Week 36

Describe a friend of yours. A good friend. Guess Who board game Are they honourable? Would they step in and defend an old lady being harassed on a bus? Or are they devious? Slip an extra biscuit out of the tin? Are they lazy? Committed? Name a physical habit of theirs. Is there a phrase they repeat? When they sneeze, do they blast saliva molecules over the surrounding area, or do they pinch their nose and squeak?

In the past I’ve been asked to write yearbook entries for some of my best friends, and come up with nothing. A friend once asked me to write her profile for a dating site, and I was stumped. Did she like museums and walks in the park? I had no idea.

Now describe you. What do you look like? What do you think you look like? What stuff do you like? What’s your favourite... book? Film? What one album reflects everything you are? What three words sum you up? What skills can you bring to the job? Look down at yourself. Your stained shirt. The roll your stomach makes over the top of your trousers. The scar on your left hand. Tell me about yourself. Start with your values. What do you even stand for?

Hard, isn’t it?

It's the same with my characters. I understand them (one started off life based on me), and I need them to do certain things, but I'm not sure I see them for what they are. When I interrogate them for answers as to what happens next, they just look back at me blankly.

I went to Storywarp last week, and was struck by something someone said in response to a comment made by Rhianna Pratchett, a scriptwriter for video games. They were surprised she'd referred to something called a "blank-slate character" - so important in first-person video games - and did not think something "blank-slate" could be classified as a "character". It was as if characters had to be bundled full of meaning, substance, and, well, characteristics, if they were to exist at all.

My response was immediate; surely blank-slate characters exist. Look at Nicholas Nickleby - wet as all get out. What does he add to the story named after him? Early novels in the Bildungsroman tradition often had a central character who was important not so much for the things he did, but for the things he didn't do, the things that happened to him. Rousseau explains his theories of education deliberately using Emile as a blank slate;Wilhelm Meister walks around eighteenth-century Germany in a kind of daze; and Nick Carraway is a witness only to the enigmatic and absent Gatsby.

Then I stopped being so pretentious and thought, of course there's such a thing as a blank-slate character. You walk around with one all the time. It's you.

Some of my characters are inspired by people I know, and it's hard not to fall in the trap of trying to get that unique and changeable host of characteristics down on paper. This character needs to do xyz, but, he's more complex than that. Or, she wouldn't say that. And that's laudable: people are hard to pin down, they're not stereotypes, not flat and one-dimensional. But holding her tongue because that's in line with her character, so she can mooch about it all night instead, chapters and chapters worth of tedious ramblings, before finally something happens to put her in the same position I needed her to be in 56 pages ago? Booo-ring.

Trying to write so-called "realistic" characters - ones with all the contradictory whims, habits and beliefs of the people you know - is impossible. It gets you nowhere.

Storywarp reminded me that a lot of drama is rooted in character, and that I hadn't been paying enough attention to it. It also showed me that I had to get rid of this notion of doing justice to the complex characters I walk around with, and am, every day.

Character isn't an everyday experience. Characters don't form themselves simply and clearly in our minds. They are a constant fiction, something we have to work at, to make it seem like we are consistent, identifiable, that at any point someone could pick us out of a crowd.

Like every layer of a novel, there's a lot of art that goes into creating character. Each one should not aim to be uniquely identifiable, but do its job, add to the story. Action = character, after all.

Drama, on the other hand, takes not just the script but the perfomance into account. Every actor playing Hamlet has to decide how to play him: as a petulant, spoilt boy, or as a wounded, haunted man. You have to give him an angle. Is Lear sinning or sinned against? The play leaves it open, but every member of the audience goes away with an opinion on way or another.

I've quoted Robert McKee on archetypes before, but it really made me stop and re-read it a few times when I first came across it. Is he really saying that successful characters are archetypal first, and characteristic second? To start with specifics, in McKee's words, is to risk writing "narrow, culture-specific experience" and dress it "in stale, nonspecific generalities" (The Story, p.4).

At first, the advice to write archetypes to avoid stereotypes seems counter-intuitive. But McKee is saying you’ve got to take a real-life character and smooth out its fuzzy lines, harden its edges, fictionalise it. There's no point worrying that Aunt Emily wouldn't go out in such weather - get her out there. What'd change her mind? What'd make her put her dressing gown on and venture outside?

In other words, exaggerate characters. Don't minimise them. It’s the only way to get them moving - you can make it more subtle in the edit.

Word count this week: 6,836* Total word count: 68,871 First draft: 58,855

* Word count is high this week because as well as finishing section three I also planned the next section, tidied up my notes and added some old ideas that still work. THAT'S NOT CHEATING! The first draft is simply catching up with my total word count. Ahem.

Week 22

Getting back into writing has been daunting, not least because I'm still feeling the after-effects of jetlag (it's been more than 10 days! Enough already!). I gave myself a day of acclimatisation, which involved opening the 20,000-odd word document (I think the largest I’ve ever written – my university dissertations were maximum 15,000) and staring at it.

Four hours later I'd not written a word, but instead worked on characterisation. Not necessarily characters who already existed, but a list of possible characters based on the setting. That sounds a bit odd, but when I tell people what my novel's about, they're really interested: in what I got up to, the sorts of people I knew. As it's based on my own experiences, however, it's difficult for me to see what's interesting and what's run-of-the-mill.

I was a fan, but what other fans were out there? How were they different to me? How did their fandom compare with mine, and what light does that shed on my main character?

This feels the wrong way round - McKee said taking characteristics first and applying universal themes second was a recipe for stereotype, after all - but has nevertheless been really helpful in working out how multiple characters work towards and not against a unified story. I fleshed out a list of characters based not on people in my story, but people I met, knew of, made up the fan world I lived in. Taking each in turn, I thought about their motivations, and what's stopping them getting what they want. They might not make it to my story; most won't, and some might, but not for long. But thinking about extra, possibly unseen characters helps me discover more sides to my main characters.

This has a big impact not just on characterisation, but plot too. After I'd thought about characters, I wrote a list of events that make up my plot from memory, without looking at the list of scenes I'd written months ago when I was first planning my novel. It's a useful backbone, but unlike last time when I tried to list every scene that happened one by one as per the Snowflake method, this time I just wrote significant moments, and hope to fill in the stuff in between as I go.

I realised when reading on holiday that the story in the kind of novel I want to write is episodic; not everything leads up to a final crescendo. It requires multiple characters, and sometimes scenes work just because they are interesting in and of themselves, not because they lead into another scene, or set up a conflict or situation that needs to be resolved later.

The problem with so-called story theory, or writers like Robert McKee, is that novels don’t follow a single story that rises and falls according to a single character’s actions. That is much more appropriate for drama or screenplays.

They are messy, exploratory things, which delay gratification and take readers on detours, disappoint and surprise in equal measure, satisfy our yearning for a broad sense of completion, and delight with a single phrase. Every page should be fun to write, and not full of anxieties about where this is all going, who I'm writing for, and am I setting this situation up right. There should be hundreds of stories within a novel, and a hundred ways of telling it.

Well, that's what I'm telling myself next time I open that 20,000 word document anyway.

Word count this week: 2,339 Running total: 37,230 First draft: 20,237

Weeks 18-21

This week's motto That's this week's motto.

I’ve been on holiday in Hong Kong and Thailand for the past few weeks, and had an amazing time. I didn’t get much (any) writing done, but I read a whole lot.

I don't know if it was a coincidence, a recent trend in fiction, or simply something I was looking out for, but I noticed a few of my books had an interesting approach to character. A couple (A Visit from the Goon Squad, A Week in December) introduced multiple characters upfront who were all connected in some remote way, and then wilted a little when it came to sustaining a unified story, whereas another (To Have or To Have Not - okay, Hemingway, so not a recent trend) slipped from first to third person, and thence to other characters altogether, like the narrative has suffered a lapse in interest in that viewpoint.

All this got me thinking about character. By the time I got to Zadie Smith, I was surprised at her small band of characters - a protagonist, his father, girlfriend and friends - and how little they sprawled time, or space. Each represented a different element to the story and yet were brought vividly to life.

When I got back I spoke to my dad, who's reading Story by Robert McKee, and he mentioned something McKee had to say about character:

"The archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression. A stereotypical story reverses this pattern: It suffers a poverty of both content and form. It confines itself to a narrow, culture-specific experience and dresses in stale, nonspecific generalities."

He goes on to explain that the "symbolic charge" of a story’s imagery should be in the move from the particular to the universal, the specific to the archetypal, not the other way around. As well as being a good reminder to start with realistic characters, this struck me as kinda appropriate for my book, which is about fandom and identity, what's real and what's symbolic (or archetypal, to use McKee's term).

It also reminded me that successful characters aren't just realistic. I've struggled with this in the past, as my novel is based on my own experience, and, to a certain extent, events and people I've met. That's always the way, isn't it? Surely everything a writer writes includes some of his or her experience?

A passage about a wannabe novelist in A Week in December made my blood run cold:

"So it was that he began yet again, with a main character not unlike himself on a life path that bore a fraternal relationship to his own. This thing about 'inventing' characters that some novelists banged on about; really, when you came down to it, why bother? Very few people knew him, or any of his acquaintances he planned to include, so what was the point of conjuring and moulding new people from the void? At least he and his friends came with built-in credibility; they were, by definition, 'realistic'..."

Except of course they're not, as soon as they hit the page. Characters are only as realistic as they are written, and writing about a real person leads you into forgetting what makes them who they are, which characteristics are defining and which are dull.

So I've realised I need to take a step back and work on my characters, think about what makes them special and distinctive, and what they eventually will come to represent, without losing any of their believability. Smith's description of an auction room in The Autograph Man, the first few pages of Goon Squad, and the opening lines of the prom scene in Carrie showed me that a few choice characters can really bring a scene to life. There's a lot more to a story than that, but I need to get that initial interest right, and set up a few more characters better.

Next week is about thinking about my characters, how they could move from particular to the universal, specific to the archetypal. It's a chance to think about that little guy Daniel too, and how he might fit in the story.

In the mean time, such a long break from writing means I have some work to do just to psyche myself up again. I want to get back to where I was before I went away: writing a little bit every day, and looking forward to it. This weekend I had to force myself to sit down both days, and work through every distraction in the book (tidying, googling, tweeting, coding, watching the 'Thriller' video) until I got into the swing of things again. I think I managed about two hours' solid work out of about 15, writing a long blog post and the bare bones of a short story.

Tomorrow's alarm clock is set for 6am; jetlag be damned.

Word count this week(s): 0 Running total: 34,891 First draft: 19,523

PS Sorry about my use of the word 'thence' earlier, by the way. It won't happen again.