Writing Lessons 2

This follows on from the post yesterday, so if you haven’t read that, it could be a good idea to take a quick look.

Right. Now, hopefully you will have a sheet of paper with a fair description of someone you know, someone you have met, or someone you have made up.

The first thing to say is, that this person is not going to have every aspect of his or her life put down on paper. When you read a book, you don’t want an entire character’s life set out in the first page. You want to be teased, with snippets of information that fill out the person spread out over some time, some chapters. My own rule of thumb is to give an outline of looks, of face, of clothing, of any tics that they have, and perhaps a few indicators of what sort of person the man or woman has. There is an example below.  Then I will add to this over the pages of the book, sometimes giving aspects of the character’s motives within the story, sometimes some little hints as to trauma in the past, and backstory. The main thing for me is, that I am learning about my characters as my story develops. I don’t need a lengthy, detailed character at the outset. I want someone I’ve just been introduced to, and whom I will be learning about as the story develops, much I would learn about a new friend as I get to know him or her over time.

What I will say up front is, that no matter how detailed you have been in the planning of your character, as soon as you start to write, you will learn things you don’t know. It doesn’t matter whether it’s something to do with a mundane aspect of life, such as which school did the guy go to, what was his/her first job, what their favourite colour is – there is always something that you want to think up, and it’s always soon after you begin typing. I have no idea why.

But if you are new to writing, probably the more characterisation you can think up before beginning to write, the better.

You will have, as I say, hopefully a pretty long paragraph with details about a character.

My own characterisations tend to run to something along these lines:

Ben Smart, a low-level thief. Never been terribly successful. Has thin, almost emaciated look about him. Bit of a rat-like face, with pinched cheeks, sparse stubble about his chin and cheeks. His hair is mousy-brown, eyes greenish with red-raw whites of the eyes. A nose like a knife, teeth that would look good on an ancient crone, with plenty of gaps. Eyes set close together, rarely meeting anyone else’s, but instead darting about distrustfully. He wears jeans with slashes at knees and hips where they’ve worn through. Not because of fashion, because he is tatty. His shirt is a stained T which you know will smell of sweat even from a glimpse of him half a mile away. He went to a good school, but he was the one caught trying to set fire to the new physics block, and was kicked out. He still claims it was ‘Not fair’. Life to Ben is never fair. It’s always knocking him back for no reason. He tried to set up a legitimate business once, but he couldn’t face the early mornings and the paperwork. Unskilled, he was trying to work at garden maintenance. But it was hard  work, and it was easier to see which houses were empty. Easier to slip in and have a look around, see if there was anything lying around that the owner wouldn’t miss. But being Ben, he didn’t think about the mud on his shoes. He was never that clever. Walks like a whine. When he smokes, you know he’ll shield the cigarette from sight behind his cupped hand.”

That is the sort of rough outline I’ll have when I begin to write a new story (and yes, this guy will appear in a book). It took me about four minutes to write all that down. No, I didn’t plan any of his story. It all just evolved as I was writing. That’s a skill that has to be learned, I guess, but that’s why I asked you to think of your own character and start depicting him or her on the page. It’s one of the skills that develops with practice.

Although it has led to me getting odd looks, I often write down characters on the train, in a restaurant or just while I’m sitting on a bench in Exeter’s Cathedral Close watching people walk by. I will pick on one (poor fellow) and start to make notes about them. I will detail their clothing, their dress, their comportment – everything. It’s a good thing to do regularly, because it means that before long you will have a file of many characters you can pick and choose from.

The next exercise is to start thinking about what you are going to do to your characters.

I was running a workshop at Evesham some years ago, when I had a whiteboard and an audience, and it was fascinating how we could develop a story from entirely random ideas. One thing I have done in the past is, use a whiteboard or large flipchart to begin stories. I will have a dead body in the middle, and say, X is dead. Why is X dead? How did X die? Why did X die? A, B, C, D and E all had motives. What were each of their motives? By just asking these questions, I was quickly able to build a synopsis from which a story developed.

My own stories tend to be crime-based. They are easier, I believe, because there is a simple narrative flow to crime. There is a murder, and there will be 5-6 suspects. The investigator must question each and analyse their potential motives.

So, now you have your own character: what are you going to do to him/her? Think up a simple plot. Are you going to send him/her to a coffee shop, to a supermarket, to work? Are you going to have a chance meeting with someone? Are you going to have them drawn into a dangerous event? Have them kidnapped? Think up your own story.

And here’s the kicker: when you have thought it up, either put your thoughts down here in the comments section below, or get in touch on Twitter. I am there as @MichaelJecks, and I’ll respond either way as soon as I can – although it likely won’t be instant – when I am working, I tend to avoid all distractions. That means Twitter, Facebook, email, TV and radio and, yes, telephone, all get turned off. And if you want to learn how to write, you should do that too. You can’t learn to write without concentration!

Best of luck!



One Response to “Writing Lessons 2”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    More sound advice from Michael in part two of his series…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: