problems alone?
By the way, I met my friend on a writing course ten years ago!

 
The Reading Bit
This week, I am sad to report that I have given up on a book. I hate to do that, but let’s face it, life’s too short to stick with a novel that’s not gripping you when there are so many others to be read. I’ll always give a book fifty pages, and if I’m still unsure, I’ll go to a hundred. But by p50 of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I’d had enough. The story is told in two voices, one of which I quite liked, but not enough to really hold my attention, and one of which I found annoyingly pretentious (I know she was supposed to pretentious, but even so).  After making the decision to leave it, I read some Amazon reviews; some readers loved it some hated it, and quite a few said they didn’t like it at first but it was worth persevering with and they warmed to it over time. Maybe I should have stuck with it, but to be honest, I felt quite relieved to be able to start a new book. What do you think? If a book  hasn’t drawn you in after 50 pages, do you persevere?
 
The Food Bit
This cassoulet is great in chilly weather, but I’m happy to report that it goes equally well when eaten outside on a balmy Indian-Summer evening. I’m a cassoulet convert – I used to think beans were boring (well, on their own, they are) but this seems to hit the spot. I make enough for six portions and freeze what I don’t use. Heat some olive oil in a large pan, then add a large onion, sliced; one each of red, green and yellow peppers, diced; one sliced courgette and a few quartered mushrooms. Fry for a few minutes, then add 3-4 fat cloves of chopped, crushed garlic. Then tip in: two tins chopped tomatoes and one tin each (drained) of cannelini, haricot, borlotti and black eye beans (you can use other types of beans if you prefer). Add about half a pint of strong vegetable stock, a good slosh of red wine, a rounded teaspoon of dried mixed herbs (or a good handful of fresh herbs) and a dollop of tomato puree. Let this simmer away for about 30-40 minutes, then add seasoning to taste. Serve with a green vegetable, crusty bread and a full-bodied red wine. Note: oddly, this tastes better if it’s just hot rather than piping hot. Suitable for vegans, though check the wine.

For more about me and my work, check out my website: http://www.susanelliotwright.co.uk

Creative Writing classes – worth doing? (this post applies mainly to FE courses – I’m saving MAs for a future blog)

 The Writing Bit

There’s much debate about whether creative writing can be taught, but does anyone question a musician  for talking piano lessons? A vocalist for having a voice coach? A painter for studying art?

Even a modicum of talent can be nurtured.  A good course can turn not-very-good writers into competent ones, competent writers into better ones and good writers into exceptional ones.  Every writer, no matter how inexperienced, can learn to sharpen their observational skills, develop their descriptive powers and generally improve and hone their craft.

How should you choose a class?

I’ve often heard potential writing students advised to find a class where the tutor is well-known or at least published.  It’s certainly something you should consider, but it’s not the only thing.  Being published doesn’t automatically make someone a good teacher. The line between publication and non-publication is often a fine one, which means there are a lot of good and even exceptional writers who are as yet unpublished, some of them incredibly skilled and inspirational teachers.  There are also a lot of published novels that really aren’t very well -written, and I don’t think it’s right that one tutor be considered better than another solely on the grounds that he/she is published.

As a student and as a tutor, I’ve met a number of CW tutors over the years. Many were and are excellent at what they do, incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. But I can think of at least three, all well-published, two quite well-known, who were appalling. They shall remain nameless! One was lazy,  only giving students’ work the briefest of glances, often in class while another student was reading;  another  halved the class in a few weeks by shredding the students’ confidence, and the other, on advising a mutual colleague about running a course said, ‘just tell them they’re wonderful and take the money.’!!

 So, here are a few questions that might help you decide:

  • Can you sit in on a couple of classes before joining? If so, you can see the tutor’s style and how the session works as well as chatting to the group about their experience of this tutor.
  • Is there a good mix of writing exercises, reading and feedback?
  • If the class only involves workshopping, might a writers’ group be more appropriate for you than a structured class?
  • Does everyone get a chance to read their work?
  • Is the feedback sensitive and constructive?
  • How inspiring is the teacher?
  • Does he/she address the various aspects of the craft of writing, or is the feedback too general?

A creative writing class will provide contact with other writers, as well as precious time and space in which to write.  A well-run class should also motivate and inspire, and can often lift your work to a whole new level.  Good luck!

The Reading Bit

After the mixed reviews of A Visit from the Goon Squad, I approached it with some trepidation, but I have to report, it’s brilliant!  The characters leap off the page, a disparate bunch with assorted flaws,  all of whom are connected by two key characters, kleptomaniac Sasha and her record-producer boss, Bennie, and all of whom we instantly care about, even when they’re less than sympathetic. The narrative doesn’t stay with Sasha or Bennie; it zooms off into other viewpoints, skips back and forth in time between past, present and future, and in one chapter, even takes the form of Powerpoint slides, a technique I thought I’d hate, but I loved it. The unusual structure emphasises the book’s main theme of time and what it does to the characters – the ravages of ageing, how life doesn’t pan out the way you’d planned it, and how sometimes, it’s cut tragically short. Have you read it? What did you think?

The Food Bit

Whether it’s the weather, (if you see what I mean) I don’t know, but I was gripped by an overwhelming desire to make cakes this week. Given that my husband is now a vegan, knocking up a few cakes isn’t quite as easy as it used to be, but there are a few decent recipes around, and this one for banana cupcakes is a favourite: Stir together 120g flour, 100g sugar, one tsp baking powder and a pinch of salt. Set aside. Whizz together one ripe banana, 80g vegan margarine (Pure make a good sunflower spread) 60g peanut butter & 80ml soya milk.  Mix the wet and dry ingredients together and spoon into paper cake cases.  Sprinkle dark chocolate chips or shavings on top (some dark chocolate contains milk, so check first) and bake at gas 5/190C for about 15 minutes or until golden. I like these best the next day, but Vegan Husband eats them warm. Instead of topping with chocolate chips, you can decorate with buttercream by whisking together some vegan sunflower spread and sieved icing sugar, then piping a pretty swirl on top.  Back to main courses next week.

It’s all about pace – and weather

The Writing Bit

We’ve had a good bit of weather in Sheffield this week.  The wind’s been so strong that it tore a huge branch from an old horse chestnut tree in the park where I walk  the dog, blocking the path and scattering a carpet of twigs and conkers  all around.  I like weather you can’t ignore, weather that reminds you that you’re alive and that nature is a force to be reckoned with.  I love the excitement and intensity, the exhilaration of being caught in wind so strong that you have to hang on to a lamppost to avoid being swept into oncoming traffic, or rain so heavy that there’s no point  in sheltering because you know you can’t get any wetter.

But it’s also good when it stops. The calm and relative quiet when you finally shut the door against the pandemonium of high winds; the comfort of warm, dry clothes and a rough towel for your hair after you’ve been caught in a downpour and are soaked to the skin.

I’ve found this quite helpful in thinking about the pace of a narrative, which is what I’ve been addressing in my editing sessions this week. Yes, intensity and excitement is great, but too much of it can be wearisome. By the same token, calm and quiet can be soothing, but if things are too quiet for too long, we fall asleep. 

So we need to be aware of pace so that we can actively enhance it.For scenes where you need to increase the pace or tension,  use  more short sentences than long ones, and choose words with ‘hard’ sounds, such as:  c, k, p, t, d, g, b. For example, ‘He picked up the pace.  He could hear the killer  behind him as he cut across the path. He stopped and turned.’ 

For slower, more thoughtful or romantic scenes, use longer sentences with softer sounds, such as: m,n, l, w, v, f, h, s.  For example,  ‘As she lay sleepily in his muscular arms, he stroked her hair softly and whispered the words she’d been longing to hear since the moment they’d first met.’ 

 Sick bag, anyone? Dreadful clichés, I know, but you see what I mean? 

The Reading Bit

I’m currently re-reading The Road Home by the wonderful Rose Tremain. This novel is a masterclass in creating sympathetic and interesting characters. The main character is so likeable that even when he does something bad later in the novel, we forgive him.  We even care about the minor characters, all of whom have their own complete stories.  A fine example of how sympathetic character + hardship + motivation and goals + obstacles along the way = good novel.

The Food Bit

Vegan highlight this week was sausage and mash with onion and red wine gravy.  After trying various vegan sausages, I discovered the Linda McCartney ones – very acceptable indeed. The trick is not to overcook them.  Make the gravy by slicing onions (one onion per two people) and frying them slowly in olive oil until they begin to caramelise. Stir in enough flour to make a paste, adding a touch more oil if necessary,  and cook  for a couple of minutes. Add vegetable stock, a good slosh of red wine (not all wine is suitable for vegans) and a dollop of dijon mustard. I usually stick in a couple of bay leaves and a some chopped or dried sage as well, plus a few grinds of black pepper. Salt to taste. Cook for a few minutes until thick and gorgeous, then serve with the sausages, sweet potato mash and whatever vegetables you have knocking around. 

  •  It’s my belief that ‘some’,  ‘a good slosh’,  and ‘a dollop’  are perfectly reasonable units of measurement. I hope you agree! If in doubt, taste. 

What to do with a novel that’s ‘almost there’

 If you know your book’s good, if you’ve come pretty damn close to selling it but the deal is still elusive, you have four choices:  
  1. Keep trying — there are lots of small presses as well as mainstream publishers. Maybe the next editor it goes to will be the one who falls in love with it.
  2. Self-publish — a respectable option these days. Many authors self-publish very successfully. Not to be confused with vanity publishing.
  3. Put it aside and start a new book — good option if you’ve another idea that excites you. Many authors have actually published earlier novels after their debut.
  4. Put it aside for a substantial amount of time so you can really get some distance — at least six months is good, 9-12 months is better.

The fourth option is the one I chose a year ago. Most writers put work away for a couple of weeks as a matter of course, and even this little bit of distance helps show up things like typos, repeated words, clumsy sentences, unnecessary words/phrases, and tense slips  etc. I’ve just hauled my novel out of its virtual drawer after a year. I’ve read it again with fresh eyes, which sounds a bit like something you’d buy at a cheap butcher’s but you know what I mean, and I asked myself the following questions:

·         Does the narrative drag in places?

·         Are there areas where the pace is a little hectic?

·         Have I been telling when I should be showing?

·         Have I over-explained?  

·         Will my reader care about my characters as much as I do?

These are the questions I feel are appropriate to my novel – you may have others, e.g. does the story start in the right place? Whose story is it? Is there enough tension? Is the ending satisfying?  I’m not saying every writer needs to put every book away for a year – with a bit of luck, you’ll get that publishing deal on the first round of submissions! But if you’ve come very near to a deal but not quite made it and you know that you, your writer friends and even your agent are way too close to see the problems, putting the novel away for a big chunk of time might be the answer.

So, this week, I’ve been going through my manuscript with highlighter pens in various colours, marking out areas that need attention. I’m happy to say that overall, I enjoyed my novel, and there are bits that still make me cry. But there are areas that need improving, and I plan to tackle these over the next few weeks. Watch this space!

The food bit

This week, I’m only going to introduce the food bit, because the writing bit is slightly longer than I’d planned and I don’t want anyone dozing off.  I am passionate about food, and still occasionally work as a chef. My cooking life has become more interesting of late because of my husband’s interest in veganism.  Now, vegetarianism is easy-peasy; you can even do fine dining for veggies. But I’m finding veganism a little more challenging. I’m on a quest, people. I won’t be cooking vegan every day, I won’t even be cooking vegetarian every day – I still eat fish, and very occasionally, chicken – but I’m massively reducing my consumption of these and of dairy produce. So, I’m on a mission to produce delicious vegan meals, as well as the odd non-vegan meal. Again, watch this space!