How to Get to Know Your Characters Better

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“You make it look like work. I need to see the movement, not the effort behind it.”
Jonathan in Center Stage

Okay, Jonathan was talking about ballet but I have a theory that almost all of these types of statements can be applied to writing. And just like ballet, a lot of work goes on behind the scenes in writing that isn’t – or shouldn’t be – visible in the final published book.

I have no academic research to back this up but I suspect for a book that ends up around the 100,000 word mark, a writer would actually write closer to 200,000 words and discard the other 100,000 words as part of the editing process. Not all of those discarded words would be prose, of course. A lot of it would be research.

The problem with research is that no amount of it will help a writer to get to know their characters better. Because characters, like people, are more than just a collection of facts. They are human. They are unpredictable. And how they will react in any given situation is difficult to know. In fact, the only way a writer will know is to put them in that situation and see what happens.

The situations that might teach writers something about their characters may not necessarily make the final cut of their books. But writing them anyway can be a great way to get to know their characters better. So here are a few options for doing just that. Continue reading

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Things Your Characters Should Never Say

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It’s easy to be told that character dialogue in fiction should be short and sharp and punchy and witty but actually executing it without a little more guidance can be hard. I could tell you to watch everything Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon have ever written and you’d have some great examples.

But sometimes the easier path is to start with what not to do. So here are a few pieces of dialogue your characters should never say.

“Tell Me About It”
It’s almost twenty years since my first class as part of my Advanced Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing and I can still remember my Novel teacher telling us how “Tell me about it” was the most overused piece of dialogue in Hollywood and that it applied equally to books. And it was funny. I never noticed it on my own, even though I went to the movies every week and spent the rest of my non-writing and non-studying time watching more movies at home and reading as many books as I could. But as soon as he said it, I began to notice it everywhere.

So if you don’t want to end up being a cautionary tale in a first-year writing course, leave it out. Continue reading

Infusing Your Characters With Cultural Identity: Does It Have to Be Your Own?

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In 2016, Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk about Kevin, Big Brother and The Mandibles, delivered the keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. The topic was supposed to be “Community and Belonging” but she opened her address by admitting she would not be sticking to the proposed subject. Instead, she would be delivering her thoughts on “Fiction and Identity Politics”.

To boil it down to the most simple premise, her thoughts were that she shouldn’t be restricted from writing about cultural identities other than her own and that if she were, all her characters would be “an ageing five-foot-two smartass” and she would have “to set every novel in North Carolina”.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied was in the audience listening to Shriver’s speech. An Australian born in Khartoum to parents of Sudanese and Egyptian backgrounds, she is a mechanical engineer, activist and founder of Youth Without Borders and last year released her memoir, although she is not a fiction writer. After twenty minutes of listening to the speech, she walked out, unable to listen to what she called “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension”, continuing, “The reality is that those from marginalised groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal.” You can read her full response here. Continue reading

The A to Z of Writing

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Just because everybody loves a good listicle (so I hope it qualifies), here’s the A to Z of writing.

A is for Authenticity – you don’t have to know what you’re talking about. Write what you know, write what you don’t know but just make sure you sound like you know what you’re talking about. If you write about the police force and someone actually in the police force reads your book lacking in accuracy or verisimilitude (the ring of truth), then that person won’t hesitate to tell the world. And you’ll just come off as someone who couldn’t be bothered doing a little bit of research.

B is for Brainstorming – it’s one thing to have an idea but to bring it to life with all the little details that give it depth, you’ll have to do a lot of brainstorming. If you want to write about a man who kills his father, great (maybe not for your father, who might wonder why). But it becomes two very different stories depending on whether the son had a happy upbringing or an abusive one. And only brainstorming will get you to the point where the story makes meaningful sense. Continue reading

One Main Character versus an Ensemble Cast

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When I first started developing the concept for my upcoming novel, Black Spot, there were six main characters, three women and three men. But the more I worked on it, the more interested I became in the story of just one character. She didn’t mean to dominate – she wasn’t that kind of girl – but it ended up happening anyway. She was just so much more interesting – her story was just so much more interesting – and eventually all the other characters started drifting away.

Sometimes a character is so powerful that they insist on having their own story and sometimes a story is so varied that it needs an ensemble cast to tell it properly. There are pros and cons to each choice so make sure you consider them all. Continue reading

Why You Should Never Mess with a Writer

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The longer I live in this world, the more people I encounter whose only goal seems to be to upset others. These sociopaths vary in their degrees of intensity but there are a lot of them out there. We encounter them in our working lives and in our personal lives. And when we leave one behind, another one appears disconcertingly to take their unpleasant place.

I’m not fond of confrontations so when I come across these people, I tend to hold my tongue, partly to retain my own emotional health and partly because when I’m later holding my pen, my revenge will be more satisfying and more long-lasting than any face-to-face clash ever could be.

And that, of course, is why you should never mess with a writer. Because a writer will generally have the ability and the motivation to take his or her revenge in a form that could end up in print for thousands, tens of thousands, potentially millions of people to read and remember long after the initial incident. Continue reading

What I Learned from Keeping a Writing Journal

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After I wrote a blog post on the value of keeping a writing journal, I decided to keep one while I undertook a month of intensive novel writing. In addition to the 30,000 plus words I wrote for my novel, I also wrote 10,000 plus words for the writing journal. Although I posted the journal in its entirety on my blog during October (and although I think it’s a pretty interesting read, especially considering what happened to me in the final days of the month I was keeping it), I thought I would take pity on those readers who don’t have the time to read it all and distil a few things I learned along the way. Continue reading