Tagged: Character

Characters Sparking Joy: Writing Experiment No. 71

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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 any 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

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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.)

Friday Writing Experiment No. 30: Wardrobe Masters And Mistresses

FaroeseSweater

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.