Tag Archives: Writing Character

Writing Fiction: River Jumping

It’s been about six weeks since I received the editorial report on my novel suggesting another rewrite.  Six weeks.  That’s a long time.  Frankly?  I’ve been struggling.  Oddly, it was easier for me to adopt the idea of changing one of the main characters from a middle-aged man to a 29-year-old woman than it has been for me to make subtler changes.  Perhaps because I’ve run up against the limits of my conception for this novel or my ability to see this character in a different way.

One problem, for example, is in making the female character independent, mature and empowered.  I’ve had additional feedback from a couple of women about the character and it is consistent with the report: she is too childlike and too dependent on male characters to rescue her.  Damn.  And there was I thinking I was a feminist.

But, without meaning to dig myself any deeper, I like the character the way she is and can’t picture her in a different way.  I understand what I am being told, but there is nothing creatively that then presents itself as an alternative.

When Edward de Bono created brainstorming, it was to try to break people into new ways of thinking.  The principles are pretty well known: go for quantity not quality, always say yes, allow associations, encourage wild ideas.  In short, just say whatever comes into your mind, don’t censure and keep going.

It has been around long enough for variants to develop.  One is called River Jumping.  I’ve been teaching it on courses recently and it occurred to me that I might use it.  I think there are a number of ways to approach it.  But this is how I used to with my current problem:

First, state your problem.  In my case, it was how to create an empowered character rather than the slightly childlike/dependent-on-men character that I had before.

Second, generalise the problem.  Flatten it.  So, being able to create an empowered character.

Third, brainstorm all the people/organisations/etc. who face a similar problem.  I came up with a list of 49.  Starting with therapists, politicians, dramatists, etc.

Fourth, pick one or two which are quite different to yourself.  I picked: stewardess on a crashing plane, Robinson Crusoe, a porcupine and Yahweh.

Fifth, in your head, ask them how they would solve the problem.  I did it with all, but I’ll use the stewardess as an example.  She came up with lots of ways:

Forget the rest of the world, what will happen and what has happened.

Fix only on your passengers.

Know that their calmness is created by your calmness.

Fuck status

Think, this moment is your best moment.

I liked the middle one particularly.  But looking at them again, the last one quite appeals.

Final stage, apply what they say to your problem.  Actually, what I did was to write a scene in which the lead female character remembers being six years old and meeting a stewardess, who says, ‘I was once on a crashing plane.’  But beyond this, it gives me an empowering philosophy of my female character, one that I can identify with.

Since then, I’ve used it with other writing problems.  The effectiveness may not last.  The brain has a way of habituating to even the most innovative practice.  But it’s been interesting.


Writing Fiction: Forcing Mind, Letting-Go Mind.

So, my task: to rewrite a character. To be fair, it’s not one that’s been set for me. I’ve just decided to do it. The problem being that I have no confidence in the main male character in my second novel. I was told, recently, that he was cold. When I started re-reading the novel, I thought it was more than that, he was bitter and aggressive.

The key word in rewriting seems to be ‘warmer’. So, I could either hammer him into a warmer shape – which would feel a bit like neutering. Or I could start again.

Then, I remembered the husband of a friend. A truly warm, enthusiastic, pleasant man. And a phrase, ‘An angel with low self-esteem’ came to mind. My inner self said, yes.

Good. The problem is, I now have two voices in my head. Not the characters, but the parts of myself that would either like to force a quick solution to this, or are prepared to give up control, see what feels right, and work from there. I have loyalty to both.

The first voice says, ‘Can’t we just use some of that great writing from the many previous versions, and then fit the new character around them: best of both worlds!’ The second says, ‘This will only work if you’re prepared to truly let go and follow the character. New writing will develop; old writing will find its place, or fall away.’ Then first voice comes back, ‘But that will take ages! And you can’t hang around. A properly revised novel needs to be ready quickly. Agents don’t wait.’ The second voice, ‘It won’t be great unless you let it grow at its own speed.’

And on, and on.

My favourite comic characters, as a child, were The Numbskulls. Little thinkers inhabiting a cutaway brain. Turns out, it was a psychologically accurate portrayal of the mind.

The battle will go on. If my comic is to be believed, the usual way it is resolved is by an outside force. But, in the absence of a falling television set, I will just have to work it out for myself.

Character: The Unpleasant Hero

I’ve just finished reading William Boyd’s Any Human Heart. Interesting. Without giving too much away, Logan Mountstuart, as a child, is a bit of a pompous twat; as a young man, a terrible husband and father; and, at various times, he cuckolds his best friends. So, how come I finished the whole 400-odd pages? How can a writer create a hero who behaves badly, yet hold the reader’s sympathy?

To be clear I’m not talking about operatic villainy, or even the anti-hero who inverts the noble qualities of courage, care and selflessness. I just mean the sort of everyday unpleasantness: being bitter, two-faced, mean-spirited, jealous, humourless, indecisive, or petty. Qualities we might all be party to but would rather not be in the company of.

I declare an interest here. I’m writing a character who is a self-obsessed hypochondriac.

So, let’s have a look at what Mr Boyd does. As a child, Logan Mountstuart is a geek, an outsider who is very quickly set a challenge to get into the school first rugby team – obstacles! Despite being a rotten first father, he is loving and devoted in his second marriage – redemption! And the friend he cuckolds is shown to be far more cruel in his philandering – comparison!

There’s a sort of game going on here. A balancing act in which each negative is balanced by a subtle positive. Also, from early on, the hero is a successful writer. He has a skill. And we do love a skill.

Emily Mortimer says, of the TV series Doll and Em, ‘We were trying to tread a fine line between being monstrous at times, and losing the audience completely. We never wanted to do that, so in order to keep people engaged and following our story, and wanting us to make up and get back together and fall back in love with each other at the end, we had to keep the complexity of who we are alive. And not just be a bitch.’

A recent Empire article on Toy Story correctly identified Woody as ‘jealous, vengeful and proud,’ and Buzz as ‘deluded…cocky and stupid.’ And yet, that isn’t all they are – we root for them.

Along these lines, a friend suggested I use a character wheel, in which a negative characteristic in one segment could be balanced by a more positive one in the opposite segment. It’s almost a cliché of crime drama: the alcoholic who’s a brilliant detective. It seems a bit calculated, until you reflect on the people you are drawn to. I heard a lovely story the other day. About a besotted man who met his partner’s parents for the first time. The father took him aside and said, ‘You think she is perfect, but the only reason she is with you is because she has the same number of issues you do.’

What other ways do writers use to counterbalance their character’s negative qualities?

The Outsider. A friend of mine told me she went to her school reunion with some trepidation. She had always been something of an outsider. But by the end of the evening she’d found out that all her friends had thought they were outsiders. It’s part of the human condition. Ignatius P Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces lives a very small, solipsistic life. A snob/slob who loves hotdogs and looking down on others. But he is also an outsider, and perhaps we like him because of that. Imagine if he were instead the headmaster at a college.

Being Trapped or Oppressed. Similar to the outsider but with a greater sense of something institutional to fight against. Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair is notoriously amoral. And yet, she holds our sympathy because she is fighting her way up from nothing. She is merely doing what you have to do to make any headway against privilege and oppression. Think also, Winston Smith.

They Change.   Apparently Jeremy Paxman reads A Christmas Carol every year. So do I. There is nothing like a well-told redemption story. You forgive Scrooge his cruelty or Silas Marner his miserliness for their transformation by the end.

They’re Funny. Ricky Gervais has said that David Brent is not a bad man, he has just mistaken popularity for respect. We laugh at the weakness without having to acknowledge that it reflects something in ourselves. See also Charles Pooter, Basil Fawlty, and Captain Mainwaring.

Love and Selflessness. When I was at school, I once saw a local bully at the swimming baths. He was teaching his sister to swim. There is something that happens when you find out things like this. Holden Caulfield also loves his sister. It takes him beyond being just an aimless, disaffected teenager, to someone who has a capacity to care for others. Ignatius P Reilly is the object of fascination for Myrna Minkoff. Their complicated relationship somehow lifts him from being a proto-troll. As for generosity, in Restoration, Robert Merivel, Court physician, is debauched waster. But his skill as a healer, and a single selfless act redeem him.

There But For the Grace of God. The heroine in Blue Jasmine lies, cheats, is self-deluded, greedy, the list goes on. It would be hard to identify a counterbalancing positive quality. It is like watching a car crash. Perhaps she makes us feel better about ourselves.

Is Interesting. Barry Lyndon is a fantastic liar, cheat, philanderer, unreliable narrator. The manner of his storytelling holds the attention.

Invokes Compassion. There is something odd about characters like Razzo Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, Emmet Ray in Sweet and Lowdown, George Milton in Of Mice and Men, even Holly Golightly. They are broken people who believe they are in control of their lives, and adopt someone they believe to be weaker. We see the truth, and it invokes a feeling of compassion.

It’s No More Than We Would Do Ourselves. A friend of mine completely disagrees with my assessment of Logan Mountstuart. For example, she believes his behaviour in the first marriage is justified because it is a marriage of convenience. We judge a character by our own values and experience.

The Boyd List Recap. Faces obstacles, has a compensating virtue, is no worse than their victim.

As I was writing this post I tried to imagine a character for whom there could be no sympathy. Someone who comes from a background of privilege and feels he has been hard done by. Is bitter, and acts out in such a way that innocent people are hurt. Who reacts with jealousy and pettiness in relationships, and remains incapable of doing anything meaningful. And oh my god, it’s Hamlet. The character that actors fall over themselves to play, and audiences still flock to see 400 years later.

How come? It can’t just be the nobility that makes the difference; or the rightness of his cause, since he seems to lose control of that almost immediately; or even the fact that he seems to briefly pull himself together at the end. Perhaps it is just that we recognise ourselves: the lure and fear of death, a desire to do the right thing, an inability to do so. Throw in poetry in the face of the abyss, and suddenly it’s a character we are drawn to.

The writer follows the character down every dark alley, showing aspects of ourselves we need not necessarily admit to, but can recognise.

In the Guardian on 29March, John Carey picked George Orwell as his hero.

He was a truth-teller, admitting to feelings others would hide. In Burma he had found the taunts and insults of the radicalised Buddhist priests hard to bear. Part of him thought of the British Raj as a tyranny, but another thought ‘the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.’

Pleasant? No. True? Yes.

Again and again, this idea of recognition comes up. There is a moment in Charade, when James Coburn is walking through a stamp market and realises he is surrounded by the solution to a mystery. The camera cuts away: stamps, stamps, stamps. They’re everywhere. Any good character has unpleasant thoughts and behaviour. We do. Perhaps the list above is no more than the way in which we justify our own foibles. The skill of a writer is in portraying those weaknesses in such a way that as readers we can say yes, tell me more.


PS.  I subsequently attended a writing evening with Greg Mosse.  He said some interesting things about why we get engaged with characters even when they’re unpleasant. Firstly, that we are engaged with their volition – wanting them to do that thing they want to do – even if we don’t approve of it. Secondly, that the closeness of their observation engages us. Thirdly, as you puzzle out information about someone, you get engaged in them. We have a desire to pattern solve and problem solve.

Character: Bruvs and Moral Compii

In Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig plays – for a comedy – a wonderfully complicated character.  One who loves her friend but is prepared to totally ruin her bridal shower; who can organise a hen night but so badly that everyone gets the shits; who can flirt with a policeman, and then throw him out when he suggests she’s avoiding something. In Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty, she turns up as The Girl.  The one whom he must impress, whose sole role is as moral compass.  Shame.

And let’s not let the women writers off the hook.  Lena Dunham, who writes possibly the most important TV series of the last five years, created a wonderfully spikey character in Adam.  A character who is at the same time loving and gross.  Except in the latest series, in which he seems to have turned into some perfect cookie-cutter boyfriend: supportive of her ambitions, saying the right things when her friends go mental, always there for her.

I think this is the third time I’ve written about the difficulty that the sexes have in writing about one another.  There is always a temptation to write a character who is the-person-who-would-solve-my-problems and, in doing so, deny them an independent life.  There’s probably a good reason for this.  The film/TV/Book is about Character A, not character B.  Give B too full a character and it becomes about them.  But some people manage it: Harry Met Sally, Mad Men, even The Bridge.

In the meantime, From Dickens to Dunham, the minimising goes on.

Character: Altered Ego

Early in The Girl Who Played With Fire Lisbeth Salander goes to Ikea.  She buys ‘two Karlanda sofas with sand-coloured upholstery, five Poang armchairs’ and at least five other tables.  There is something so fascinating about the character that for me she could have carried on to Lidl and I’d still have been wondering what she was going to buy.  Soon after, she disappears for most of the novel, Mikael Blomkvist takes over and the novel goes flat.

Blomkvist is a cypher for the author Steig Larson.  By rights he should be interesting: a campaigning journalist risking his life to get to the story and bring the baddies to justice.  But he’s not.

Why is it so difficult to write an interesting character that is based on yourself?  It is, after all, the easiest way to create one: just walk yourself through the action.  The trouble is that the result is often unsatisfactory.  Even Dickens seems to have struggled with this.  Some of the male leads in his later novels suffer from a sort of flatness: John Jarndyce (Bleak House), Arthur Clenham (Little Dorrit), John Harmon (Our Mutual Friend), are melancholic do-gooders, and contrast with more interesting leads like Pickwick, Oliver Twist or Scrooge.

When you set out to write a character based on yourself it is a little like sitting inside a washing machine: thoughts, experiences, feelings, opinions, churn around you, and the character can end up as a confused version of what you think of yourself.  Those that you regard as different are much easier.  You are now outside the washing machine and distance brings perspective.  You can point and say, ‘Look! shirt, socks, pants.’

Any character is likely to reflect some aspect of its author.  But with characters-at-a-distance, it may only be a single aspect; a shard in which, if you look hard enough, you might see a likeness.

One of the things that makes Silence of the Lambs so interesting is there are two great characters: Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lector.  For her the interest is always, how is this person from such tortured beginnings going to solve a case with so many people getting in her way?  For him, it’s who is this person?  Tell me the details of how he lives in his flat in Italy; tell me what it’s like when he has to sit next to a noisy, smelly kid on a crowded flight.   Most of all, tell me what happens every time the two of them meet.

I think it is fairly safe to assume that Thomas Harris is neither a young ambitious woman nor a psychopathic cannibal.  But perhaps that very distance enabled him to create characters that reflected some aspect of his own psyche without the character getting overwhelmed by it.

One of my favourite Dickens’ characters is Bradley Headstone in Bleak House.  He is murderous jealousy personified.  It is a weighty, lumbering emotion, summed up perfectly in the name.  The way he is written turns him from a standard villain to someone whose own suffering brings a degree of empathy.  Dickens biographies suggest that he could be subject to such feelings.

As ever, I’m trying to work out an issue that I’m facing in my writing.  On two occasions, agents have commented that they liked the elderly woman in my second novel, but not the man.  And that’s the one that’s based on me.  The main character in my current novel is also based on me.  So how do I save them from being flat?

The subject of another post, I think.  But, in the meantime, if you have any ideas let me know.

Character: Suffering

When I was young I always wondered why stories had to involve problems and suffering.  Why couldn’t it be the story of people who got on ok, had a laugh, got married, gave a big thumbs-up to the camera/reader?  What was with all the problems, arguments, injuries, and death?

I wish I had a good answer.  But the truth is, the greater the problem, the faster the pages turn.  I have missed very few stops on the Tube because of a book, but I did for Charles Palliser’s Quincunx (try saying that in mixed company) the story of a middle-class boy who, through the complications of a will and five families, descends through the strata of Regency society facing one problem after another.  Couldn’t put it down.

In novels the most interesting character is often the one who suffers.  Or, in Dostoevsky, the one who sweats the most.  Having said that, there are characters who have clearly suffered more than the main character.  The sycophantic prisoner in Life of Brian for example, (‘they only hung me the right way up yesterday!’).  But the main character is the one whose suffering we are tied into, the one we are walking alongside.  The suffering doesn’t have to be Auschwitz-level.  Bertie Wooster is always in danger of getting engaged to some determined-but-daffy horror, when all he wants to do is wake up in the morning and eat kippers.  But boy does he suffer.