Category: Events

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.]

 

 

Spring 2019 Masterclasses: Character & Setting, Prose Style

After a successful masterclass on the Craft of Voice at the end of November, Kellie Jackson of Words Away and I are continuing this series, which began with Plotting in September, with two more masterclasses for the spring term:

Crafting Character & Setting

Crafting Your Prose

Character and setting are the foundations of our narrative content, and on 26 January we shall be exploring ways in which they can be brought to life in ways that propel our stories forward. And the masterclass devoted to prose style on 30 March will look not only at important aspects of grammar and usage (verbs! nouns! the evils of fronted adverbials!), but also explore ways to refine and adapt our voices in writing for a variety of purposes and effects.

More info including booking details at the links above. I have listed provisional schedules for the day as well as some suggestions of readings we might use to bring to life our discussions about craft; we usually email delegates a few weeks in advance with further reading recommendations as well as any other preparations for the class. We shall make time for some short writing exercises in class too, and you’ll also be given handouts and resources so that you can continue your lessons and explorations in craft at home afterwards.

And each day will close with an informal Q&A with an industry professional. This is designed to demystify the publishing industry, and offer practical insights into the business, giving you chance to ask your own questions. Our guest speaker on 26 January is Christina Macphail of Agatha Christie Limited, who has a great range and depth of experience in selling books and rights in both adult and children’s publishing – intellectual properties she has sold include many much-loved characters, so it will be interesting to place our creative conversations about character and world-building into this wider commercial context.

The last masterclass filled up in about ten days, and we had a long waiting list, so if you are interested I suggest you book in advance. We hope to continue with a couple of other classes in the summer term, and should there be interest to repeat this sequence in 2019/2020 too.

The Craft of Voice: Coming Soon

Kellie Jackson has posted a Q&A on her blog for our 24 November masterclass The Craft of Voice.

It’s voice that matters most in writing for me. It’s voice that draws us into a story at the start, and it’s voice that keeps the pages turning. When I was an editor working in-house, it was voice that usually convinced me that I wanted to take on a new writer.

I think of the opening of one of my favourite novels, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber: ‘Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them …’

I recently read All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, and, among its many strengths, what stands out is the way in which its voice brings a gritty humour to content that at times is pretty grim. It’s also very well paced – it’s natural, it’s easy, it brings us along. This class will devote some time to learning to trust the natural speaking voice, and also extending its range – varying the tone, shifting into other voices.

Related to voice, we’ll also be talking about narrators and narrating. I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song, which is fantastically done; a strong narrative voice that brings to life the gossipy world of Truman Capote and his ‘swans’ is well served by the audiobook’s narrator. The voice of the text and the voice of the narrator are beautifully fused. Truman can be somewhat unbearable! But that’s the point, and because the voice is compelling this is a joy to listen to.

A recent article in the Guardian on the rising popularity of audiobooks says:

The new medium beckons a change in writing styles. The omniscient narrators of 19th-century novels, whose godlike qualities were unpalatable to the realistic writers of the 20th, are more suited to the audioboomers of the 21st.

I like that idea very much – I love a good narrator, whether omniscient or involved in the action or unreliable, and whether it’s read on the page or listened to in an audiobook. Who’s telling the story, and how? There’s a real art to good narration.

I feel that understanding how to use and develop your voice is the most important lesson in writing. I’m continually bemused by the reliance on screenwriting guides for prose fiction in creative writing, as there are real limits to what we can gain from studying film when writing novels and short stories. Don’t get me wrong – certain ideas about, for example, structure and dialogue are invaluable. But good prose cannot draw on the grammar of visual storytelling. Prose relies on words placed on a page in a book, one after the other, just as speech amounts to a linear sequence of words: a voice. Words and sentences are all we have – so we have to learn how to craft them in ways that are natural and persuasive and a pleasure to read or listen to.

This masterclass on voice is designed as part of an ongoing sequence of classes and workshops that could be incorporated into an ongoing DIY MA in Creative Writing. We’ve already covered revising, and plotting come next week, and future topics might include: prose style; character and setting; and creating scenes. As with earlier masterclasses, which featured guest speakers Lennie Goodings (chair of Virago), Nick Ross (production director at Little, Brown) and Jenny Savill (agent at ANA), we’d again hope to invite publishing professionals for Q&A sessions to help demystify the industry. Contact us if you interested in a particular topic or would like to be added to our mailing lists.

More information on the 24 November voice masterclass can be found in the Q&A on Kellie’s blog, and further details about the schedule for that day can be found on the Words Away site.

Masterclasses on Plotting and Voice: 29 September and 24 November 2018

A quick break from my summer break to say that we’re now taking bookings for the craft masterclasses that I’m running this autumn with Kellie Jackson of Words Away. These are one-day courses held on Saturdays at London Bridge Hive:

* The Craft of Plotting, including guest speaker Nick Ross, production director of Little, Brown, on Saturday 29 September 2018

* The Craft of Voice, including guest speaker Jenny Savill, director and agent at Andrew Nurnberg Associates, on Saturday 24 November 2018

More info on my Events page or via the links above, where you can also book, and Kellie and I will do a Q&A giving a few more details shortly, but in brief: these masterclasses are designed as overviews of important aspects of craft that will make your writing stronger. I’d like to think that they could be made into part of your own personally assembled and self-paced DIY MA in creative writing, or maybe used as a refresher or extension for some course you’ve already done.

Places are already being booked – over half the spaces for the plotting workshop have already been taken. We are thinking of others for 2019 – maybe prose style, character and setting, and once again revising. I’m also planning some other workshops of a different type at another location – more on that soon, I hope.

Hope your summer is going well. Have been loving the heatwave, even if the garden is a bit singed. Hot tip, if you’re in London: go and see Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A. It’s one of the most well-curated exhibitions I’ve seen in some time, and Frida herself is so inspiring. We are our own muses, et cetera. Related to that, my big fat summer read is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, which is turning out to be everything I want in a big fat summer read: engrossing, taking me into other worlds and other lives. A big thank you to Barbara Kingsolver.

Back to my break – and to my reading!

The Craft of Revising, 23 June 2018

I really enjoyed Saturday’s workshop on The Craft of Revising – a lovely group of writers came along, and we left energised and enthusiastic to return to writing projects, seeing them in new ways and ready to try out fresh things with them.

We talked about Buddhism and drag queens and different types of editing, and taste and technique, and intention. We asked ourselves what genres we are writing in, and how our books might be positioned to readers by publishers. We thought about our characters and their yearnings, and discussed how specific slants or perspectives on our material can not only create a stronger focus for our stories but also lift their telling. I stressed the importance of not only verbs but also paginating your manuscripts, and we sought gifts and questions in each other’s writing. We talked about shitty first drafts, and I suggested lots of practical tips for self-editing and looking at your work in a fresh light. We also discussed working with feedback.

A serious aim for the day: the idea of listening to your writing. Listen by reading it aloud, listen by hearing it read aloud, and most of all listen with your eyes: hear what’s there on the page or the screen. Let your material make itself known.

We were lucky to have novelist Michelle Lovric come along to give an inspiring talk on tackling ambitious and challenging projects, and also provide useful and most intelligent guidance on creating voices for your narrators.

I think it’s important that the publishing business is demystified for writers, and we ended the day with a Q&A with Lennie Goodings, Chair of Virago Press, who gave many practical insights into the work of editors and what happens within a publishing house: when to stop editing, being an advocate for your authors with your colleagues, the importance of good booksellers. Lennie brought further inspiration with her good humour and absolute passion for books and writers.

Given I was the only man in the room, it also seemed relevant to touch on the subject of gender in the crowd at creative writing events. Do women writers like coming to workshops, while men writers prefer to attend masterclasses?! Or maybe they just go it alone?! ‘Discuss …’

As usually happens when energetic writers get together, we had far more content to share than we had time to cover. (I want a time-turner!) Everyone in the group had skills and expertise of their own, and there’s so much to learn from each other.

Follow-up notes are being emailed, and lots of handouts were provided (unpaginated … but they are individual, one-page handouts … though please please add page numbers to your own manuscripts!).

Kellie and I hope to run further workshops-slash-masterclasses in the autumn on voice and plotting (dates to come, maybe along with some men?!), and I am planning other workshops in other places too. Do register your interest by contacting me or Kellie.

Thanks to Kellie for a wonderful day, and to Michelle and Lennie for their generosity in joining in, and to everyone for coming.

* Interview on The Craft of Revising

* A post on feedback

* A post on being declined (aka rejection!)

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Listen to your writing!

Thanks to Kellie and Rebecca for photos.