How often in creative writing workshops have you heard that it is important to make your characters come alive? Like most authors I’ve struggled with that over the years but let me tell you, when it happens it’s both exhilarating and problematic.
I’ve plotted every scene of my current novel in sufficient detail for me to work on the first draft, which I’ve been doing now for a couple of months. There are quite a few characters in addition to the protagonist and antagonist, some I’m happy with, some I’m not. The latter need more work but the former feel well-rounded and I can see them. The problem starts when they’re so well drawn that they say things that aren’t in the plot but seem entirely appropriate for them to say at the time and in the place they find themselves. The other characters then need to react to the new situation and the story takes a twist I wasn’t expecting.
I could, of course, just go back and make the character say what I wanted them to say, bully them into submission if you like, but that would then be me talking, not the character. It would be false and, after all, I’ve wanted my characters to jump off the page so shouldn’t complain when they do.
How have I drawn them in this way? I don’t know. I’m a writer not a tutor and there are many good books out there which explain better than I could how to strive for this. All I know is that the two characters in this novel who seem to be speaking out of turn the most are ones where I drafted character sketches in the early planning. They didn’t become the characters I’d sketched, not entirely, but something in the process must have made them more real to me – allowed them (and me) to break free of two dimensions.
It’s exciting when this happens, even if it does mean parts of the plan need to be screwed up and re-written. It’s more than worth it in the end.
I was just running through the main plot of my new crime novel with my wife a few days ago and she pointed out some similarities to the plot of my last one. After arguing for a few moments and trying the ‘there are only so many stories and it’s how you tell them’ defence I acknowledged she was right.
Unfortunately, by this time, I’d outlined almost 60 scenes and three sub-plots. I couldn’t abandon it all and I couldn’t go on – not with this ‘you’ve written this before you dummy’ gremlin sitting on my shoulder. So I tried tinkering. Could I use a different murder method? Could I use a different victim? Different killer? But I was so wedded to all the work I’d done and the intriguing (in my eyes) characters I’d developed that I couldn’t see past it.
In the end I drew a deep breath, pulled out my mind-mapping tool (mine’s Freemind but any will do) and started a new page. I asked three questions:
- What are the methods of killing someone?
- Why are people murdered?
- Who might the killer be?
I didn’t bother with all the subsidiary variations, just enough to give me some choices and ideas, though I would have broken them down further if I was getting nowhere.
What I ended up with were half a dozen or more options in each category and within a few minutes I’d freed the head to completely rethink the story I was going to tell. I’m now writing a few alternative story-lines to see what works and what doesn’t.
The figure below shows my initial results. Try it for yourself. Let me know what you think.
One of the speakers at Ennis Book Club Festival last weekend said that he starts a new novel as soon as he completes one, within a day. This started me thinking about how he gets his ideas and I tried to come up with what I might write when I’ve finished my current project. No luck.
Then someone sent me a character profile we’d discussed, something I’d become stuck on and she’d suggested a new pair of eyes might help. This gave me the idea for an exercise.
Firstly write a profile/backstory for a character e.g. Georgina is now in a wheelchair. She’s 27 years of age, black and has just lost her job. She was secretary to the boss of a meat canning factory until she told him she suspected someone was tampering with the health and safety reports. Her boyfriend of the last five years has also dumped her … etc, etc.
Make this as brief or as extensive as you like.
Then do the same for two, or possibly three, more characters. Perhaps think about varying their ages, social position, location, etc.
Then ask the question: What connects these people?
If you’ve also set up questions within the profiles, for example, why is Georgina now in a wheelchair, try answering them.
Hopefully this might lead to the outline for a story. If not, you can always use the characters somewhere else and the exercise won’t be wasted.
Let me know if it works for you.
I recently came upon a poem Death by Harold Pinter which apart from being brilliant in its own own right is also, in my opinion, an excellent framework for developing plot. Just the sort of questions we should be asking about any character or situation in our writing, not just the dead body of Pinter’s work. Check it out – I’d like to quote it here but it appears to be covered, quite rightly, by copyright but you can see it here http://www.haroldpinter.org/poetry/poetry_inart.shtml
I love the line ‘Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey’.
I’ve recently returned from a long holiday in France and whilst I did do some writing (honest) a lot of my time was spent reading. I’d loaded my Kindle with a mix of material but I set myself a goal in the first few days of getting through an anthology of the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. There are four novels and five collections of short stories.
In one respect I failed, I only read three of the novels and all of the short stories. I chose to miss out on The Hound of the Baskervilles, partly due to me having read it before (but then I’ve read them all before) though primarily because it’s been done to death on TV and film and also I didn’t enjoy reading it the last time.
The plots of all of them are absolutely bonkers but they’re largely very well written. The crux of the story is almost always revealed within the first couple of pages then Holmes darts here and there gathering clues until the culprit is revealed. With alarming frequency what happens to the perpetrator depends largely on their social class. Genteel, or just plain rich, murderers always seem to have had a good reason to have done away with their wife/husband/business partner so Holmes lets them go or speaks on their behalf at trial. Woe betide anyone from the lower classes, however, as they’ll find themselves shot or at the end of the hangman’s noose.
A device used quite a lot by Conan Doyle is to have the perpetrator, once they’re caught, tell the background story of why they committed the crime, it seems quite a clever way of revealing this without Holmes having to appear even smarter. Unfortunately, if you’re wading through every story it can become a little wearing.
Conan Doyle wrote many of the stories for publication in periodicals and I was fascinated to see two of them share the first few pages word for word. I was also interested to note that the title of Mark Haddon’s highly successful mystery novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was taken from one of the Holmes short stories Silver Blaze.
The stories are of their time, as is the language (I lost count of how many times Watson ‘ejaculated’), but I think any aspiring crime/mystery writer should at least take a look at them to consider structure and how to move a plot along.
For my part, I loved them, though I’m not likely to try to read them all again on one holiday!
So the final draft of my Inspector Given sequel is finished and with my publisher for consideration, it’s also been submitted to a couple of agents and I’m sitting here with fingers crossed – making the typing much more difficult than it needs to be. I’ve had some excellent help from my daughters and their spouses with the final edit. Two spotted the villain quite early so that’s been changed!
I’ve started a new project, significantly different to the detective novels and I’m finding it both challenging and thrilling. It’s certainly something I couldn’t have written a few years ago because I simply wouldn’t have had the skills nor the confidence to make it work. I’m not sure that I have now but I’m enjoying trying to write it. It only has a simple working title for now, so I can file it, and I’m finding that the time spent learning to use Scrivener was worth it because it is a complex structure, switching time, point-of-view and voice frequently.
Basically it tells the story of three generations of a family through the medium of a mother sitting at the bedside of her daughter who is in a coma. The timeline begins at the height of the Irish famine and ends in the last days of the Second World War – so not much danger of historical accuracy errors there then.
If you’d like to see a draft of the opening scenes, or maybe ask a question about my use of Scrivener use the form below.
I’ve had my head down for weeks, so apart from five hours a day wasting time on my newly discovered Twitter (@charliegarratt3), I’ve been redrafting the novel, working title: Let Venom Breed. Back at the end of June I was in the mire, still 20k words short of target and lost down narrative arc alley. I’ve added about 16k words since then and am close to finishing the first draft. Five months ago I’d only reached 40k words and only had my last few scenes to write. Consequently, my first full draft will actually incorporate a substantial redraft – if that makes sense.
I’m in a good place mentally with my writing and I’d say, without receiving sponsorship, or anything, I don’t think I’d have arrived at this point without Scrivener. I referred to it in an earlier post where I’d just started using a trial version of the program and was still unsure. I used the trial and was so happy with it I bought the full version. I also plugged in to a free online workshop from Learn Scrivener Fast which gave me a few more helpful tips (although they have chased me a bit to buy other products – but I guess they’re in business so it’s fair enough). It’s an incredibly versatile piece of software and I’ve found the payback to be well worth the time I had to put in to learn how to use it.
So, enough of the free advertising for them. Not really meant to be an ad, simply a bit of writerly advice to have a look at it. If it helps, why not?
Biggest problem with spending so much time writing is that there’s not much left for marketing of the previous novel, A Shadowed Livery. Anyone want that job?