Why did she say that?

How often in creative writing workshops have you heard that it is important to make your characters come alive? Like most authors I’ve struggled with that over the years but let me tell you, when it happens it’s both exhilarating and problematic.

I’ve plotted every scene of my current novel in sufficient detail for me to work on the first draft, which I’ve been doing now for a couple of months. There are quite a few characters in addition to the protagonist and antagonist, some I’m happy with, some I’m not. The latter need more work but the former feel well-rounded and I can see them. The problem starts when they’re so well drawn that they say things that aren’t in the plot but seem entirely appropriate for them to say at the time and in the place they find themselves. The other characters then need to react to the new situation and the story takes a twist I wasn’t expecting.

I could, of course, just go back and make the character say what I wanted them to say, bully them into submission if you like, but that would then be me talking, not the character. It would be false and, after all, I’ve wanted my characters to jump off the page so shouldn’t complain when they do.

How have I drawn them in this way? I don’t know. I’m a writer not a tutor and there are many good books out there which explain better than I could how to strive for this. All I know is that the two characters in this novel who seem to be speaking out of turn the most are ones where I drafted character sketches in the early planning. They didn’t become the characters I’d sketched, not entirely, but something in the process must have made them more real to me – allowed them (and me) to break free of two dimensions.

It’s exciting when this happens, even if it does mean parts of the plan need to be screwed up and re-written. It’s more than worth it in the end.

Lost the plot – finding your characters

One of the speakers at Ennis Book Club Festival last weekend said that he starts a new novel as soon as he completes one, within a day. This started me thinking about how he gets his ideas and I tried to come up with what I might write when I’ve finished my current project. No luck.

Then someone sent me a character profile we’d discussed, something I’d become stuck on and she’d suggested a new pair of eyes might help. This gave me the idea for an exercise.

Firstly write a profile/backstory for a character e.g. Georgina is now in a wheelchair. She’s 27 years of age, black and has just lost her job. She was secretary to the boss of a meat canning factory until she told him she suspected someone was tampering with the health and safety reports. Her boyfriend of the last five years has also dumped her … etc, etc.

Make this as brief or as extensive as you like.

Then do the same for two, or possibly three, more characters. Perhaps think about varying their ages, social position, location, etc.

Then ask the question: What connects these people?

If you’ve also set up questions within the profiles, for example, why is Georgina now in a wheelchair, try answering them.

Hopefully this might lead to the outline for a story. If not, you can always use the characters somewhere else and the exercise won’t be wasted.

Let me know if it works for you.

Going off on one …

There’s always a tension in writing between enjoying the process and hitting a deadline, even if that deadline is self-imposed. I’ve written before in this blog that I’m a planner; I like to have the skeleton of the story and an outline of characters in place before I put metaphorical pen to paper.

In my latest project I’m writing a family saga covering over a hundred years, based on family history research I’ve carried out since the 1990s. The principal characters are based on several generations of family members and what I know about their lives. Their stories gave me the structure for my story.

So, as is my wont, I planned the novel from start to finish and sketched characters using the masses of material I had to hand. I then found it a wrench to depart from the facts to create a narrative which hung together. Every time I didn’t have the necessary information it gave me grief – I had to keep telling myself ‘it’s a novel, it’s a novel, make it up!’. I’ve written two earlier novels and lots of short stories which were, more or less, complete figments of my imagination so it shouldn’t have been a problem, but it was. I’d become constrained by the truth. Day by day I started to make little excursions into fantasy, only small steps at first – the colour of hair, the description of a cottage – and I enjoyed it. Before long I was inventing new characters, battles, journeys and, best of all, conversations.

Then a new problem arose. I’ve been enjoying the trips so much that I keep on inventing more and more. I keep, as my wife describes it, ‘going off on one’, travelling paths which are not on my map, creating lives which never existed, just because they’re interesting to explore.

Is this what writing is all about, inventing and exploring the worlds of the mind? I’m beginning to believe it is.