Tagged: Character

Sitting (And Walking) With Your Characters: Writing Experiment No. 72

Last month I felt very privileged to see Anna Burns talk about writing and read from her wonderful, prize-winning novel Milkman. It was a profound experience, and I brought away many things. She has a lovely, intuitive approach to writing.

I came away most of all with an impression of someone who is not grasping: not grasping for success, but not really grasping for things in the writing either. And that lets her and her creations shine as originals.

Something I particularly registered was a statement that: ‘Characters don’t want to tell me what their favourite food is and they’re not going to reveal their entire selves to me anyway.’

This made me think about creating character questionnaires, which are exercises we often do in creative writing, and in fact we had been cooking up some questions for one at my most recent masterclass on character and setting; I used this as the basis of a recent writing experiment. Such activities are often necessary tasks in bringing characters to life or in researching who they might become.

But, too, Anna’s comments made me wonder if perhaps we need a bit of caution around such resource-gathering exercises? Many of the lovely little details that we put into character questionnaires are juicy, and we grow attached to them, and they end up in our manuscripts. And though often they are important as telling details we find or cook up for our characters, sometimes too they can end up cluttering our stories, or simply making them feel a bit stilted, like writing by numbers.

So what’s a good way to proceed? Anna Burns simply tells us to be patient, and ‘follow the energy’. She waits for her characters to come and tell her their stories. What arises?

We might get a few words a character might say, and we write those down, and then we see what comes next. She mentioned that sometimes she gets some words that she feels belong at the end of a sentence, and she sits with those, and in due course the earlier part of the sentence gets fleshed out. And later of course it all gets edited, particularly by reading aloud. I felt the idea was that we don’t tell our characters what to do as much as let them rise up and tell us what they want to do.

It’s an intuitive and mysterious process. Writing this way might seem for some people a bit confounding or irrational, especially for people who like to have concrete goals. But this is an approach that results in work that is authentic (and also wins Booker Prizes, should that offer any credibility). ‘Follow the energy,’ says Anna. It’s as much as anything about cultivating an attitude.

I might also add that writing this way often requires you to instinctively understand some of the basic ideas of how stories can be structured – stuff to understand deeply, but practise lightly, I say. So it is important to tend to those things in ways that feed your instinct as a writer as well as your senses of what your book might be (which is where that character questionnaire might be useful to some degree?). Anna mentioned having taken writing courses – though she also noted you do that for as long as it’s helpful, and it’s true that sometimes the wrong time or the wrong course might actually be unhelpful. But you do have to show up to some degree prepared, and e.g., have studied the craft to get some practical insights. (More on courses here, if you want.)

But too sometimes you just have to put that to one side and quieten your thoughts, and as Anna says be patient. At a certain point you come to know your characters inside out, or at least as much of them as is necessary for a story, and then you just have to let them go. For a character-driven novel especially, just make time: show up for the writing practice, and sit with your characters and wait for them to start talking. See what comes, she says:

It’s something about turning up and waiting for the energy to alight on something …

It’s kind of waiting and holding, waiting and holding, and then, when the final version starts to come, I read out loud a lot, and that’s when the rhythm settles …

And for those of us who delighted in Middle Sister’s reading-while-walking in Milkman:

I go walking with my dictaphone and my notebook, and the characters come back …

And for plot-driven novels: perhaps just sit with your characters for now, and understand their yearnings, then later figure out how they come into conflict with the yearnings of others. Out of those conflicts comes plotting. But still: be patient.

For this writing experiment: sit with your characters, and see what comes when you let them tell their stories. What arises?

Alternatively, you could walk with them and speak what they have to say into your dictaphone/smartphone.

A few suggestions to help with this (these are my own thoughts – I don’t want to present this as Anna Burns’s approach, even if her talk inspired me to think further about ways to create an intuitive and patient space for writing):

* Give yourself a good chunk of time. At least half an hour, I’d think, but an hour or even two might be better. Find a quiet space or someplace you can zone out, and have your notebook and pen, or computer – whichever feels most comfortable (you might need to experiment with this).

* You might like to start with a brief five-minute meditation to clear the mind and ready yourself for writing. (Okay, okay, it seems weird and counterintuitive to meditate for an outcome. But … hey, don’t think about it!) Simply: sit at your writing table with your feet on the ground, and set a timer for five minutes. Place your hands in your lap, and close your eyes. Then just follow your breath: in through the nose, out through the mouth maybe. Every time a thought pops into your head, imagine you are labelling it ‘Thinking’ like a thought bubble, and send it on its way … until the next one comes along. Keep coming back to your breath. In, out. In, out.

* Then after five minutes open your eyes, and listen. Be patient. Think towards a character, and either start writing in their voice, or observe them in what they do, and write, conjuring up what they say or do.

* Keep observing your breath. If you start to get irritated at your writing or lack of it, come back to the breath. Breathe deeply, and feel what comes up from your gut, or through your heart, or from behind your ears, or wherever you write from. Let your character tell their story.

* If you lose sight of your character, regain it somehow – perhaps by restoring your connection to some origin point, or something you find endearing or compelling about them. Why do you care for that character? Write from your caring.

* It doesn’t matter if you only write a line or half a sentence, or if you write a couple of pages or more.

* And if you really get stuck and want a prompt, perhaps let your character write in the form of an I Remember?

* Try to make a regular practice out of this. And most of all: be patient. Be kind to yourself, and be patient.

Click here for some more of Anna’s bon mots (someone was taking notes – thanks, Laura!) and here are some more of my observations and pics from the evening on Instagram.

Further reading: Anna recommended three books I treasure: Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron, and Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande.

And, of course, Milkman! I also recommend the audiobook, read by Bríd Brennan. But too look out for podcasts (in this one she comes in around 5:40) or videos of Anna Burns reading; seeing and hearing her read was a very special experience. And I’ve not even mentioned its brilliant use of words and form, and its great humour, and its subtle use of place and politics.

And here’s an absolutely joyful interview between Anna Burns and Tod Hodgkinson of the Southbank.

Follow the energy!

Characters Sparking Joy: Writing Experiment No. 71

items.[0].image.alt

Following on from the Character Questionnaire exercise that came out of last week’s masterclass, here is another writing experiment to help think about characterisation.

Your character is decluttering with Marie Kondo. Which of their possessions still spark joy, and are kept? Which do they thank for their service and donate to Oxfam? What do they junk with glee, or without a second thought? Consider how your character’s relationships with their possessions reflect their inner lives and outer worlds, and their conflicts or affinities with other people and places. Write a scene that grows out of this.

PS I’ve finally watched one of Marie Kondo’s Netflix shows. I liked it. I like her a LOT. I love her philosophy, even though I know I can’t fully practise it; I’m not very good at dealing with attachment (would never make a great Buddhist). But I’d read (listened to) her book a few years ago, and decluttered my wardrobe by half or even two-thirds – and felt GREAT about it!

Except for one lovely, lovely coat I made a mistake in ditching, mostly because I felt it made me look like Truman Capote in Paddington Bear drag. But then I changed my mind, and realised I should accept reality: aspire to be Truman (dream on), accept my bearish nature. And my lovely, lovely husband bought back from the charity shop the next day, phew. So: I am a convert. I see the value and clarity that comes from a good clearout.

I also have a LOT of books. Many spark joy: they are beloved, and I often refer to them. Many have sentimental attachments. Many are practical requirements, doing the job that I do. But too many will never, ever be read. Many haunt me, plague me, pull faces from a dusty corner of my office. Many are consuming real estate. Many are crumbling apart, and many are nasty, pulpy paperbacks that feel like housebricks with spines that crack when I finally get to open them. Corporate British publishers and printers don’t always have the production standards of, e.g., publishers in the US or mainland Europe. I also find that digital books are in many instances not only more attractive but very practical, e.g., for reading at night.

So: when twysteria arose from certain canyons of social media because Marie Kondo had apparently told people to give away books, it really was out of proportion to the reality, and a reminder of why Twitter can be so shit and reductive. And not a little racist and ethnocentric, either: What White, Western Audiences Don’t Understand About Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up’.

It’s good to give away things you no longer use – things that no longer spark joy for us can bring pleasure to other people, and also earn a few pounds for charity shops, or dollars. And if you DO give away something you really do realise you need back – you can always buy it back from a charity shop, or find a used copy online.

Spark Joy! And maybe also make room for some books you write yourself.

Spark Joy!

 

Character Questionnaire: Writing Experiment No. 70

On Saturday I led a masterclass on Character and Setting in conjunction with Kellie Jackson of Words Away. It’s the latest in our series of classes intended as a practical, DIY alternative to the craft seminars of an MA/MFA in creative writing. Here is Kellie’s account of the day.

We discussed Olive Kitteridge and Tom Ripley and Ennis Del Mar, and Bridget Jones and that other Singleton, Mary Ann from Tales of the City. We talked about types (heroes, mentors, shapeshifters), and primary identities, and desires and inner conflicts.

We drew cartoon sketches of characters, and maps for them to be placed in. I think there is a great value in bringing nonverbal forms of expression into our writing practice, not least in keeping a check on overthinking. I’m always looking for ways in which writers can develop their writerly intuition, sparking surprises and digging deeper with their characters – their yearnings, their contradictions, their secrets. Which might include some of our own, and some of those of people we know, and some we made up entirely.

As usual: a lot to fit in! And we had a good laugh or two, which is perhaps the most important thing of all. A further bonus came from listening to Christina Macphail of Agatha Christie Limited talking about her career in rights, export sales, and licensing. There were a lot of Agatha Christie fans in the room, and I have already been prompted to return to The Mysterious Mr Quin, which I suspect I might get more from as an adult. An excellent and engaging talk, shedding light on important parts of the publishing business – thanks, Christina! And thanks also to Kellie Jackson for helping organise the day. Some snaps from the day are below.

One fun exercise was creating a collaborative character questionnaire.

Answering questions about a character’s outer identity and inner world is a common exercise in creative writing. There is, of course, a risk that assembling a character out of such details can lead to cookie-cutter writing that gets caught up in representing the facts assembled on a checklist at the expense of telling a story. The result, if we are not careful, is writing cluttered with detail but lacking in heart and momentum. We considered, for example, that cliché of someone looking in the mirror in the first pages of a book as a way of establishing a character, focusing on obvious traits that pin that character down but somehow seem a bit flat or predictable as a depiction.

A conversation about a white lab coat concluded that we in fact need very little description to bring a character to life: the Principle of Sufficiency. We also discussed the importance of defining characters through their speech (dialogue, subtext) and their actions (their plottings) and their perceptions (point of view).

All the same, creating Character Files (and Setting Files) can be productive work in assembling our stories: building a mood board or a scrapbook, saving pics on Pinterest, taking walks in the personality of your character and seeing the world as they do, thinking about who and why and what and how and where and when they are. See, for example, the Character Questionnaire as well as a version of the popular Proust Questionnaire shared by Gotham Writers.

Below is a version of the questionnaire I created, along with other questions generously shared by Saturday’s class; I tasked them particularly on asking questions that probed characters’ miscellaneous particularities and oddities. Such prompts are intended as exercises for exploring your character’s depths and potential, but some of the writing that’s spurred may in fact lead its way into your book.

Give yourself an hour (a good chunk of time), and devote yourself to working through your answers to these questions for your character. Then come back and fill in the gaps you might not have answered immediately. And then do the questionnaire again for other characters. And so on … And do feel free to update at a later date, as your story shifts in its drafting.

Also: please feel free to add questions of your own in the Comments below. Thanks in advance!

Also thanks to everyone who came on Saturday, and made it such an enjoyable day. Our next workshop, Crafting Your Prose, is on Saturday 30 March at London Bridge Hive. There are just a couple of spaces left.

 

Character Questionnaire

Consider the following questions for your characters, not only in the context of their background and history, but also within the timeframe of your story – and beyond.

Outer world

  • What is your character’s name?
  • Does your character have other names, pseudonyms, or nicknames?
  • Describe their appearance: hair, eyes, height, weight, distinguishing features.
  • What is their state of health?
  • What is their family background? And current family?
  • What is their marital/romantic status?
  • What was their social class growing up? And during the course of the book?
  • What is their primary identity/category/type: occupation, gender, sexuality, class, age, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, region, language, other? (Primary = defining the storyline.)
  • What are any secondary identities/categories that important in defining them?
  • How might your character contradict any types they belong to?
  • What is your character’s dramatic role or function in the story?
  • What problem does your character face within the story?
  • And what question does your character pose to the reader?

 

Inner world

  • What is your character’s personality type? (Outgoing, introvert, obsessive, laid back, etc.)
  • What does your character yearn for?
  • What secrets does your character keep, and from whom?
  • What are your characters’ flaws?
  • What mistakes or poor choices has your character made?
  • What risks has your character taken?
  • What wounds does your character carry?
  • What does your character fear?
  • What are your character’s phobias?
  • What are your character’s prejudices?
  • What are your character’s pathologies? Consider: OCD, anxiety, neurosis, narcissistic, sociopathic, mental health, gossipy, inability to take criticism, etc.
  • What are your character’s politics?
  • What makes your character angry?
  • What brings your character greatest happiness? And how easy is this?
  • What are your character’s passions?
  • What memories continue to shape your character? (Personal as well as cultural/collective.)

 

Misc. behaviours, habits, tastes, oddities (which often reflect both inner and outer worlds)

  • What are your character’s repeated actions? Routines? Tics? Mannerisms? Catchphrases?
  • Does your character have a pet?
  • What is the best gift your character ever received? Ever gave?
  • What direction is your character moving in?
  • What is your character’s favourite … food? … book? … hobbies? … sports? Etc.
  • What is your character’s spirit animal? Their nemesis animal (an animal that represents a character flaw or weakness, e.g., squirrel = scattered and a hoarder)?
  • How does your character sleep?
  • What does your character keep or dispose of when decluttering?

 

Additional questions from Words Away masterclass, 26 January 2019

  • In a stressful situation, would your character be most likely to (a) pray, (b) swear, (c) cry, (d) other?
  • What is their favourite holiday destination?
  • What smell takes your character back to being a child?
  • What is your character’s preferred mode of transport and why?
  • Any tattoos or piercings? What? Where? When? Why? Do they smoke/did they? What? Where? When? Why?
  • How does your character feel about kissing?
  • What is the biggest source of shame for your character and have they ever told anyone about it?
  • Is your character subconsciously trying to impress/gain respect/[insert motivation] their father or their mother? How does this cause/drive conflict in your story?
  • How does your character respond to an unexpected extravagant gift?
  • What action that your character has taken would they change, and what would they do instead?
  • Who was your character in his/her most recent former lifetime?
  • What does your character need/desire and what’s stopping her from getting it?
  • What is your character’s secret fantasy?
  • If your character was a song, which song would it be and why?
  • How does your character act when getting changed at a public swimming pool?
  • How does he/she relax? (I.e., what do they like to do for downtime?)
  • If your character had only two hours to live, who would they spend it with, where, and why?
  • [Insert your own questions below, and invite your friends for their questions too.]

 

 

Friday Writing Experiment No. 49: More Tales Of Your City

MoreTOTC

Following on from the last time, inspired by Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books, for this week’s writing experiment: write the next chapter, a couple of pages in which your character from elsewhere will meet a native of your chosen city or the place you love. Let some sparks fly …

Again, in some way make sure something of the unique qualities of the city/place come to life, and again make sure this new character is also based in some aspect of yourself. Also think about point of view – maybe maintain the point of view of your newcomer character, who beholds this local in some particular way, but too you could switch POV; just be sure you are using POV in an interesting way. Dialogue will probably be important, but try to make it fresh and crisp (and don’t afraid to use reported speech for the boring bits – or even to miss them out).

After that, you could write a third chapter, where your two characters do something together. And then a fourth, and a fifth … See if each chapter can make some sort of move forward, and have some headlong energy. If you get stuck or find yourself drying: introduce a new character, or location within your city/place.

And so on … after fifty or seventy or maybe a hundred short chapters, maybe you’ll have a novel?

As a variation on this, Writing Experiment No. 49B: take one of your favourite novels, and create a writing experiment inspired by it. Perhaps try to make it something based in craft or technique: something in your fave’s narrative form, or its use of point of view, or its evocation of setting. But mostly consider what you love about that book, and let that inspire you.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 48: Tales Of Your City

MrsMadrigal

I’m reading The Days Of Anna Madrigal, the most recent (and apparently final) novel in Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City series, which must rank among my favourite books.

They have probably created some of the most beloved characters in contemporary literature: bright-eyed new girl in town Mary Ann Singleton, landlady Mrs Madrigal, gay BBF Michael (and this was back before we had BFF’s), various supermodels and gynaecologists and cult leaders. At a talk I attended at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (a quarter of a century ago, I realise – eek!), someone asked Armistead how he came up with his characters: they seemed so original yet so real, so surely they must be based on real-life people. In fact, he replied, the main eight or so characters were all based on aspects of himself. It’s a diverse cast of players, and one that’s notable for painting a generous, rainbow-coloured vision of the world.

These books are particularly striking too for how they use real and fictional locations to conjure up a particular place. Russian Hill, 28 Barbary Lane, the Marina Safeway, Grace Cathedral, office cubicles, Dance Your Ass Off: San Francisco from the 1970s to the present day is brought to life. It’s quite a record of the times of a very special city.

What’s notable about this series too is that the books (the earlier ones at least) were composed serially, as columns for the San Francisco Chronicle, which perhaps accounts for the madcap plots; you can almost imagine Armistead wondering how he’s going to get out of the narrative corner he’s painting himself into. So in the next instalment he seems simply to have introduced some new character or unlikely coincidence, and through his daring and the great energy and colour of his writing he pulls it off. The pressure of writing for a weekly deadline accounts for some very good writing indeed.

The column format also accounts for the bright and punchy economy of the writing. Each chapter in the earlier books is short but very sweet, a couple of pages of sparky dialogue and lively interaction that move the story along.

For this week’s writing experiment: write a first chapter of a couple of pages inspired by Tales Of The City in which a character from elsewhere arrives in a place you love and know well. Capture the mood of this time and place through the eyes of that newcomer. Also, base that newcomer on an aspect of yourself. And for now just focus on this one character and his or her perceptions of your city (or place).

If you wish, also write with the pressure of a deadline: give yourself no more than two hours to do this.

To be continued … (we’ll revisit this exercise next week).

PS I realise I totally missed seeing Armistead Maupin in London this week. Damn! (Guess I have been busy with other things, or rather other whippet-thing.)