Posted in How to Write

The Impossibility of ‘How To Write’

Writing blogs or articles on writing, teaching classes on the subject, even attending said classes is one of the hardest things you can/will ever do. I can stand and tell you the basics of my experiences, or of my fellow writer-friends’ experiences and I can do my best to encourage and support you – but I’ll never be right. If I wrote a book to show you ‘how to write’ and it was read by 100 people I’d be very lucky if I was 25 percent correct.

            There are basics every writer should learn. We should all know our grammar, our spelling, how stories form and how characters are created (most of which I’ve been taught and could teach) but after the basics are ingrained in your mind you’re let loose. You can do whatever you want. If you want to break these early rules, do it. Experimental literature exists for a reason.

            It’s the great thing about any form of art, be it words or painting or even food. It’s all an imperfect jumble of subjective passion. It can be whatever you want it to be; whatever you need it to be at that moment. It grows with us, constantly sliding back and forth through all the stages of life—from first conception to rebellious teen to self-critical adult and then back round again (and not entirely in a linear fashion).

            I do believe in learning the fundamentals/the basics of writing, just as I took professional cookery training so I could have the abilities and knowledge needed for experimentation. ‘Go on a course, get a degree, join a writer’s group’ – as a person who’s done all of these and more I can attest to how helpful they can be. They can be a helpful hand or a step towards confidence (and a great place to meet new like-minded people or inspirations for future stories).

            But don’t forget that you’ll continue learning throughout your writing career. As your writing flops back and forth through the stages of life so will you. You’ll be confident, miserable, shy, brave and the rules will change as every person in the creative industry changes around you. Everybody needs help with the basics, over and over again, but your words will always be yours.

            As I said, previously, I can tell you my experience and I can teach you the basics (the FUN-dementals, excusing the pun) but I can’t control your mind, your imagination. You will always pick out the bits of the self-help book that you want to hear, that you may already partly believe in. Just look at the #WritingCommunity on Twitter, each writer as different as the other but able to communicate and celebrate those differences.

            Continue to do this, continue to write. This isn’t something I’ve found easy recently but it is something that I believe in. Books change all the time. So do you. Accept that and you’ll hopefully find the words to say how your experience can help someone else.

            And don’t assume there’s a fix-all for writer’s block. I’m learning the hard way that there isn’t.

            The simple answer for ‘how to write’, beyond all the guff and ‘experience of others’ is to keep writing, keep reading and keep caring. With this as your mantra and as your guide to writing then you should be just fine, degree or no degree.

Small Note: I know. This is a short post. I’ve been struggling with finding words recently, due to being close to the opening of my own writer’s retreat and stress increasing because of it (a great discourager from writing). Soon, it’ll be open and I’ll hopefully get to meet some of you amazing writers in person.

And a quick announcement: due to lack of money I will be merging all past and future posts on into Nothing will change for you on this site, other than some amazing food creations and book reviews coming your way.

Posted in How to Write

Writing and Why Mistakes Can Be A Good Thing

I know. It seems like a weird choice for a topic. How could a mistake be a good thing? We spend hours, days, months (years, in my case) editing or writing. We fix the spelling, wording, syntax. We re-write whole sections of work to show our writing at its very best.

            But, hear me out. Imagine if we didn’t do that. Imagine, if you could just write a piece and it was perfect. Imagine how stale it would be and how complacent we would become. We’d have nothing to strive for, no reason to write anything or read anybody else’s work. As it is, whilst editing we’re learning. We’re growing into a good writer (emphasis on not stretching to greatness or perfection, which is impossible to reach in such a subjective artform).

            So that’s one reason right there to love mistakes. Now, after all your editing is done and you’ve published your story or poem, surely any mistakes left in by this point are a bad thing? Well, actually, for the most part, I would argue otherwise. I’m not saying put in a mistake on purpose. I’m not saying you should have thousands of grammar or spelling mistakes. I’m talking about a rare, simple mistake (specifically focusing on wording).

            I started reading Chris Colfer’s ‘Land of Stories: An Author’s Odyssey’ the other day. It’s an extremely engaging story with extremely realistic and lovable characters. So far in my read I have found three mistakes and only one of these I would count as being a negative one (just a personal negative writing choice which I see often in children’s book and disagree with).

            The positive ones however were just a matter of wording and it had to do with names. Alex and Bree are two separate characters with clearly defined characteristics but all of a sudden, during a scene with Bree and her cousins, Bree’s name is accidentally written as Alex. It was jarring. It stopped me reading, made me question myself. And then I started laughing. It was clear that Colfer had been so used by this point to writing ‘Alex and Conner’ that as soon as he was supposed to write ‘Bree and Cornelia’ his hand wrote for his brain. ‘Co… nner… Co…rnelia’, the beginnings were the same, so Bree became Alex.

            I’m sure Colfer must know about this mistake by now, and it may be fixed in future publishing, but I loved it. It showed me how absorbed in the book I was and just how much I cared for the characters. It made me think about the work with logic and it made me realise just how much I actually cared.

            The same thing happened when I was younger when reading ‘Candyfloss’ by Jacqueline Wilson. After they finished baking a cake (Floss and her father) they ‘cooked’ it. Of course, it was supposed to be ‘cooled’ and child me thought it was hilarious and somewhat gratifying. Jacqueline Wilson made mistakes. Maybe it was okay for me to make them too. I haven’t read ‘Candyfloss’ in years but the small mistake is something ingrained in my memory and I love the book all the more for it.

            Not even a book series can escape making mistakes. In Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ series, the first book states that the Fisherman’s son who looked after Timmy was ‘James’ and by book five or six he’d become ‘Alf’. She’d forgotten his name but I hadn’t and I never held that against her because it was a testament to how great a writer she was that I had noticed. I cared about the most minor of characters and that takes true skill.

            I’m not saying you should try to make mistakes and I’m not saying you shouldn’t edit your work (editors need to make a living too, you know?) but I’m just trying to show you a new perspective. If you make and publish a small mistake, well oopsy daisy, but it’s not the end of the world. If you’ve done your job right and your work sucks your readers in, and they care for your characters deeply then maybe a small mistake will give them the same reaction I had. Maybe you’ve given them a good laugh. Maybe you’ve given them the courage to know that they don’t have to be perfect.

            And, regardless, before editing focus all your energy on your story and characters (or poem, for all you poets out there). If those parts are great then being merely a ‘good’ editor could be enough.

            Thank you for reading and (gosh, it’s been a while since I said this)… A Bientot, les ecrivians.

Posted in How to Write

Mental Health and Writing (An Anxiety Meltdown)

It’s New Year again, everybody. Give yourself a round of applause. We made it. We can tell our descendants that we saw a repeated-number year; we got to see all the silly ‘seeing 2020’ jokes that were/are going around. We did it.

            With New Year comes the old adage, the resolution inspired phrase ‘New Year, New Me’ – I’m going to lose so-and-so amount of weight; I’m going to write more/start a new hobby; I’m going to get more exercise/any exercise. These are great goals and, if you actually go through with them, well done. But there’s one resolution I think, for me, is the most important for myself and my writer friends: to be more positive.

            And that ladies and gentlemen et al is how you do a not so clever segue into todays topic: mental health and writing. Apologies straight away to those with schizophrenia or any other psychosis etc. as I’m actually going to focus on something a bit closer to home for me personally: anxiety and depression (heavily focused on the former).

            Imagination is a double-edged sword. Myself and my friends, most of them also writers, have it in excess and it helps us create the most marvellous stories, poetry, characters and worlds—but it also makes us worry and panic about situations out of our control. It, on many occasions, breaks us.

            This is the situation I was stuck in, entering the New Year. I was constantly tired, depressed and stressed about everything I should be doing and had no motivation to get done. Anger consumed me when I caught brief glimpses of myself in doors and windows. I avoided mirrors altogether. I felt worthless. Nobody was interested in who I was or what I had to say.

            And then, the worst thing possible happened. I was blocked. I couldn’t draw or write. I’d lost interest in food—I didn’t have the capacity to care or bother about looking after myself.

            Now, I’ve been having problems like this since I was seventeen—it’s even been worse before this (cut to university me terrified to leave her flat)—I know what I can do to help myself. If you’ve experienced all this yourself, maybe you know how to help yourself too. If not, a quick glimpse online at a reputable source or (if really serious) a visit to a doctor or trained therapist can help a lot (find the right therapist for you though. It takes time but the right one is out there).

            I’ve got many ‘Works in Progress’ (I believe the cool kids on Twitter call it a ‘WIP’), all started happily and paused when I’ve become overwhelmed. Everytime I log on to my computer I see folders of unfinished stories or unfinished series’ of stories. I want to finish them but the words are stuck.

I wish this was more of a joke than it is.

            They’re there. I can feel them. I know the stories and the characters better than I even know myself but the words are wedged between my long-term and my short-term memory. My head is buzzing as it tries to force them out. So, what do I do?

            I move onto something new, a brand new WIP. It’s not a perfect solution but it relaxes my brain; takes away the stress of trying to force something that’s clinging to the back of my mind. It gives the story time. It gives me time. Separation only makes the heart grow stronger.

            So what do you do if you’re facing the same problems? My only advice, purely from my own stressy, overthinking perspective, is to be a bit selfish. Focus on yourself, not on what you ‘should’ be doing. Learn to enjoy again by doing something different. Do your exercise, lose some weight, write a poem, draw some pictures, learn to make cheese—whatever it is, do it for you. Make yourself happy.

            Hopefully the story will find you again and if it doesn’t, there’s plenty of others waiting for you. It’s a bigger world than you’re led to believe. And if you really, truly can’t find one here in this big, wide, beautiful, mad world we live in—congratulations, your imagination that’s caused you so much pain can finally come in useful.

            Our 2020 mantra – the mantra of the 2020 #writingcommunity should be ‘I am a writer. I chose to be a writer and I choose to be happy too.’

Posted in How to Write

Editing an Old Piece

Looking for the smallest mistake in a sea of sentences.

It’s arguably the worst part about writing. It sucks all life out of the piece, makes you feel less confident in your words minute by minute and overall is something you would rather somebody else did for you (and yet something you also wouldn’t entrust to another person, in case they completely tear it apart). I, of course, am talking about that dreaded word—editing.

            There’s no other way to say it: editing is the worst. In fact, that’s wrong—editing your own work is the worst (I actually enjoy editing other people’s work, hence why I used to do it for Fanfiction writers). So, to help you learn how to edit your own piece (and exactly why I don’t enjoy it) I’m going to take an old piece of mine and edit it for a blog post. Yay. Okay, let’s get this started, shall we?

            So, the piece I’m going to use is one I believe I wrote when I was seventeen. It was a short story but extremely amateurish because of my age when it was written. To give some context: I was much more a poet back then than a fiction writer, meaning there were metaphors abound; I knew the character fairly well as she had been created when I was around ten or eleven; lastly, I have to say that I’m fully aware this is not me at my best, so apologies in advance.

            For this post, let’s focus on the first paragraph:

‘I am Rebecca and I am a recovering Photoholic.

Ever since I can remember I’ve had a long lasting infatuation with cameras. I never did much with the being on screen myself, but behind it was like a playground my imagination could explore. Everything seemed so much more toned and exciting from the little box on the back of the digital screen than in the reality of it all. I would spend hours on a night editing the footage of the day onto small compact discs or tapes and catalogue them into my ever-expanding filing system.’

The first thing I noticed is that the second paragraph needs to be indented. This, along with many other layout problems, is something that I automatically set before I start writing these days but didn’t know back then.

‘I am Rebecca and I am a recovering Photoholic.

Ever since I can remember I’ve had a long lasting infatuation with cameras. I never did much with the being on screen myself, but behind it was like a playground my imagination could explore. Everything seemed so much more toned and exciting from the little box on the back of the digital screen than in the reality of it all. I would spend hours on a night editing the footage of the day onto small compact discs or tapes and catalogue them into my ever-expanding filing system.’

As you can see from above, I’ve added the indent and actually changed the font and spacing to make it easier to read. Now that I’m happy with the layout, let’s take a look at the words. Okay, so despite the word ‘photoholic’ not being a real one I’m going to count it as a neologism. Knowing this character well enough I would say that she is likely to make up words, as she wouldn’t know the actual word for what she wants to say. However, in the second line, I think it loses something by saying ‘long-lasting infatuation’. She’s only a thirteen year old girl and implies future tense or a longer period than it actually has been. Also, infatuation implies a short-amount of time, whereas she has a continuing obsession with a camera.

            Let’s change the line to: ‘Ever since I can remember I’ve had a passionate obsession with cameras’—this then keeps the oxymoron (passion being good and obsession being bad, showing her conflicting feelings) but changes it to what it actually is.

            The next line goes back to what I originally said about my being more of a poet than a fiction writer, back when I was seventeen. I have a tendency in old works to use badly worded, almost cringy metaphors to describe things that could be described more simply. So, let’s say it simply, shall we?: ‘I’ve never enjoyed being on camera myself but capturing others’ lives on film inspired my imagination.’

            Now that we’ve had three shorter lines in a row, we desperately need a longer line to keep the flow. This means we’ll have to merge the two continuing subjects or add another relevant one in between them.

            Reading through it, I’ve actually decided on a third option: I’m going to delete the fourth line completely, which is redundant and doesn’t add anything new to the piece, and move straight onto the longer fifth line. This paragraph now reads:

‘I am Rebecca and I am a recovering Photoholic.

Ever since I can remember I’ve had a passionate obsession with cameras. I never enjoyed being on camera myself but capturing others’ lives on film inspired my imagination. I would spend hours on a night editing the footage of the day onto small compact discs or tapes and catalogue them into my ever-expanding filing system.’

Now, you see why it takes so long? And why it’s so heart-breaking, especially when the piece is more recent than this one? You end up deleting words/lines/paragraphs/even entire chapters, changing words, researching new words or meanings of some words—it takes a lot of effort and a lot of it you have to be harsh with and ask yourself: Is this important? Do I need this?

            I used to simply delete them completely but discovered this was counterproductive. I highly recommend to you to have a document ready to cut and paste all of these ‘deleted’ lines etc. into. Whilst they don’t work in the piece you’re editing they may work somewhere else, or they may even inspire a new piece.

            In fact, as a fun exercise (and to cheer yourself up after all of your hard ripping apart) take one of these sentences and write an entirely new piece around it. What do you end up with?

            Thank you for reading and I hope you make it through your own editing.

Posted in How to Write

Anonymity and the Author

So, anonymity and the author? And more importantly, the question as to whether it’s possible to be an anonymous author in the modern age? But firstly, you may ask as an aspiring author why would you want to be anonymous? Why wouldn’t you want your name to be recognized?

            And, yes, that’s fine. If you enjoy the idea of having your name in the limelight—making it special, signing it with pride at the end of your hard-work, then do it. I am speaking today for people in my position; the people who dread the idea of having their name recognizable, the people who feel that pit of sickness in their stomach every time they think of gathering attention for their very personal works, the people who love their works but have little confidence themselves and the people who want to keep an element of privacy in their lives. For whatever reason you’d prefer to be anonymous, in this post I’m going to talk about whether, even if you really want to be, you can actually be anonymous.

            Okay—so, this may be an odd choice but the first (well, I suppose second now) thing I’m going to talk about is an old episode of ‘Arthur’, the children’s cartoon, I remember from when I was younger. In this episode Fern, an aspiring author and Agatha Christie/Mary Shelley lover, seeks advice about writing from a ‘Lemony Snicket’ style character who gives her the advice that the most important thing for her to do is go by a penname (Agatha Shelly is what she chooses) and remain anonymous. She finds this hard because when people criticise her work she can’t argue back with full effect, but that’s not the reason I’ve brought this up.

            In the episode this ‘Lemony Snicket figure’ leads a double life. He appears to remain anonymous because he lives an adventurous life with many enemies to hide from, but this is all something that has escaped from a child’s imagination, surely? Yes, it was written by an adult but is that kind of life practical from an author’s perspective in reality? The answer is—most likely, no.

            The truth is, as taught to me at University, that although you can remain anonymous as an author—if you actually want to sell your books, it’s preferable that you don’t attempt it. You need to go out and sell your book by selling yourself. You need to do readings, talk on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, go to events, book clubs, book signings and promote everything that you’ve written and everything you’re writing. This is what I was taught at university and is the main thing I dreaded as a professional writer. It was the part that put me off being a professional writer, more than criticisms or the hard work ever could. I still dread it to this day.

            But, sadly, I think that they’re most likely right. A long time ago (okay, not that long ago, but long from the perspective of someone who’s not been around as long) you could promote yourself through your work and a penname, without the need to attend anywhere to sell yourself. The Brontes’, George Eliot, even Jane Austen—they all had pennames at some point in their lives, many of them men’s so of course they couldn’t show up anywhere to promote themselves—according to the world they were all men.

            You may ask then, why could they get away with not selling themselves in the past? I think the answer’s quite simple: money and status. They were all wealthy or related to someone wealthy. Their main readers were wealthy as the middle class either didn’t exist or had just come to exist. There was a limited choice of books, since so few could read (let alone write). In the modern western world and beyond we all at least have some formal education (in most places at least) and as seen from the stories told by the poorer folk in history we’ve always had some capability of imagination. This combined to mean that there is a lot more competition in the modern world and, with authors who have less money, we actually need to sell our work to live.

            However, my friends with a pit-in-your-stomach, don’t lose faith in the power of anonymity. Just think, what do you actually know about me? I share my name, some stories, but for the most part I am anonymous still. I have an obscure penname and the power of the internet at my fingertips. If you need it, use it. You may not be able to do traditional publishing; self-publishing may be a hard push if you have to sell them yourself—but use the internet. Share yourself, anonymously, on story-sharing sites. I have a friend who posts stories on Tumblr, collaborating with other authors who are also on there. Write FanFiciton and post those (you are more likely to find followers with this one too).

            Can you make money doing it this way? Well, that’s still to be seen (she says, attempting to do this herself), but why not give it a shot anyway? Eventually, maybe, we’ll all be able to stand tall and throw ourselves into the limelight but for now, let’s stay a little bit anonymous and find our footing.

I could’ve made a pun about ‘lime’ light– but I have some restraint (sometimes).

Bullet Points:

  • I wanted to be anonymous. You don’t have to be ashamed if you do too, or if you want to be known either.
  • Look up ‘The Power of an Author’s Name’ by Foucault. It states his belief that the author’s name is actually what sells the book, more than the actual books themselves. Think about it—people buy Dickens for the author, not for the titles they don’t know whether they like or not.
  • I was told at university it’s no longer possible to be anonymous.
  • Needing to market in person.
  • Power of the Internet for an anonymous author.
  • Is it an archaic practice? (George Elliot, the Brontes—many females used to use male pennames. Pseudonyms do still exist though).
  • J.K. Rowling kept her name for a different genre, P.L. Travers didn’t.
Posted in How to Write

The Importance of An Omniscient

Yes, I’m quoting younger me now. She was smarter than ‘now’ me, apparently.

‘There’s no ‘i’ in narrator. There’s also no ‘i’ in narrate. There’s technically an ‘i’ in narration, and two in omniscient, but we’ll ignore that for now. What’s important for you to know before we start this story is that this story belongs to you, not to me. Enjoy your time here and welcome to the School of Omniscience.’ – Copyright, ‘School Of Omniscience’, written by a younger me.

            Omniscient narrators: the most powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal. Due to their position of power, their knowledge of everything that happens in the book and their almost god-like presence they have the power to persuade your readers that everything you say is true. Everything they say is a fact. Everything they say is important to the story that they’re telling. Or at least that’s the trust and belief that your readers will give to them. Sometimes, as in the case of ‘The Hobbit’ by Tolkien, the omniscient feels somewhat untrustworthy, helping to add a feeling of un-ease to your reader. Whether you find his attempt successful or not, it’s using your omniscient to its full capabilities.

            It’s obvious how important I think an omniscient is. When I was nineteen/twenty I started writing a novel which would help people in creating their own, quoted above. When asked what I find to be the most important part of writing a novel (during writers groups, retreats or university) I would always answer ‘the narrator’. However, I didn’t ever put characters as a secondary importance as I believe, and I think at this point it’s going to be hard to dissuade me from this, that narrators are a form of character themselves. Even if they’re not a first person POV (point of view, if you’re new to this), they still have some from of personality or views that control how they tell the story.

            So instead of the usual, instead of thinking of an omniscient narrator as merely a god-like being, I want you to imagine them as an Ancient-Greek-God-Like being. What’s the difference? Okay—comparison. A Christian God, which is closer to what people believe when they think God-like being, is barely known. They’re perfect, untouched and a benevolent figure we can’t even try to comprehend. A Greek God? Think Zeus. We know his entire story. We know how many women he raped, how much he was adored as a boy, that his father ate his siblings, that he was raised by a goat. He’s hardly a mysterious figure but the Ancient Greeks still looked at him as a God. This is what you’re omniscient should be. They should be flawed, overjoyed about some things and miserable about others; like Zeus and his favourites (mainly women from everything I’ve read), your omniscient will have favourite characters (just as you’ll probably have yourself); your omniscient will have lived a full life, they’ll be a real person… and that is how you gain a reader’s interest.

Make Your Omniscient More Real.

            So, if this is that important, how do you go about it? Well, take it back to my first blog post. Design a character. Create a personality. Operate with the iceberg theory. Realise their motivations, their favourites. If it happens to tie in with your own, that’s fine, go for it. Nobody’s really going to know any difference, as long as it feels like a real person is telling the story. If you want to bring up politics, then do so. As long as your narrator has a consistent interest in politics, then it’s fine.

            My narrator’s name is Hattie. I know what she wears (tatty brown trousers with an even tattier brown top and a large white sun hat—with a piece of cloth dripping down her back to protect her neck); I know her favourite things in life (family, friends, time travel, her pet); I even know the people around her somewhat intimately (it helps that she’s also a character in one of my stories—but why shouldn’t she be? I know her intimately and with her storyline it makes sense that she could be an omniscient).

            Let your imagination run wild. Create an entire character for yourself, get to know them intimately and when you eventually find your voice you’re on your way to a great book/poem/short story/play.

Bullet Points:

  • Omniscient narrators are characters in their own right.
  • Remember, an omniscient is a god-like being who knows everything that happens.
  • Also remember that you can play with the trustworthiness of an omniscient like you can a character. If you want to put people at unease use your omniscient.
  • Take time to find your narrator voice. Every omniscient is different, opinionated and sits in a certain time period. Think political comments from Dickens, Hugo etc. Jane Austen’s omniscient is sarcastic, seething etc.
  • An Omniscient can get away with a lot more than a first person. They not only see more but can state things as fact, making your reader believe what they’re saying (this is why historical fiction is complicated to write—if you are wrong, uninformed people on the time can be persuaded that it’s correct—don’t spread false information).
  • My Omniscient is Hattie. Just as I would a character I gave her a whole backstory so that I knew her inside and out.

Still struggling? Try using this prompt to better understand omniscient narrators and their roles:

Describe the Voice

Below are quotes from famous novels etc. One at a time, take a quote and make a list of the qualities you think this voice has as a character.

For example, ‘A bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise’, by A. A. Milne: factual, grown-up but with childish imagination/speaking, funny, a father, slow speaker, fairly musical, relaxed/relaxing, calm.

‘Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest. Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t. I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you’—Dr. Seuss

‘I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties, there isn’t any privacy’—F. Scott Fitzgerald

‘I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am’—Sylvia Plath

‘Get busy living or get busy dying’—Stephen King

‘He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same’—Emily Bronte

‘There are darknesses in life and there are lights, and you are one of the lights, the light of all lights’—Bram Stroker

‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid’—Jane Austen

Try doing this with other books you read and your own writing. Even a narrator, omniscient or first person, has a character and the more you know your narrator the easier it will be to keep your voice natural and well-defined.

Posted in How to Write

How To Write Characters.

From Stick Men to Humans to Everything In-Between

Sitting down and thinking through my ideas for blog posts (of which there was a horrendously long list, so apologies) I had to move this idea to the top of my pile. Characters are, for me, the most important parts of a story—and I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating to say that in some way, characters are the main things you should focus on in your planning stages.     Let me explain myself. There was a vague theory I remember agreeing with whilst I was studying for my degree, in which it was suggested that there were actually only a small handful of plots available to the hard-working author. Although these plots could blend into each other, try to make a difference with their twists and turns and blend of genres, there could never be really anything new to come out of them. So, how, if a plot has been read so many times over the centuries of human existence, do they feel fresh and invigorating every time? My answer: the characters.

            Think about your favourite books. What’s the main thing you remember from them? If I asked you—what happened on page… 63, let’s say, could you tell me the important plot point that was happening? I’m assuming, and honestly hoping, you’re saying no (although if you do remember, kudos to you, my friend). Now, if I ask you to tell me the name of the lead character? ……. Did you get it? If I asked what s/he was like? … If I continued to ask what you liked about them? … And then, if I asked you what they got up to in the book? Could you now answer what the plot was? Can you get closer to what may have happened on or near the theoretical page 63.

            Now, you see, plot doesn’t drive characters—characters drive the plot. They are the only difference to a plot and so they are the integral part to the story. But, how do you write them effectively?

            Well, the key is in how well you as the author know them. Now, you may or may not have been told about the iceberg theory (if you have, I’m sorry, as you’re going to have to sit through it again). The iceberg theory includes a drawing of an iceberg—the tip is showing above the sea (we’ll say 15 to 20 percent) and then there is a giant bulbous piece of iceberg underneath the water (the rest of the percentage, of course). Now a ship coming towards this iceberg will only be able to see the tip, a primitive mind may think that’s all there is, but a good navigator—a proper seaman or woman, will know that there’s plenty more that they can’t see. It’s a feeling, a suggestion that the tip gives.

            To explain the metaphoric rambling: the tip is the amount of information you share about your character in the story, it’s the amount that the reader (or ship) will receive and that you have to steer them towards. The bottom of the iceberg is the large quantity you as the author should know about each one of your characters. The proper seaman/woman, the readers of your work, they need to feel the rest without you blatantly showing it. You do this by using your tip to hint at more—give your character a complexity, a hypocritic quality, a fault, a background that affects everything that they do.

            Don’t sit there and make a list of all their attributes. Okay, okay, let me give you an example:

            ‘Annie was brave, yet gentle and calming. She had long pink and brown hair and her smile was very white. She often went to get them whitened at a local dentist called Hollingbrook’s. She was always willing to go on an adventure and was the complete opposite of Anne in her favourite book ‘The Famous Five’. She liked this book because…’

            You see how this information deluge is bad? How is knowing this adding anything to what Annie is doing? In fact, it will, it all will, but it’s not important enough to spill in your work. You should know it, but the reader should only get the suggestion that they exist. And then one day, when Annie is seen reading a Famous Five book or going to the dentist to her weekly teeth-whitening appointment it will make complete sense because you have built that up in the tip.

            ‘Annie smiled at the man sat across from her, her dazzling white, almost plastic teeth, blinding him as she bent over the map of the island. Her little scarred finger leant on the drawing of the compass at the top and her pink-streaked brown hair laid playfully, sprawled across the coffee table. She reached out a bold, determined hand and rubbed the sweat from his cheeks. ‘It’ll be okay,’ she told him.’

The Iceberg Theory in Doodle Form!

            Now, I’m not going to say it’s a perfect example, as I don’t know this Annie that well yet but it is getting closer to the correct way to write. You see how the things mentioned at the top are almost inferred here? She has shown herself to be kind as she comforts him, brave as she looks at the map, her teeth are even brought into the action and develops their relationship. I’ve even added an extra detail, a flaw of a scarred finger, which suggests something else that’s happened in her past. This excites your reader’s imagination, helps them form their own interpretation of Annie, and isn’t that what makes reading lovely? Even though it’s written by one person and given to many, the many can make their own story as they read it. It’s truly amazing, and the main difference between the written word and visual interpretations of words (films, televisions etc.).

            What else is important for a character? As I’ve shown, flaws often help to make them more well-rounded. Even the Ancient Greeks, some of our earliest known writers, knew this—making their Gods flawed and interesting. Zeus a womaniser, Hera’s jealousy, Aphrodite’s cheating ways and narcissism, Athena’s blunt manner. Even Kronos, a Titan, is afraid of his children and of them copying what he did to his own Father. Give your character a flaw and they become realistic—they become something your readers can understand. It doesn’t even have to be anything big to be a good choice. And again, don’t blatantly say what the fault is, but show it to your readers at the opportune moment.

            To finish, as this is getting a bit lengthy, here’s a few bullet-points which should help you get an idea of how complex this area of writing actually is:

  • Remember that flaws are important.
  • Build a backstory. Spend time with your characters (if you love them it’s easier to connect).
  • Act like they’re your imaginary friends.
  • Characters are what fuel a story. There are only so many plots but there are millions of characters.
  • Remember that real people tend to be hypocritical. There is no such thing as entirely bad or good. People are confusing.
  • Think about social pressures. People change their character in real life depending on the situation and where they are.
  • If doing it from first person or from close-up third person, remember that people often think one thing/one way and act completely different. A timid person is often confident in their head because they’re used to speaking there. An open extrovert may be more likely to speak whatever they’re thinking before they even get a chance to think it.
  • Iceberg theory—show 20% but know 100%. I cannot reiterate enough times how important this theory is.
  • Write some practice short stories with those characters to figure them out. Put them in different situations.
  • And remember, a name will be the first guide to their personality (more on this in another blog post).
  • A narrator is always a character, including an omniscient, which moves us onto next week’s post—‘The Importance of an Omniscient’.

Thank you for reading and…

A Bientot, les ecrivians.