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.