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Writing fiction: A different take on characterisation

Thursday 4 June 2009

Kathleen Bolton has inspired me (thanx, Kath) with her post on The yin and yang of characterization. In that post she talks about characters’ duality – simply settling on two opposing traits, rather than filling out lists of likes vs dislikes, strengths vs shortcomings, as so often we (writers) are advised to do.

It’s part of the big Plan Versus Travel Hopefully question. The name of this blog gives you a clue as to which side of that question i’m on – though I’m not 100% anti planning. In fact for my next trick work of long fiction (what? you thought I was a one-book pony?), I am thinking i’ll plan in real detail – chapter by chapter, scene by scene. (That next one is likely to be about wizards, both female and male, and galleons and deception and motherhood… but you have a while to wait!) I’ve recently discovered Storybook and love it (even though i never thought i’d , but it doesn’t really suit what I’m working on at the moment. All pregnancies are of very different natures, so why shouldn’t novel-writing be the same?

Anyway, even when i do plan line-by-line (well, maybe not to quite that depth) i’m still not convinced i’ll do the equivalent level of detail when it comes to characterisation. Like Kathleen i have learnt that deciding, before getting into the writing, what makes my characters laugh, cry and gnash their teeth just doesn’t work for me, let alone determining their precise height, eye colour and date of birth.

It’s during the writing itself that i find out that kind of thing, while the story unfolds. There is a school of thought that says all stories exist ‘out there’ before the writer or storyteller grabs them and puts them into words. I’ve always felt that – making up a story is like catching hold of some half-glimpsed memory and teasing out the details, a process of deduction and almost-meditation working together, more than it’s like building a figure from stones that you set one on top of another starting with a blank site (a Lego baseplate, in my personal mind’s eye).

For me, this extends to settings. So far i haven’t set many stories, and no long ones, in the real world. (‘Real’ needs inverted commas when i use it, anyway.) Some places don’t want me to visualise them, but others are vivid with no effort from me at all. That doesn’t mean i could sit and draw a map. It means i could find my way around by following my nose – if i happened to need to, say if i were to wake up in the middle of that forest, in the back streets of that city, wandering on that chilly seashore. And when it’s like that, it would be silly to try describing the nitty-gritty without roaming around first to get my bearings. Ditto with characters.

In real life, you meet people without having any instinctive knowledge of their personalities; but more often (for me, anyway) you meet people and have an immediate feel for what they’re like. I think it was GB Shaw, he of Saint Joan and Pygmalion fame, who was known for making notes about a person straight after being introduced for the first time, notes about that person’s family, childhood, travels, and so on, without being told, and finding out later that he had largely got it right. Well, i don’t often find out whether i’m right but i do make the notes. No need to be told the facts, anyway, especially if you’re not going to meet the person again; the imagination’s filling-in produces a sufficiently three-dimensional character for a writer’s needs.

And it’s the same with characters that are fictional in the first place. For example, in a short story i wrote recently (‘The E.S.M.’ and i’ll let you know when someone publishes it!) my main character, whom i knew pretty well, met a man i hadn’t planned. This man was a manager – if i’d had to sum him up by his function in the story, that’s all he was: manager, coping with a crisis. But the minute he opened his mouth i had him!

  • manager
  • middle-aged
  • not bad at his job but more competent when nothing unexpected is happening
  • quite a nice person to work for – generally kind to his workforce
  • a little flabby and colourless
  • a bit prone to trying to please everyone all the time
  • never quite ‘got’ management theory

… in fact i think i’ve worked for him in the past. ;0)

This is what i mean. If i’d gone into his vital statistics and how many sisters he had, before letting him speak and act, at best i’d have wasted the time i spent on that and at worst i’ve had lost him. When i’m making things up, doing that is the quickest way to turn them wooden. And what a fictional character wants to be is not wooden, it’s live. (Nearly got into extended metaphor there and it would have led me back to golems (lucky i didn’t get carried away, then).)

In fact when i do that list thing, i produce a character i can’t write about. Simple as that.

I have no idea if most writers find this easy, or even if it’s just a writer thing. My theory is that there are writers who start from plot or theme or ‘message’, and need to pick characteristics in that deliberate fashion but find the storyline easy, and writers who struggle as much as i do with structure, pacing, endings and so on because they start from the characters, the relationships and the feelings.

Love it when someone else’s blogpost helps me to clarify a whole area of thinking in my own mind, like this. Now i wonder if the division between those who plan in detail and those who feel their way when writing corresponds with the same tendencies in how people lead their lives? Hm…

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