Tag Archives: characters

In Search of Fairy Dust

Somewhere in here, nurse, there's a story, and we're going to save it!

Somewhere in here, ladies and gentlemen, is a story. Let’s try and save it!

I’ve got the editing blues.

After almost three years of sporadic work, the first draft of book 2 is complete and I’m half way through the read through. It’s confirmed my darkest fears: it’s in need of some serious surgery.

First, there are the slips of voice. Was I re-reading Pride and Prejudice, dear reader, when I came over all Jane Austen in the middle of my contemporary psychological thriller?

And what was I thinking of when I plodded my way through all those boring passages: she did this, then she did this, then she did this – and voilà! The cup of tea was made!

And then there are the abrupt transitions, the scenes that don’t seem to have an actual point, the echoes of words and phrases; and those damnable adverbs I’d tried so hard to purge but have somehow bubbled up anyway through the cracks of my subconscious and turned my sentences an alarming shade of mauve.

Keep breathing, I tell myself. It is good that you can see there’s work to do. Admitting the problem is the first step to solving it. Etc. Etc.

But the truth is, those problems are only part of the picture.

Before I started the edit, I took two weeks away from writing to cleanse my mind. It gave me the chance to read and re-read a whole pile of psychological thrillers, proper books by proper authors who had navigated the battlefield of publishing and landed an actual deal. It reminded me that there’s something else I need to add to the mix…

Fairy dust.

Because there are a hell of a lot of books out there. More specifically, there’s a truck-load of psychological thrillers aimed at the female market. Loads of victims and villains, secrets and lies, mysterious pasts and vengeful friends/siblings/former partners. And there are plenty that are competently written, with clean prose and a story that makes sense and keeps you turning the pages.

But the thing is, after a while, the vast majority of those novels sort of merge into one other. And that’s where the fairy dust comes in.

As part of my reading marathon, I turned back to two books I’d loved. No prizes for originality here, because they were both mega-sellers: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I could see that they deserved their success. I could see that they both had something special, something that separated them from the rest. I tried to put my finger on what it was.

In the case of Gone Girl, you could argue that it’s about the voice or the language, those clever descriptive phrases that capture so perfectly a mood or an expression in just two or three words. For The Girl on the Train it might be the concept, elevating something so ordinary – the commute to work – to a stage for gripping drama.

But whilst those elements play their part, I think at bottom they both have something else, something that’s both elegantly simple and nightmarishly complex all at one.

Compelling characterisation.

I mean, I really liked Rachel, Hawkins’ troubled, alcoholic, quietly desperate protagonist. I rooted for her. Remember that time when she threw up on the stairs of her friend’s flat and then went to bed, telling herself she’d get up and clean it all up before her friend got home? Yes it was pathetic and disgusting, but all I wanted to do was take her by the shoulders and shake her, tell her to clean it up now, no matter how bad she felt, because I knew what was coming if she didn’t. I cared about her. I wanted to save her from herself.

And then at the opposite end of the spectrum there’s Amy, Gone Girl‘s anti-heroine. Amy isn’t so much flawed as twisted, psychotic, poisonous – and written with so much snap. She’s horrifying but fascinating, so dark that she sends a delicious shiver of fear down the spine. Like her husband, Nick, I had to know what was going on inside her head.

So I know that when I’ve cut the pointless scenes, and scrubbed out the adverbs, and improved the narrative flow, there’s another, more important thing on my to do list for the next draft:

I have to turn my protagonist into a heroine. I have to find the fairy dust.fairy-dust

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The hotshot, the hero and the loathly lady – creativity and archetypes

Tuesday evening took me to the environs of Liverpool Street for another treat from the London Writers’ Café – a workshop on characterisation run by Rowan Coleman, author of no less than twenty-three books under three pen names.  When someone has been published that many times with still not a grey hair to be seen, you know she’s worth listening to.

The workshop was great, the Q&A even better.  Having spent the previous hour and a half poring over exercises to get under the skin of the characters in our various works in progress, an annoying little doubt was niggling away at me: was it really possible to invent an entirely new set of characters for any new project? Or if, as it’s often said, a writer’s characters are all really aspects of him- or herself, does the time come when we exhaust our cast lists and begin to reproduce essentially the same people?

What better person to ask than someone who’s half-way through their twenty-fourth book?

Rowan started by saying that she believed all her characters were unique. Perhaps, she suggested, I should buy all twenty-three of her books and let her know whether I agreed? (That’s a challenge I may yet take up – although if anyone reading this has got there ahead of me, please let me know what you think.) But, she mused, perhaps there is a signature that an author leaves on her characters, something that you might discern if you read all her works back to back. Rowan, it turns out, is a fellow fan of Stephen King, and having done just that with a sizable chunk of his output she thought that was the case.

But what then is that signature? Is it simply that a strangely high proportion of The Master’s protagonists are white men of a certain age with more than a passing interest in creative writing? Or is it something deeper – something about their way of speaking and interacting with others? About their way of looking at the world? And do we, as readers, connect with those characters because, no matter how different we may be on the surface, there’s something there that we recognise in ourselves?

Jung hypothesised that there were twelve primary archetypes, including the hero, the innocent and the jester (Bridget Jones’s Diary, anyone?). But a bit more online digging reveals that’s a long way from the end of the archetype listing: the intriguingly named www.howtofascinate.com tells me that there are, in fact, 49 personality archetypes – which, with the help of their “senior strategists” can be analysed to determine someone’s “Personality Brand”.  I don’t know about you, but I’m fascinated…

Then there are the archetypes-within-archetypes: eight hero archetypes apparently (http://www.likesbooks.com/eight.html), and sixteen master villains (http://www.tamicowden.com/archetypes.htm) – well, the villains would have to go one better.

The loathly lady - she was furious when she found the artist hadn't painted her best side.

The loathly lady was furious when she found the artist hadn’t painted her best side.

And that’s before you get to Wikipedia, which lists over 130 stock characters. These include the fabulously alliterative (“loathly lady – a woman who appears to be hideous, often cursed”), the satisfyingly rhyming (“hotshot – also known as ‘badass'”) and the weirdly specific (“Herr Pastor – an authoritarian pastor in an ethnic German congregation”).

What conclusion to draw from this little lot? I’m not sure I know, but I’ve decided on one thing: if, as writers, our characters really are aspects of ourselves, I can’t wait to unleash my inner Herr Pastor.

The Jane Fairfax Dilemma

I have a problem. And, as with so much in life, it’s a problem which brings Jane Austen to mind.

Fellow devotees of Miss Austen will know that Emma Woodhouse, heroine of the eponymous novel, just can’t bring herself to like Jane Fairfax. Jane is the niece of one of Emma’s neighbours and, despite the two girls being roughly the same age and Jane being intelligent, educated and otherwise the epitome of the suitable companion, Emma finds her – well, more than a bit annoying. The problem, we are told, is that she is too “reserved”. Emma can’t work out what she thinks about anything; she can’t confide in her; she can’t instruct her, or scold her, or laugh with her. In short, she can’t work out what makes her tick. As a result, she decides the less she has to do with her, the better.

"How was I to know you wanted the last sandwich!"

“How was I to know you wanted the last sandwich!”

Mid-way through plotting my second novel, I’ve had to conclude that my main character has more than a touch of the Janes. Whilst several of my minor dramatis personae have introduced themselves with unexpected enthusiasm, telling me all sorts of unimagined things about themselves, Lucy – or maybe Chloe (this woman is such an enigma, I can’t even work out what her name is) – is keeping resolutely shtum.

Of course, I know what happens to her – at least, the big stuff that forms the core of the plot. My problem is that I can’t work out what she thinks about it. And that means I don’t know how she reacts. Which is a bit of a problem when it comes to trying to tell a story.  It also means I’m finding myself coming over all Emma Woodhouse – I mean, I know Lucy’s a very private person and all, but surely she can tell me what she’s thinking?  I created her after all!  Doesn’t that entitle me to some kind of confidence?  Doesn’t she have any sense of gratitude?!

Quite apart from needing to understand her better to work out what she’d do in the different situations in which she’s going to be finding herself, I can’t help but feel I need to get to know Lucy if I’m going to be spending time with her. I mean, writing a novel takes a long time. Who wants to hang around with someone who never tells you anything about themselves? And I want the reader to sympathise with her – let’s face it, if she refuses to give much of a clue as to how she feels about anything, that’s going to be an uphill struggle.

In Emma, Emma and Jane do eventually become friends: Jane has a secret, you see, and when that secret is revealed Emma feels that she understands and can forgive her previous reticence; Jane, in turn, is freed from the restraint that left her unable to engage with Emma frankly and openly.

So what lessons are there here for Lucy and me?

Clearly this woman has a secret she isn’t telling.  I need to get her to open up.  I need to get her to trust me. The question is: how to do it?

I’ve already told her I know about her past. It didn’t help.  She just looked at me, as if saying, “You might think you know…”  So perhaps I’ll have to start small.  Maybe I can get her to tell me what her favourite film is, or whether she prefers tea or coffee, baths or showers, Fitzwilliam Darcy or Christian Grey.

Perhaps that will do the trick. But I can’t help thinking: isn’t it a shame you can’t just take your imaginary character to the pub?

 

 

Let’s Get Metaphysical

Ooh, I wanna hear your philosophy talk…

Right, that’s enough of that. Despite being one of those people who if asked “If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” would reply, “Yes, of course it bloody does! What a ridiculous question!” I have found my mind wandering in a vaguely philosophical direction in recent weeks.

Tree in forest The culprit was a blog post by a playwright who was talking about her first experience of having a play staged.  To her shock, she found the finished product didn’t bear that close a resemblance to what she’d had in mind when she wrote it. “That’s the thing with writing plays,” she said, “It’s a collaborative effort.”

To start with, I breathed a big sigh of relief that I’d never tried my hand at any kind of script.  I wasn’t sure I’d like that, I thought to myself, handing over my work to someone else –  a whole bunch of someone elses, in fact – and then holding my breath to see what emerged at the other end.  I liked the feeling that, in writing a book, I was in control: my characters would say and do only what I told them to. Ok, sometimes they developed minds of their own and tried nudging me in different directions to the ones I’d planned, but when it came down to it, I was the person who decided what words went on the paper; the product began and ended with me.

Until I thought about it a bit more and realised that was rubbish.

For the last month or so, I’ve been sweating away over a re-write of my first novel.  After much excitement and getting to acquisitions stage with six UK publishers, sadly no-one got as far as making an offer to publish.  I did, though, get lots of feedback.  It’s that feedback, together with the wise suggestions of my agent, that I’ve been soldiering away with for the last month, desperately hoping that the next version will have dealt with enough of the issues for someone to say “Yes.”

So the most recent incarnation of my book is already, to a considerable extent, the product of a whole range of people: my brilliant beta readers, who took so much time to give me their comments and encouragement; a whole pile of editors, who distilled their reasons for rejecting me (hmph!) with varying degrees of clarity; and my agent, who helped me work through it all and come up with some ideas to respond.

But of course, it’s not just those people who are helping decide what my book will be – ultimately, it’ll be the creature of whatever handful of people I can bribe, cajole or threaten into actually reading it.  I might think I’m the god of my own little literary world, setting out my story, deciding who does what to whom and why; but just because I think I’ve explained something, it doesn’t mean my readers will agree (there’s a life lesson lurking here somewhere…). They might interpret the words I think of as being only mine in any number of different ways. They might see all kinds of different motivations for the way my characters behave.  They might – whisper it – not like the characters I like.

I remember in one GCSE English class the teacher reading a passage from To Kill A Mockingbird.  As I recall, there’s a bit where Scout is in fancy dress, oddly enough as a ham (can that really be right? Sounds unlikely, but it’s what I remember). The costume was held in shape by a frame of wire mesh, and the teacher said that if we were studying the novel at A’-level, we’d be talking about the way that this mesh represented the cage of expectations and social convention in which Scout found herself. There was a good deal of snorting at this, with one boy making the point that perhaps the author meant nothing of the sort; perhaps he was simply describing her costume.  “Well, perhaps,” said the teacher, “But if that’s the case, why is it there?”

Fast forward a couple of decades, and Lionel Shriver is being interviewed about the creepily brilliant We Need To Talk About Kevin.  There were deep divisions, apparently, amongst the readership: was Kevin the way he was because his career-focussed mother starved him of love and affection as he grew up? Or was it just that he was born an evil little so and so? Infuriatingly, Ms Shriver said she wasn’t going to tell us. “If I haven’t told you after 300 pages,” she said (a little sniffily, I thought), “There’s no point in telling you now.”

At the time, I found this rather annoying: couldn’t she just put all those irritating people who obviously thought a woman should sacrifice her whole personal identity the minute she reproduced back in their boxes, and tell them that Kevin was a nasty piece of work?  But now I think: maybe it doesn’t matter.  After all, I’m bringing my own ethical framework – alright, my prejudices – to my interpretation of this book, just as much as anyone else; and the author is doing exactly the same thing.  Maybe that means that Kevin has his own life now, independent of Lionel Shriver, existing in the imaginations of all those different readers? Maybe it doesn’t matter what the author thinks is the truth – perhaps each of those interpretations, each one of those different Kevins, is just as valid as hers?

Recognising that we don’t really own or control our story may be frightening – but it’s also fascinating.  Sending your characters out into the world for people to like or loathe, to decide what they think about their behaviour and motives – well, it’s a pretty exciting business, isn’t it? And while writing may be a solitary pursuit, I think that means that telling a story really isn’t.

Out of time

Last week, courtesy of an offer from someone I follow on Twitter, I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of Joanna Trollope’s reworking of Sense and Sensibility in a modern setting.  As part of the evidently industrial-scale marketing of their “Austen Project”, which will see six contemporary novelists “reimagine” Jane Austen’s works, Harper Collins sent pre-publication copies to reading groups around the country, in return for their blogging about them, taking part in Austen-related activity and generally “immersing yourselves in the romantic world of Austen”.

It take more than an iPod to make a twenty-first century heroine...
It takes more than an iPod to make a twenty-first century heroine…

Well, I didn’t sign up for that; but given that I’ve received a rather beautiful edition of a book for precisely no pence, I’m happy to join in.  Sadly, though, I’m not sure my thoughts on this literary outing are going to be quite what HC were hoping for…

This has nothing to do with the writing.  I’m not the biggest fan of Joanna Trollope – the covering letter says that this book “perfectly affirms the description of Joanna as a modern day Jane Austen” whilst subtly avoiding the direct claim that anyone has ever actually described her as such before – but from my limited exposure to her novels, she seems to write a reasonable story perfectly well.  The disease stems simply from the misguided attempt to transpose Jane Austen’s characters into today’s world; unfortunately, it’s terminal.

It is difficult to imagine it working well for any of Austen’s novels, so bound are her characters by the social mores of her time.  It certainly doesn’t work for Sense and Sensibility, where at the very core of the plot lies the Dashwood women’s vulnerability, their inability to fend for themselves.  At a time when women’s opportunities for work were strictly circumscribed, and any attempt by a woman of a certain class to enter paid employment would be accompanied by plummeting social status and the loss of former friends, the death of a provider and accompanying loss of a home is genuinely pitiable.  Anyone with a second X chromosome can be grateful that this is not the case in England today.

The result is that it’s difficult to summon up a lot of sympathy for Trollope’s tedious, middle-class women bleating that they’re simply not “fit for work.” Send them to ATOS forthwith! And instead of feeling indignant at the sisters’ dreadful sister-in-law Fanny and her lily-livered husband John, you can’t help feeling that they’re not, actually, behaving all that unreasonably.  What’s wrong with wanting to move into and redecorate a home you’ve inherited? What’s wrong with feeling disinclined to share it – and otherwise financially support – your shiftless sisters and pointless mother, none of who have apparently seen fit to do a day’s work in their lives?

It would have taken a little more than having Marianne listen to an iPod to bring this story successfully into the twenty-first century. It feels like we need some kind of desperate illness for Mrs Dashwood at the very least, if we’re going to be able to muster a bit of sympathy; perhaps Marianne could be autistic and Elinor have some kind of mental health problem to convince us that they really, really couldn’t be expected to work for their bread. Does take us rather far from the original story though, doesn’t it?

And that’s the problem. We are all, to some extent, products of our time (anyone who’s cringed at racist comments by their grandparents will know the truth of that) and characters in fiction are no different.  That doesn’t mean we appreciate their trials and tribulations any the less if they’re set in an historical context ; simply that when they’re plucked out of their own time and plonked down in another era, they’re often left shuffling uncomfortably in their new surroundings.

Shakespeare, of course, is the greatest casualty of this inexplicable desire to transplant characters out of time.  The success of the Globe theatre demonstrates it’s a ploy that simply isn’t necessary to draw audiences: people are just as capable of imagining their characters in sixteenth century Verona as they are of empathising with them through their fears and hopes and loves. And whilst no-one has had the temerity to “reimagine” the Bard’s words just yet – not under the same title, anyway – the violence done to his language by ill thought-out changes of context can be gruesome.  I’ll never forget the production of King Lear, attended with my A’-level English class, which had a 1930s Gloucester in a straitjacket instead of stocks, loudly declaiming his “wooden prison”.  There were loads of those verbal-visual mismatches.  Apart from being wildly distracting it Made No Sense.

That’s not to say it can never work.  I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a mud bath – yes, really – and it was brilliant.  But it takes a lot of care and skill.  You can’t just say, oh Shakespeare’s so wonderful, he transcends the boundaries of place and time, and set Macbeth in a New York doughnut factory without any consideration of the actual words.

But back to Trollope (any relation?) and the Austen project. I’d like to say that, regardless of the difficulty of transposing Austen into the modern era, this is still a good read.  Honestly though, I can’t.  All the characters we’re supposed to sympathise with are so bloody annoying: Marianne is self-indulgent, self-regarding and downright rude; Elinor’s such a martyr she needs a slap; and this Colonel Brandon is even more of a wet fish than the original.  Enough of them all!

I see Alexander McCall Smith is lined up to rework Emma.  I think he’s got an easier ride with that one, but even so…  I might just content myself with re-reading the greatest English novelist of all time.

Columbo and the art of character in fiction

I was watching an episode of Columbo this weekend.  That’s virtually unavoidable if you have a TV, given the frequency with which reruns are scheduled on one or another cable channel.  And that’s a good thing in my book.

I didn’t catch the very beginning of the episode, but that didn’t matter.  Peter Falk was there in his crumpled mac, mumbling away innocently to a well-dressed gentleman of a certain age, who was condescendingly explaining to the hapless inspector how to do his job. “Aha!” I thought, “And there’s the murderer!” Columbo - questions

It’s a strange thing for a detective story to ensure you’re so certain of whodunit from virtually the opening scene. And often, the opening scene actually shows the murder itself, so there’s not even any mystery about how they did it.  There were 69 of episodes altogether, you know – I looked it up.  I’ll admit it, I haven’t watched every last one – well, not so far as I know – but I’d be willing to bet that you could switch on at any point, and identify the perpetrator in less than a minute.

Can you imagine pitching that idea?

And yet Columbo ran for over thirty years, winning a whole pile of plaudits in the process. If Peter Falk had been immortal, they’d probably still be making it today.  In that time, there were even a few of what Wikipedia calls “repeat offenders” – actors who did the dirty deed in more than one episode.  Patrick McGoohan was the arch villain, appearing as the murderer in four episodes, while George Hamilton and William Shatner – yes, The Shat! – were each twice the guilty party.

What was the secret to its success?

It can only be one thing – the character of Columbo himself.  And yet, how much do we actually know about him?  Far from the heart-wrenching sub plots about neglected children or dissatisfied spouses that are an essential component of the modern TV detective, we never even set eyes on Mrs Columbo. We hear there are children, but they’re never seen either.  In fact, what we see of Columbo is virtually the same as is seen by the people he’s investigating.

Perhaps that’s part of the trick.  Whilst the other characters in general, and the murderer most particularly, underestimate Columbo, we never do.  We can congratulate ourselves on appreciating his shrewdness, enjoying the game of cat and mouse he plays with his increasingly irritated suspects as they gradually realise that they’re not, after all, going to be successful in getting away with murder.

I’m still not quite sure how the writers pull it off; how they keep things interesting whilst sticking rigidly to the formula for every episode.  Perhaps it’s just that, despite not really knowing much about him, Columbo is an inherently likable man – warm, affable, the kind of chap you could take for a pint.  And the visual props are an essential part of the package; the dishevelled hair, that tatty old raincoat, the cigar.  Here, they seem to say, is a man who is comfortable in his own skin, a bit messy maybe; he has his vices, but they’re only small ones.

Is it just me, or was the young Peter Falk actually quite hot?

Is it just me, or was the young Peter Falk actually quite hot?

Like I say, I don’t know how they do it. But if I could pull off a character like that, I’d be a happy writer.

People Are Strange – But Are They Strange Enough?

How different are the characters you write about to the people you know? Whisper it: how different are they from you?

Now, I like to think I’m fairly cosmopolitan. I live in a bit of London that could serve as a good location for a gritty and realistic crime drama.  My husband is a different colour to me.  I don’t have kids, but I’m pretty sure my cats belong to a gang.

They're good kids, they just want to belong...

They’re good kids, they just want to feel like they belong…

I was also brought up in a tiny village in Wales where there was one bus a week and everyone knew everyone else. I went to university, but I was the first person in my family who did.  I have friends and family who are doctors, warehouse workers, academics, police officers, company directors, tube station attendants and shop assistants.

Like I say, I like to think I’m fairly cosmopolitan. But I’m not.

This was brought home to me a couple of times in recent weeks when, as a result of circumstances I must conceal to protect the innocent, I found myself in company with People Who Were Very Different to Me.

If I tried to describe why I found them so different, I could say that some of them lived in different kinds of places – more or less affluent, small towns, rural areas or even just different cities. I could say that some of them had different sorts of family background and education to me. Some of them were quite a lot older, some quite a lot younger.

But really, it wasn’t any of those things.  It was that, for one reason or another, they had a very different outlook on life.  A different way of relating to other people that’s hard to quantify.  I found them difficult to talk to. I expect they had the same experience.

It made me think: how individual, how genuine are the characters I write about?  How different are they, not only from each other, but from me?

Okay, I’m not – to my knowledge – a murderous psychopath or an increasingly unhinged, phobic charity worker, or an anally-retentive, overbearing older sister (alright, I might be that last one) – but how far away am I really from the thoughts that go on inside their heads? From their way of looking at the world around them? How far is it possible to give them a life that isn’t, in some way or another, my own?

And doesn’t that make writing just about the most public bit of soul-bearing it’s possible to do?

Hmm. I’m glad I didn’t think of that before I sent my draft to my beta-readers.