Tagged: Character

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


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


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.)

Friday Writing Experiment No. 30: Wardrobe Masters And Mistresses


A featurette in today’s Guardian talks about the clothes characters wear, especially in crime fiction and thrillers: tweed, pipes, spectacles, trenchcoats, Faroese sweaters. Clothes make the man and woman, and clothes can also be great tools for revealing characters. You can even have some fun with the cliches.

This week, create a wardrobe for a character of your own. You could do this as a complete catalogue of a wardrobe or a dressing room, or it could be a simple pen portrait. Perhaps you can even put this character into some scene with action that somehow involves the clothes they wear. Go to town; think about brands or no-brands and fabrics and colours. Undress. Put on another outfit. Fetishise. Take them shopping. Dress them up for a day at work, or an interview, or a night out. Dress them to impress, or for seduction. (Always impressing the reader, always seducing the reader.)

As always, be concrete and specific.

A variation of this might be to do a makeover for a character you’re already working with. See how a new outfit might bring fresh perspective or adventures for him or her.


Friday Writing Experiment No. 26: Distinguishing Features


Our aunt Meterling stood over six feet tall, a giantess, a tree. From her limbs came huge hands, which always held a shower of snacks for us children. We could place two of our feet in one of her sandals, and her green shawl made for a roof to cover our play forts. We loved Meterling, because she was so devotedly freakish, because she rained everyone with affection, and because we felt that anyone that tall had to be supernaturally gifted. No one actually said she was a ghost, or a saint, or a witch, but we watched for signs nevertheless. She knew we suspected her of tricks, for she often smiled at us and displayed sleight of hand, pulling coins and shells out of thin air. But that, said Rasi, didn’t prove anything; Rasi had read The Puffin Book of Magic Tricks and pretty much knew them all, and was not so easily impressed.

Thus begins the novel As Sweet As Honey by my good friend Indira Ganesan. It’s just been published by Knopf.

Indira’s writing possesses a beautiful tone: warm, seductive, lots of colour and sense experiences. And in this book she brings to life a whole set of characters from a family whose lives take us to a fictitious island in the Indian Ocean, and then to England and the United States. It’s an intriguing and magical story about the surprises life throws in our way, and how families deal with them; ultimately, for me, it’s a book about how we make our homes.

And at the centre of the book is this amazing figure, wonderfully rendered: Meterling, the giant aunt. We’ve all had important figures in our childhoods, in our families, and we’ve also all met memorable characters in our reading. Meterling is the character who looms large, quite literally, in this book, and she does so through the simple fact that she’s so tall.

I remember Indira sharing early selections from this book at readings, and that giantess really stuck in my mind ever since. It’s such a simple yet powerful thing to do (and the most powerful things are usually the simplest): giving a character a distinctive physical attribute. And it can be helpful in letting the character take over the writing, too. Indira says: ‘Once I let Meterling become the protagonist, the book became so much easier to write.’

External features, in many ways, also define the inner lives of the characters who possess them, but not always in predictable ways. And this is where the writing gets interesting. As well as Meterling, I’m thinking of one of my favourite characters of late: Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf wit and scheming genius of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. But there are other traits, not just height: scars, missing limbs, extra limbs, freckles (Anne of Green Gables), hair colour, hair deficiency, hairiness, body weight, big feet, little hands, harelips (Precious Bane! Her mother: ‘Could I help it if the hare crossed my path – could I help it?’).

So, this week, write the opening page of a novel in which you introduce a character who, by dint of some physical attribute, will loom large in the lives of all the other characters.

And do read Indira’s book as well! Amazon might be the easiest place to buy in the UK, but try to support your local indie if you can, especially if you are in the US. It’s also available from HarperCollins India in South Asia, and as an audiobook from Audible (this might be a lovely one to have read to you, in fact). And here’s Indira’s Facebook Page, too.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 25: Voice 4: Other Voices


So, after writing experiments that look at listening (overheard dialogue), tone (emotion), and personal passions and purpose, which all in some way or other are about writing instinctively and easily, let’s bring some of these things together and also extend ourselves slightly by tasking ourselves on adapting our voices for speakers other than ourselves – fictional creations.

I’ve recently read a couple of things that made me think about ventriloquists. From my dictionary:

ventriloquist |vɛnˈtrɪləkwɪst|noun  a person, especially an entertainer, who can make their voice appear to come from somewhere else, typically a dummy of a person or animal.

One of these was Laird Hunt’s novel Kind One. Because it contains the sort of story that needs to be experienced directly, I’m not going to say anything about the book other than (1) it uses voices or personas for characters to great effect, and (2) you should get hold of a copy and read it for yourself as soon as you can, as it’s really really good (the judges who shortlisted it for a PEN/Faulkner award clearly agreed). Here’s a sample from close to the start:

Once I lived in a place where demons dwelled. I was one of them. I am old and I was young then, but truth is this was not so long ago, time just took the shackle it had on me and gave it a twist. I live in Indiana now, if you can call these days I spend in this house living. I might as well be hobbled. A thing that lurches across the earth. One bright morning of the world I was in Kentucky. I remember it all. The citizens of the ring of hell I have already planted my flag in do not forget.

Note the seeds of a story, a character already taking form in a particular setting and situation, and the quality of perceptions of that character as they are embodied in sentence structure and word choices. And how all that comes together in the VOICE. Laird is a long way from the reality of that character, but he’s creating a voice that’s coming from that somewhere else (though this character certainly isn’t a dummy!).

So this week task yourself on making your voice appear from someone else. Think about a character you can bring to life, putting him or her in a setting or situation that offers the seeds of a story, then as you start to write in first-person point of view be aware of the sentence structures and word choices that character’s voice uses. Embody that character, be that character, be that voice. Then write for a page, writing something that gets you started on something longer, perhaps.

If you need a prompt or a variation, root out of your library a piece of writing in first-person POV, and then type up a paragraph or two and keep on writing in that voice, but taking the story and character (the content) in your own direction. This has to be your own original creation, after all – no cheating! In fact, once you’ve finished, cut the original copied-out paragraph or two and be sure what remains is all your own.

Finally, a disclaimer: I know Laird. But a good book is a good book. Go and read it!