When a flashback is an alarm bell
All the posts I mentioned at Getting Published 2013


When I let myself in for giving a workshop on Characterisation at Writers' Workshop's Getting Published event yesterday, I realised I haven't blogged directly about Characterisation as much as some things. It is a big subject, but for me, it's all founded in Aristotle: a character without action isn't a story, it's a portrait.  In "Clothes and Food and Dropping Presents" I explored how the process of creating (discovering? uncovering?) your characters can, essentially, go from the outside in, or the inside out, but here are some other ways to help you develop your characters-in-action.

And please don't forget that, as with any kind of imagining-on-paper, there's no reason to assume that you need to do this kind of thing before you start your draft. It may well be that it's more useful later, when you find you're defaulting to bland, standard-issue actions because your character isn't yet fully individual; when you just can't think what they'd do next; when you're in the 30K Doldrums.

First, as anyone who knows anything about acting (or grammar) knows, actions are expressed as verbs. So try these:

  • Ten verbs for your character's characteristic physical actions:
    jump, dash, crumple, push, snarl, nibble, taste, wolf, leap, flop
  • Ten verbs for their characteristic mental or emotional actions:
    spend, avoid, hunger, dream, enroll, crumple, flinch, rejoice, snooze

Did you notice how mental actions are often expressed as physical metaphors - crumple, flinch? Next, if you find that material objects help you to focus on someone, then try these to help you jump the tracks of the standard-issue things for your character's gender/age/ethnicity/class:

  • Ten things they would naturally own.
  • Ten things you wouldn’t expect them to own - but they do.
  • Ten things you’d expect them to own - but they don’t.

And characters aren't just in-action, they're always characters-in-interaction. So, as I explored here, ask yourself - or your character

  • How does your character think of him/herself?
  • How does s/he describe herself to others?
  • How big is the gap?

  • What does each of your other characters think of your MC?
  • What does each of them say about him/her?
  • How much do these different perceptions vary? Is your MC very different for different people?

But whether you start by thinking about shoes and move inwards to Oedipus complexes, or start with dysfunctional childhoods and move outwards to Ferraris, the big drivers of your story -  of your character's journey as routed by the plot - come from the answers to these kinds of questions:

  • What drives them? Is it enough to drive the whole story?
  • What do they want? Does that change as the story develops?

  • What do they really need (not the same as what they want) and they know it?
  • What do they need, but don’t know it?

  • What do they hope for, as reasonably realistic, practical hopes? Does that change or re-shape itself?
  • What do they fear, as reasonably realistic, practical fears? Does that change or re-shape itself?
  • What do they dream of - including their wildest dreams?
  • What do they dread - including their wildest dreads?

  • What will they lose if it all goes wrong?
  • What will they win if it all goes right?
  • What’s at stake for them? Do the stakes get higher as the story develops?

And notice, again, how that list is all about the verbs: drive, want, need, hope, dream, dread, lose, win. Now, one more tip, one more list and a grid. (Y'all know how I love a grid.) First, remember that red is redder and green is greener when they're next to each other. So, any time you're thinking about a particular characteristic, try thinking about it for combinations of characters, and using that to boost the distinctiveness - the characteristicness - of all of them. For example:

  • What clothes would your MC wear to meet his future mother-in-law?
  • What car does each of them drive? A bog-standard middle-aged Ford Escort says a lot more if it's parked between a brand new Smart car and an ancient Porsche.
  • Does being nervous make each of them eat (drink?) more, or less? 
  • How would each character behave if they came across a group kicking a stray dog? (Thank you JoJo Moyes at York 2012, for that one!)

The list? It's the kind of list you see a good deal - but for me it's wholly optional. Still, there are times when it can help to think about these sorts of things:

  • gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity
  • appearance, height, physicality, vision, deft/clumsy etc.
  • education, nationality/region, class, religion
  • job, hobbies, parents’ jobs, or other knowledge/expertise/skills
  • senses: which dominates?
  • possessions: clothes, home, food, car, jewellery, electronics
  • habits: e.g. insomniac, fairly tidy, always late, good driver, disastrous love-life, smoker
  • tastes: reading, music, art, theatre, film
  • leisure: sports, pastimes, socialising, travel

And the grid? It's for thinking about what characters think about each other, and where the gaps are. I wouldn't dream of suggesting that you must fill this out at all, of course. But it's surprising how it makes you think about relationships and relationships - characters-in-interaction - is what fiction is all about. Sorry it's only a quick jpeg, so you'll have to make your own, but what did Old Hamlet think of Ophelia?