Those fine people at NaNoWriMo have finally approved my application to join its swelling ranks of would-be novelists, so the green light is lit and set for ‘go’ with my own magnum opus. Or it will be come November One. You see, for the uninitiated and those who have spent 2015 in a cave, NaNoWriMo is the cute acronym for ‘National Novel Writing Month’. That month being November, of course.
As October draws to a leaf-littered close, airwaves are buzzing with texts, tweets blog-posts and, no doubt, other media from eager entrants, discussing everything from storyline structure, characterisation, viewpoint and plot, to how much and what brand of coffee to stock up on prior to the off. So I thought I’d add my own humble offering here, in which I shall discuss … characterisation. As I see it.
There are those out there who extol the virtue and importance of plot. Plot is the road along which the story is steered, the route from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’. Or wherever. Sometimes the route is a pretty-straight highway that runs like a Roman road to its eventual (and often predictable) conclusion, others are meandering affairs with the occasional turn-off, ‘T’ junction or short-cut. And there are those, like the crime novels by such as Colin Dexter for instance, with the complexity of Spaghetti Junction or, at the very least, a motorway cloverleaf. Whilst there are many novelists for whom plot is king, Mister King himself isn’t one.
“I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”
So declares Stephen King in his book ‘On Writing’. While I must admit to being more of a planner than a pantser (as in riding by the seat of them), I can’t fault King’s perception: life isn’t plotted and plotting can choke spontaneity. I say can and not does, mind. If my interpretation of Stephen King’s modus operandi is correct, he creates a situation, places characters in it and it’s they who drive the story through to a conclusion. Developments along the way are as much of a surprise to him as they are to his readers. That’s the way he likes it, and no one can doubt its success.
It’s clear from his many written accounts and interviews, King views plot with a fair degree of derision. However, he does have a basic framework – he calls it ‘situation’ – and that, to me, is a form of plot. Okay, it may not have such clear milestones and waypoints as, say, one of my stories, but it is plot in its raw form.
As far as my own method is concerned – as I’ve already admitted – I’m a planner. I’m bound to be as that’s my approach to life; I’m more comfortable knowing where I’m heading. I don’t always get there but, hey, that’s life. I make no apology for my approach, as we all need something to aim for if we’re to succeed in anything. Johnny Wilkinson doesn’t succeed in his drop-goal efforts without knowing where the uprights are. (If any U.S. cousins stumble onto this page, replace ‘Johnny Wilkinson’ with ‘Stephen Gostkowski’ and ‘drop-goal’ with ‘point after attempt’.)
For Stephen King, and no doubt scores of others, character is where it’s at. I have to say that this is evident in his writing. He paints characters with less brush strokes than any other author I’ve read. Barely a line of well-crafted text is usually enough for him to create a character that is so well defined and three dimensional, no further descriptive flim-flam is needed. He’s a master craftsman of the ‘tell-tale minor detail’ and ‘revealing character tag’ schools of writing. All you need is a sneer and a belt buckle slogan and you know a character, know what motivates him (or her), and what he (or she) is capable of. Despite the fact that he is belittled by the literary cognoscenti, King shows genius in his ability to create vibrant characters and scenes whilst retaining a minimalist style; a style that allows the reader to stay immersed in the tale. He credits readers with intelligence. (If only those producers on the Discovery channel and others would do the same. I don’t need to see what’s coming up after the break, and I don’t need to be told what I saw before it. In conclusion, I don’t have the memory of a Swiss cheese.) Anyway, gripe over … back to writing.
So, I’m a planner and adhere to the complete plot outline, not just A-B but A-Z, and showing all the stops, bumps and hiccoughs on the way. However, although I find plotting enjoyable – as, I suppose, did Guy Fawkes in his way – it’s in creating characters that the fun really starts. Sure, there’s plenty of Writerly Software out there, many of which include character generation tools, even down to the selection of a name. You just state ‘country of origin’ and ‘gender’ and BINGO, instant character.
In fact I’ll put my own software (Write It Now v.5) to the test. My character will be a Scottish female.
Name: Paigi Edme Trainor
Personality: Peigi is a little bully. She will always follow orders. Peigi is awkward and evasive. She can be hard to get on with. Any of the imperial storm-troopers on Mos Eisley in Star Wars is a famous example of this type.
Peigi is moderately short. Her taste is surprising and her clothe are dirty. She looks quite drab and has quaint features. She looks ok for her age.
Okay that only took two minutes, but I’ve nothing I can work with and that was two minutes I’ll never get back. Besides, creating characters should be part of the process in which you, as author, pour heart and soul. After all, they’re the stars of the show. Your show. The process should be done with care, but it should also be fun. However, whichever process you choose, once you have a name and roughly sketched profile for your John and Jane Doe, you still only have bare bones. How can you flesh them out into something a reader can grow to love (or loathe), relate to and empathise with?
There are multiple methods endorsed in a myriad of writing guides out there. A character bio is one good step toward getting to know the person you’ve just trawled from your imagination. Now, by plumbing the depths some more, and with thought to the type of story you’re writing, its setting and circumstances, you can draft several pages of biography for your character, allowing you to become more familiar with them and discover what ‘makes them tick’. Another means of familiarisation, suggested in a number of guides is ‘lists’. Producing lists is one good way of adding snippets of knowledge about a character that may not have been apparent previously.
Lists such as: the character’s favourite books/movies/food/brand of cola etcetera, or their last ten purchases, contents of their wallet/handbag/locker, or ten items on their food shelves. I’ve used lists myself. They can be useful and are fun to do. My own favourite means of getting to know my new imaginary friends is the interview.
By interviewing your character you open up new aspects to their personality; you can draft the interview in story or script format, it doesn’t matter. The importance is the information that’s revealed – that’s providing you switch off your own preconceptions, get into ‘the zone’ and let the words flow. I’ve even had characters that I’ve thought were effectively ‘nailed down’ surprise me as, during the interview all manner of secrets come spilling out … so much so that the experience can be a little creepy. Even minor details can surprise you at times. For example, I had one of my characters, Keenan Devlin, down as someone who drank his coffee black, no sugar. This was in keeping with his role as antagonist, you understand. Rather like the bad guy in a western; he’s the one in a black Stetson and astride a matching stallion. But no, Keenan was full of surprises – he took his coffee white, two sugars. I mean, where the hell does that come from?
A lot of information supplied may be superfluous, but the simple fact that you know the characters more deeply allows you to write about them with confidence. Once they take centre stage in a scene of your making you know what they’ll do, say and how they’ll react. You know them, they’re you’re creations.
Finally, the interview is a pleasure to conduct. I use the same setting for mine – a cabin on a hillside in the Scottish Highlands (an area I adore). I ‘discovered’ the cabin when reading ‘A Last Wild Place’ by Mike Tomkies. It’s a book I’ve read twice, love to bits and can heartily recommend. Briefly:
“A Last Wild Place is much more than the chronicle of a man who left the city life in order to study the wilderness. It is a celebration of nature at its most rugged and spectacular in all Britain“
Once settled in my cabin, I interview the stars of my show in comfortable surroundings, with the citrus scent of pine in the air, the sound of geese on the loch and an occasional view of a roaming red-deer on the ridge above.
To summarise then, in addition to favouring the outline method I accept the importance of well-defined characters if the reader is to be engaged and ‘buy-in’ to the tale. However, like novel writing itself, character creation should be an enjoyable affair by whatever means. I see the interview approach to character creation as not only vitally important, but also pleasurable and full of surprises. Notably, it also becomes an extension of the story-writing process – so that once I do sit to write the tale there’s no longer a fear of the blank, white page. And that can only be a good thing.