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On Character In Novels: Part 2, by Robyn Bavati

As outlined in last month’s post, when developing your characters there are five principles worth bearing in mind:

1. There is a difference between character and characterisation and both are required.

2. Character is best revealed through action.

3. You don’t need to know everything about your character, but only those details that provide insight, advance the plot or in some way enhance your story.

4. Character does not exist in a vacuum but is inextricably linked to plot – character motivation drives the story.

5. In a novel (as opposed to, say, TV sitcom), characters must be allowed to change over time.

In my last post I wrote primarily about the first of these principles, and explained that characterisation deals with outward characteristics and physical attributes, while character expresses personality and the inner workings of the heart and mind.

Once you have established who your character is (eg. a mischievous eight-year old girl, a blind ten year-old boy, a middle aged woman with a limp), you’ll probably want to convey a few significant details about your character’s personality. It’s at this point you’ll want to make use of the second principle – that character is best revealed through action. But what does this mean? Here are some examples:

1. Gerald is an extremely frugal old man, but instead of “Gerald was frugal”, try “Gerald searched the attic for his box of used matches – there was no point throwing them out when he could use them again”, or “Gerald folded the piece of toilet paper over again and again; it would be a waste to flush it away after just one wipe.”

2. Ten-year-old Beth has a big heart, but instead of “Beth was kind”, try “Ignoring the rumble in her stomach, Beth gave her only sandwich to the beggar. He did look hungry.”

By describing Gerald as frugal or Beth as generous, you’re telling your readers what to think about these characters. By showing them in action and allowing the reader insight into the inner workings of their minds, you’re allowing readers to reach their own conclusions, which is much more satisfying.

Of course, if your characters are ruminating on their own frugality or kindness, that too can be a way of allowing the reader into their minds, and is not the same as the author telling the reader what to think. Likewise, other characters in the story may share their opinions about the main character, which is also acceptable, as it will then be up to readers to form their own opinions based on the way a character acts.

How much information do readers actually need in order to form their own opinions? And how much do you, the writer, need to know?

Writers are often told they must know everything about their characters. In some writing courses, students are encouraged to write extensive character profiles, several pages long. Such lengthy profiles are not only time-consuming, they are often unhelpful. Do you really need to know what school your character went to, what childhood diseases he had, whether he prefers chocolate or vanilla ice cream, how many first cousins he has and whether he broke his leg at the age of three?

This brings us to the third principle: You don’t need to know everything about your character, but only those details that provide insight, advance the plot or in some way enhance your story.

You probably don’t need to know what your character ate for breakfast, unless she is suffering from an eating disorder, in which case it might be highly relevant. Likewise, you may not need to know that she has researched the properties of the plants in her garden, unless one of them is toxic and she uses it to poison someone later in the story.

You do need to know what she is doing in a particular scene, and it can be helpful to know what she was doing just before the scene began and what she is planning to do next.

Always remember that you are telling a story. The information you reveal about your character is relevant only insofar as it serves the story. It is this idea of serving the story that is the backbone of character development, to be continued in next month’s post…

In the meantime, here are a couple of exercises you might like to try:

  1. Choose a couple of character descriptors from the following list (or come up with your own): mean, shy, extroverted, happy, miserable, frustrated, guilty, grumpy, ecstatic, loving, rude. Now write a sentence or two for each that reveals that attribute through action (as in the Gerald and Beth examples, above).
  2. Write a list of 5-10 things you need to know about your main character, and another list of 5-10 things that are irrelevant to the story you want to tell.

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*There is an opportunity to attend a novel writing retreat in Tasmania with Robyn in October. For details, see https://www.facebook.com/NovelWritingRetreatsAustralia/posts/489199181237686.

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Chosen One (or Hero’s Journey) Stories, by Simon Higgins

A massive chunk of the combined fictional writings of the human race, as well as the founding stories of many world religions, revolve around what has come to be called The Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell, a brilliant academic from a Christian tradition, immersed himself in the East and its culture, travelling and analysing beliefs, legends and customs. The conclusions he recorded in his books and lectures really nailed The Hero’s Journey for writers. The gist of it is this:

Someone, somewhere, is inevitably the Chosen One but they don’t know it, or if they do, they can’t accept it. 

A mentor (who recently, in cinema, seems to have taken the form of Liam Neeson way too many times) appears to help the hero confront their identity and therefore, the mission they must accept, conflict they must face, destiny they must fulfil. Of course, there is usually also a powerful nemesis who is ruthless, full of self-certainty, waiting for that final show down. In gaming terms, the dreaded Boss of the Level.

Destiny has chosen them. Evil will hunt them. We had better pray they survive, for only they can save us.

When I speak and teach creative writing in schools and at literary festivals, I love to get students and readers discussing both Romeo and Juliet (which I’ve blogged about separately) and this blog’s focus, The Chosen One (or Hero’s Journey) formula.

Both ‘legends’ are so central to the human psyche and so beloved by centuries of readers that I think our understanding of them is crucial to keeping these compelling traditions alive and vibrant. Perhaps we need to consider why they appear to spark such a response in all who share the human condition.

My theory about The Chosen One is that the idea of discovering one day that it’s you – and that along with that burden will also come special powers, training and amazing new friends – is surely the ultimate fantasy for many of us. Who wouldn’t like to be shown in the end to be unique AND get to save the world along the way, thereby securing future immortality in the media, folklore and legend?  

Notice how, in the paragraph above, while just roundly outlining the fantasy, the things I unconsciously focused on were the various personal benefits, and the saving the world stuff was almost a rider on the end. This, I think, is the reality of that fragile, needy, human ego our species shares, works at so hard and at times is forced to resist with all remaining sanity. We all dream of being shown to be special. It’s all about us.

I find it interesting that the richest hero stories always show the hero’s real magnificence, which is not their powers or gadgets. It’s how they bounce back after failure, which is often self-generated through pride, impulsiveness or arrogance. The humbling of Thor. We seem to gravitate towards these ‘challenge to the ego’ type of tales. 

Maybe the power of a hero fantasy does also derive from a genuine wish in us to save others, which, let’s face it, special abilities would make more possible. So maybe the dream of being unveiled as a hero or demigod reflects an ancient human need to secure order in the cosmos to obtain some heavenly property or energy and with it hold back negative forces. That would better enable us to protect or rescue all we love. 

Sometimes The Chosen One is a blatantly messianic figure, fated to save mankind or a world in direct conflict with evil, often an evil that that world has fashioned themselves in the classic Frankenstein pattern. Think cinema like The Fifth Element, I am Legend and The Matrix, and literature like Harry Potter.

I find great amusement in something I observed in the Terminator franchise, which takes in books, movies, games and a TV series or several. As originally conceived by James Cameron, it’s the story of John Connor but in part, it can also be described as a sci-fi echo of the story of Jesus Christ.

There’s a prophecy in the sense of foreknowledge of John’s value and future role as a saviour, and an attempt on his mother’s life before he is even born. Very biblical. But there are also wildcards. One of the tale’s modern elements is a time-travelling mentor who also doubles as a love interest for John’s mother Sarah. It’s all classic Hero’s Journey.  

Now, getting back to those powers, it should have been me. The suit, the hammer, that super soldier formula, whatever, should have found its way to me and my needy little human ego. I hope Stark Industries, Odin, Shield, whoever has the resources, are reading this.

If so privileged, I really would be totally selfless and focus entirely on that saving the world stuff, all Man-of-Steel-like.

Of course, I’d happily settle for just having my own submarine and crew, like my character Kira Beaumont.

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Plotting My Novel ‘Portraits of Celina’, by Sue Whiting

I am not a plotter. I am more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of writer – particularly in the early stages of the writing process. To me, there is nothing more exciting than creating a cast of characters, plopping them into a situation, then letting them go and watching the mischief they create. I am nearly always surprised!

Of course, this method isn’t an efficient way to write a novel. It usually involves many false starts, frequent wrong turns, impossible corners to try to get out of, and many drafts and much rewriting as you make connections and figure out what the heck your story is really about. But, oh, for me, it is a much more thrilling ride.

When writing Portraits of Celina, my characters absolutely derailed my initial intention for this novel. I didn’t set out to write a creepy story. Suspenseful, yes. Creepy, no. I certainly didn’t plan on writing a ghost story, but Celina O’Malley had other ideas.

When I started writing the novel, the character of Celina O’Malley was just part of the backstory, an element of the tragic history of the house at Tallowood, which Bayley and her grief-stricken family move in to, in a desperate attempt to mend their lives.

Much like the way Celina wheedles her way into Bayley’s life in the novel, Celina wheedled her way into the forefront of my brain and subsequently into the main storyline. She didn’t want to be merely backstory; she wanted a lead role, and what Celina wants, Celina gets.

At first the living teenage Celina appeared to me as a happy, joyful, free spirit, a leftover flower child, who had much love in her heart. Slowly, ever so gradually, the real Celina began to reveal herself. I started to see another side to her – a much darker side – and the cunning control-freak who manipulated those around her to get her own way started to show her true colours. Now, almost forty years after her murder, forty tortuous years for Celina, the ghost of Celina is just as manipulative as her living teenage self, but also much more sinister and determined, and intent on exacting revenge. No matter what.

This enigmatic, demanding character intrigued me enormously, and, I have to say, it was a delight to write her, to give in to her demands and provide her with the prominence she yearned for. The result, of course, added to the suspense of the story – but it also meant that, without really intending to, I had written a creepy ghost story. This also meant lots of rethinking, revising and rewriting as I worked through the numerous subsequent drafts. I am really glad I listened to Celina and glad that I wasn’t so bound by my initial idea. I was able to change tack and follow the mischief this character created. It was without doubt a more thrilling ride because of it.

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Using Story Formulas In Original Ways, by Simon Higgins

People sometimes speak about formulas in storytelling (by which I mean highly recognisable patterns and elements) as if they are a bad thing. Of course, handled poorly, exploitatively or simply B-graded into total madness, they are indeed worse than bad.

Formulas that have been done to death scream at us from the blurbs of advertising posters and trailers. They are obvious, basic and for the most part can’t be taken further than they already have in the hundreds of books and thousands of movies representing their predictable steps.

‘They killed somebody he/she loved. They pushed him/her too far. Now he’s/she’s back, burning for revenge…’

I think more positive tropes, even dark ones, have far more, and more enduring, appeal. I used the very familiar idea of a rich vigilante hero in the Thunderfish series (in a most un-Batman-like way) and, going on the first novel’s Notable Book of the Year listing, the second’s Ned Kelly Award short listing and the trilogy’s many generous reviews, the reboot worked. Kira Beaumont and her crew took the readers of Thunderfish, Under No Flag and In the Jaws of the Sea on a journey of loss, outrage, reinvention and justice. The pattern of a hero passing through an ordeal then rising from it with greater strength and more purpose is an epic formula that can be harnessed in so many ways, in any era, culture or genre.

Some formulas appear to resonate deeply with us humans. Often not along the lines one might expect, either. Take the whole notion of romance, finding that perfect match. You’d think people would go for the musical style ending, kind of ‘life ala Mama Mia’ where everybody gets a happy ending or at least winds up satisfied with their lot. Such a rosy picture, in which even a former James Bond can burst into song to propose, with audience and ensemble cast on his side. Well, no, this is not the most beloved and timeless romantic template for humans. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is: a decidedly unhappy ending, where one or both of the star-crossed lovers, so filled with undying passion for each other, perish tragically and before their time. A perfect match they might be, but powerful forces in their world, stronger than love, more brutal than their desire, are destined to tear them apart or cut them down. We humans never get sick of retelling this tale!

If you think me off-track here, consider the following spectacularly popular movie examples that I often cite during creative writing workshops I teach. Moulin Rouge (Romeo and Juliet at the world’s most famous nightclub) Titanic (R&J on the world’s most famous disaster ship) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Two sets of R&J’s, with kung fu!). The more analytically you think about books you’ve loved and movies you’ve wept over, the more you’ll detect that eternal R&J shadow falling over you.

So why is this formula so enduring? Is it some form of envy that makes us take delight in watching perfect, fresh, intense love get ripped apart? Perhaps a compulsion towards melancholy realism, or a slightly bitter instinct in us that says, “Well that’s too precious, too wonderful, to last! So it shouldn’t!”

Or, weirdly, does seeing poor Jack let go, Satine die of consumption or Li Mu Bai succumb to poison in his great love’s arms actually make us all, somehow, feel better?

These are intriguing questions. Whatever the truth (and it may be all of the above options), it’s certain that at least in one sense, Romeo and Juliet will never die. So where’s that writer who will be next to put a fresh face on their enduring story, to great success and acclaim. Yea, wherefore art thou?

Verily, it could be you.

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On Character In Novels: Part 1, by Robyn Bavati

The first book I ever wrote was a fast-paced, plot-based fantasy novel that was rejected primarily because the hero had no personality. Aware of this deficiency, I rationalised that I had deliberately made him an ‘everyboy’. I thought that if he lacked any distinguishing features, then anyone who read the story would be able to relate to him. I clung to this rationalisation because the truth was, I didn’t know how to develop his character.

Now, more than twenty-five years later, what I know about character and character development may be summed up in five basic principles:

1)      There is a difference between character and characterisation, and both are required.

2)      Character is best revealed through action.

3)      You don’t need to know everything about your character, but only those details that provide insight, advance the plot or in some way enhance your story.

4)      Character does not exist in a vacuum but is inextricably linked to plot – character motivation drives the story.

5)      In a novel (as opposed to, say, TV sitcom), characters must be allowed to change over time.

This post will address the first of these principles.

In any novel, there is a need for both character and characterisation, and novice writers sometimes confuse the two, thinking that characterisation alone will suffice.

Characterisation is the character’s outward appearance – physical attributes such as height, build, hair colour or complexion and approximate age, as well as obvious idiosyncrasies such as a lisp or twitch. Character, on the other hand, deals with the inner workings of the heart and mind, and encompasses thoughts and feelings, attitudes and beliefs, sensations and moods, as well as personal attributes – shy or confident, modest or boastful, friendly or distant, mean or kind.

An old, grey-haired man with a limp; a young blonde woman wearing glasses; a skinny boy with a prominent scar on his cheek; a plump girl with curly red hair, pale skin and freckles – all these are examples of characterisation. They paint a picture but provide no real insight.

While distinctive characteristics and idiosyncrasies (characterisation) make characters more relatable and allow the reader to form a mental picture of the character, it’s the character’s deep and recognisable emotions that enable readers to identify and experience their journey.

Common mistakes in characterisation generally include:
1) describing the character in too much detail, or
2) describing the character too late in the novel.

Since readers often like to form a picture of the character in their heads, it’s best to provide just a few salient details. Paradoxically, too lengthy and detailed a description can actually confuse readers and interfere with the process of forming their own vision of the character.

Similarly, characterisation should occur when the character is first introduced – or very soon after. If a character is introduced on page 3, it won’t do to reveal only on page 53 that she’s a blonde – the reader may have imagined her a brunette for the past 50 pages.

While characterisation remains constant (the sixty-year-old man with a limp doesn’t change into a ten-year-old girl), characters change over time – the cowardly boy becomes courageous, the miserly old man learns to be generous, the shy but lonely widow overcomes her inhibitions and makes some friends. But more about that in later posts…

In the meantime, to fully internalise the difference between character and characterisation, here’s an exercise you might like to try: Divide a page into two columns. In one, list all the physical attributes and characteristics you could include under the heading Characterisation. In the other, list all the qualities, sensations, moods and emotions you could list under Character.

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Becoming A Published Novelist, by Sandi Wallace

You want to write a novel. Perhaps you want to write many novels. Fantastic! Now, settle in for a ride that will probably be long, interesting, challenging, daunting and fun.

The first thing to realise about writing a novel is that nothing happens quickly. So enjoy every step and take the positives out of setbacks – your baby just isn’t ready yet but if you keep persevering, learning and growing, you have every chance of achieving your writing dream and the delay means your book will be the best it’s capable of being when it’s finally released.

You only get one shot at a great first impression, so don’t be in too much of a hurry.

You’ll have moments of doubting yourself. I questioned if I should adopt a saner hobby – like retail therapy or doing coffee – but it was tongue-in-cheek while I kept pounding the keyboard. Fortunately, when I first submitted my manuscript to a publisher, although she said it “isn’t ready yet”, her feedback was very positive. Instead of recommending I try a new pastime, she invited me to resubmit, which I did and she subsequently offered me a publishing deal.

Because fears and frustrations are normal humps, write despite them, or spurred on by them. Write because you can’t imagine not writing. Write first for your own satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. Then imagine the thrill if you’re able to take that to another level, to be published and share your work with others.

You will be working on your book for a lengthy time, so make it a good time. Maybe you’ll be a writer who attempts different manuscripts before one is published. Some of those may be destined to remain in your bottom drawer forever. Maybe you’ll be like me and decide that you still believe in that first full-length novel and can bring it up to publishable standard. Either way, the process will involve redrafts, critiques from others, more editing and eventually submissions to literary agents or publishers, unless you’ve chosen the self-publishing route. Response times on submissions vary greatly but twelve to twenty-four months isn’t unusual.

Because you’ll be with your book for a long time, write what you want to write, what you’re good at and what you’d like to read, because your foremost audience is you. Write some of what you know and research the gaps. You can draw upon every significant experience in your life – love affair, marriage breakdown, car accident, failed exam, trip abroad, house move, new job and more – adding texture to your writing.

Read widely, especially across the type of novel you want to write (if you know what that is). Keep a journal rating each book you read, recording what you liked or disliked about the work, and useful data such as publisher details, and, where the author mentions it, his or her agent. The former will help you cherry-pick the facets of writing that will develop into your unique style and the latter will help you target your submissions appropriately. There is no point sending your gritty crime novel to a publisher or agent that specialises in cookbooks.

Some authors don’t know what type of novel they want to write. They make this decision once they’ve planned a theme, characters, setting and so on. If you’re in this category, you’ll find your story and fit it to a genre or literary fiction.

Many of us know what type of book we want to write and plan a story around that.

At a very early age – as a shy, imaginative, bookworm dreamer – I became hooked on writing and addicted to crime fiction in film and print, and the likes of Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, and series such as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys cemented it. Ever since, I dreamed of being a crime writer and scribing my own series.

I took a winding path towards that dream, with stints as banker, paralegal, cabinetmaker, office manager, executive assistant, personal trainer and journalist, and came close to joining the police force along the way. Although I might’ve made a good police detective, I’ve found a safer way to investigate and solve crimes as an author. My ‘writer’s apprenticeship’ wasn’t time wasted. It made me more determined to achieve my dream. It continues to provide inspiration and fodder for my stories. It gives me maturity as a writer.

As I wrote my first crime novel Tell Me Why, I kept in mind some essential advice passed on to me by writing tutors, authors and publishers:

  • Aspire to be as good as you’re capable of being at that time.
  • Continue to work to be a better writer.
  • Learn from the authors you admire but don’t try to imitate them.
  • Be true to yourself.
  • Writing is often solitary, so network with other writers – from aspiring to established – to learn from and support each other.
  • Enjoy writing and the associated experiences.
  • Luck and good timing can factor into success.
  • Boost your writer’s biography with achievements in short story competitions and publication in a range of forms.

I am currently writing the fourth manuscript in my series and, so far, none has been as challenging as my first. Even at this stage, I keep these tips in mind, along with my personal motto: If it means that much to you, do it.

So, hang on to your hat, good luck and I wish you every success with writing your novel.

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The Undying Appeal Of Immortality In Fiction, by Simon Higgins

Immortality is one of humanity’s oldest storytelling traditions and therefore one of written art’s great themes. Why is it so persistent? To help us really nail its place in writing, let’s consider it in the light of human nature. Mortal nature.

I think universal angst over mortality can confront a young adult just as easily as a retiree. It underpins the appeal of fantasy immortals like vampires and angels in folklore and modern fiction. Perhaps also those quirky Benjamin Button type characters whose lives are fated to be odd and remarkable, yet universally accessible at the same time.

Travelling in China in late 2012, researching for new books, I was repeatedly confronted with reminders of this human fixation. Not only the Land of the Dragon but the world in general is littered with relics and monuments that echo the lives of rulers yearning to live forever. If not in this world, then in the next. History is so lush with amazing, idea-provoking backstories.

Obsessed with staying alive, the first emperor of China drank immortality potions, including ingredients like mercury, which modern science has proven is toxic to humans. But when the experimental medicine of the time and the assurances of his astrologers began to ring hollow, the master of the Middle Kingdom turned his attention to securing his afterlife. In it, he reasoned, there would still be enemies to face. If he was to remain proud and invincible, he would need to take both the jewels of his court – his wives and concubines – and his mighty army, into the afterlife with him, at least symbolically. Was fear of a post-death battle a huge factor in his thinking? By this stage, those mercury brews had most likely addled his mind.

It was an amazing experience to go to Xian, where part of the Silk Road started, to see the results of his dream face to face – literally. It has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World. What a thrill to explore all three (so far) excavated pits containing the infantry, archers and horses of China’s Terracotta Army. In Pit 1, the largest of the digs, I was able to get quite close to individually modelled warriors. Each one, many experts believe, reflects a particular soldier who lived and served in an elite fighting unit. Jaw-dropping as the Terracotta Warriors are, they are also surely a potential warning to us about the nature of real immortality.

A thousand years from now, China’s first Emperor will doubtless be remembered, most likely for the sheer scale of his vision, his ambition and for forcefully uniting the warring kingdoms. But I think writers like George Orwell and Harper Lee will also be remembered… for significantly challenging the Western world’s thinking with powerful stories that have already been read, honoured and retold across generations, sparking useful debate.

So isn’t real immortality about leaving a positive, creative legacy? That, we can all partake of. Perhaps storytelling messages themselves best explain this enduring human obsession with living forever. In fiction, writers give us both villains and heroes, fated to live impossibly long or resilient lives, regenerate like Wolverine, renew themselves like Doctor Who (or James Bond, for that matter). One example is the character called The Deathless in the first of my Moonshadow ninja novels, Eye of the Beast. Most writers working with immortal or empowered characters try to show how lonely that wanderer’s life really is, and how deeply flawed their character and consequent decisions.

In other words, supermen, amazons and immortals are every bit as fallible and tortured as the rest of us. This is actually very comforting. Maybe it’s something people keep coming back to reflect on, through the tool of fiction, because it’s SO comforting. Millennia of oral tradition, then writing, now pop-culture, repeats the eternal message behind the immortality myth:

Don’t sweat it. Even the divine suffer. Heroes ultimately let themselves down, choose badly, or fall while striving on their quest.

Even the feisty Norse Gods cop Ragnarok in the end. So really, we’re all in the same longship.

No wonder we find that creating such people in high stakes conflict situations absorbs us endlessly. We see ourselves and our struggles micro-mirrored in the turbulent stories of people who are like us, yet endowed with far greater powers and facing more ultimate threats. But, in the end, are they really more powerful, or just both blessed and blighted, like everyone else, simply in a more grand and tragic way?

Stories with a point to them live forever. You can kill people but not ideas. So my advice is take up your quill rather than sword and share tales worth repeating until the stars turn to dust.

As Shakespeare’s endurance proves, readers and viewers love layered characters, timeless ideas, plots with intriguing levels and at least one observation or insight of substance to relish or reflect on later, when the joyous tumult of the heroic plot is done.

If we writers can recognise the great undying themes, make sense of their engine rooms, then creatively deliver, yet again, their high calibre essence to our readers, a kind of immortality is up for grabs.

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