Friday, 15 November 2013

Who is your character?

Last week I wrote about creating characters. There's so much to write about when it comes to creating characters that I thought I'd add another character post.

One of the things I mentioned last week is how I know my character Patrick so well that I can predict how he would react in any circumstance. It's like having a long-time friend.

Years ago, I participated in a short-story writing workshop that ran for an entire Saturday, about 8 hours, in fact. Facilitated by a published writer, it was a long and intense day filled with invaluable tips and hints, and a number of writing exercises.

Of the many things I learned that day, one comment the facilitator said that has stayed with me, and I regularly call it to mind when I'm writing is this:

She said, "We learn about our characters by what they say about themselves and what other characters say about them."

Think about it - it's true.

One of my favourite books of all time is Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. In the first chapter, before we've even met Amber herself, we learn all about her from a discussion between other characters.

"That Amber St. Clare!" muttered the eldest girl with a furious toss of her long blonde hair. "If ever there's a man about, you may be sure she'll come along! I think she can smell 'em out!" 

"She should've been married and bedded a year ago - that's what my mother says."

This is terrific dialogue for telling us so much about Amber's character that we can't wait to meet her.

Then there's Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte's classically dark tale of love and despair. There's a scene during which Cathy is explaining to Nelly why she accepted Edgar Linton's marriage proposal. She says, "And he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighbourhood, and I shall be proud of having such a husband."

This line, spoken by Cathy, tells us more about Cathy than she could probably tell us herself. We know she loved Heathcliff, but by fortune of birth, he was unable to give Cathy the social standing she wanted. To be married to Heathcliff would be an embarrassment.

Marriage to Edgar, on the other hand, for whom Cathy had no love, would give her that status.

This is a brilliant line as it shows just how cold-hearted and ambitious Cathy was.

One of the most important tips you'll ever get about writing is the classic, show, don't tell. It's a standard writing technique that allows the reader to really experience the mood, the scene and drama for themselves.

How much can we learn about our characters by showing them rather than simply telling?

For example, in my novel Torn, I wanted to demonstrate that Patrick had a gentle side. So, instead of simply saying, Patrick has a gentle side, I tried to show it - I hope I succeeded!

First of all I thought about the things that we see in other people that might have us say, oh he's so gentle. I thought of three things: music, children and animals.

So I showed Patrick playing his violin with passion and emotion. I showed him enjoying the company of a small child - and that child reciprocating his enjoyment ... very important! And finally I showed him being kind to animals.

I think it was Mahatma Ghandi who said, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."

Well, in illustration of my earlier point - we learn a lot about Ghandi by his words.

There's a great deal of enjoyment in discovering who your characters are. Sure, they are people sprung directly from your imagination, but as I said in my previous blog, they've been inspired by people you know or have seen.

It may be as simple as the way they smile, a certain stance or habit they have. Do they slurp their coffee? Do they stroll along when they walk or do they march briskly and determinedly? You can identify these things because of the people you've seen demonstrating these behaviours.

By my mentioning it just now, you may even have caught a quick glimpse of that person in your mind's eye because words can paint pictures. It's the same when a character becomes visible in your readers' minds.

Show don't tell and let your characters reveal themselves either through what they say or what others say about them.

I think these are most valuable tips I, as a writer, ever learned; and they are techniques I use over and over.

A book reviewer once said that she found my work cinematic. A terrific compliment - how chuffed was I?

I think in my next blog I'll talk about dialogue. Used properly, dialogue can be one of the most powerful ways of describing a character. But that's for next week.

Ciao for now!

No comments:

Post a Comment