Friday, 4 November 2011

People who need people (character workshop)

In some types of prose, the author needs to know their characters well, so well that the author might recognise them if they saw them in the street. Today we'll try some workshop exercises on character development. We won't have time to produce any finished work, but maybe one or two of the characters created today will walk into your next story. We'll first look at a simple way to create viable characters, then look at character development in more detail.

First impressions, habits and surprises

Exercise 1 - Hi!

When new characters appear in some novels they're immediately described. Here are a few shortened examples from "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman" by P.D. James

  • Leaming - "wearing a grey suit with a small stand-away collar which showed a narrow band of white cotton at the throat ... She was tall and her hair, prematurely white, was cut short and moulded to her head like a cap. Her face was pale and long" (p.17)
  • Lunn - "stockily built young man dressed in an open-necked white shirt, dark breeches and tall boots ... large mud-brown eyes ... beautiful, moist calves' eyes heavily lashed and with the same look of troubled pain at the unpredictability of the world. But their beauty emphasized rather than redeemed the unattractiveness of the rest of him" (p.22)
  • Marklands - "All three reminded her of horses. They had long, bony faces, narrow mouths about strong, square chins, eyes set unattractively close, and grey, coarse-looking hair" (p.40)
  • the Tillings - "strong dark heads held high on usually short necks, and their straight noses above curved, foreshortened upper lips" (p.72)
  • de Lasterie - "an oval face with a neat slender nose, a small but beautifully formed mouth, and slanted eyes of a striking deep blue which gave her whole face an oriental appearance at variance with the fairness of her skin and her long blonde hair." (p.72)
  • Stevens - "a stocky, bearded young man with russet curly hair and a spade-shaped face" (p.72)
  • police surgeon - "a fat, dishevelled little man, his face crumpled and petulant as a child when forcibly woken from sleep" (p.182)
  • Dalgliesh - "tall, austere ... over forty at least ... dark, very tall and loose-limbed ... His face was sensitive without being weak" (p.208)

How would P.D.James describe you?

Get people to do this on sheets of paper. Collect in results. Read a few out and see if people can guess who the person is.

Are all the senses used? Is it a good literary style? It's realistic in the sense that when you meet someone you might first recognise a face, a name, and a voice. But what then? How can you make your characters believable so that readers care about them? One answer is "make them like real people". But what are real people like? I decided to find out by going to the library. In the Cambridge central library there's a book called "Creating Fictional Characters" by Jean Saunders. Who is this Jean Saunders person? When I read that she's "written well over 100 novels ... She is also a frequent enthusiastic lecturer on cruise ships" my heart sunk, but actually the book's ok. She points out that for characters to be convincing they may need to be consistent (for example, their name shouldn't change during the story!). But she also has a section called "Unstereotyping the stereotype". People are a mix of the predictable and the surprising. The predictable features aid identification and empathy, making surprises possible. E.M. Forster wrote that "the test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way."

The next 2 exercises will focus on these issues

Exercise 2 - Habits aren't boring

P.D. James focused on faces - long, oval, spade-shaped, etc. Many of us do, sometimes at the expense of other features. A colleague at work has slight face-blindness. He says he's "very good at recognising people from a distance (from their posture / how they walk / etc)". They say that the blind have a more acute sense of hearing. He's probably got a more acute sense of mannerism. Writers need to develop a similarly acute sense. People's mannerisms help define them and can be used to develop a leit-motif - the way they keep fluffing their hair up, how they play with a pen. What to do they do with their other hand while brushing their teeth? When they talk on the phone do they doodle? What to they do while waiting in a supermarket queue? Who would never put their hands on their hips? Who often does it? These habits are often hard to notice and shouldn't be underestimated. You may only realise them when they're broken - an early signs of mental problems perhaps, those little things that can be so revealing to those who know.

Write down some gestural habits of people you know (you might be so used to them that you don't notice them?) or have seen on TV. What features might impressionists pick up on? They might be things that others do as well, or they might be unique. I'm interested with what sort of actions you come up with.

Exercise 3 - Quirks, Secrets and Surprises

You can try to make characters "interesting" by making them eccentric, but little quirks and secrets are more useful. A character's guilty secrets can bring a character to life. If you know a character well, you'll know these things about them.

What's in the zipped compartment of a character's handbag or wallet? What TV programs do they guiltily stay in for? What do they eat when alone that they don't eat with others? Which member of their family have they actually never really liked? What are your secrets? How do you give yourself a treat? List the answers (or those of a "friend"). Alternatively, write a paragraph or 2 (or a plot idea) about what happens when a person's secret is suddenly discovered.

Character construction and development

We'll take a break from workshopping for a moment to look at character development. What is a "memorable character"? When someone has "bags of personality" what does that mean? Jimmy Savile was described as a "larger than life character" - why? Who has charisma? Mandela? Hitler?

Here's one way to build characters up

  • Create a scrapstore of bodyparts and behaviours - habits, quirks and facial features. This is something that actors do. Where can you go to pick up ideas?
    • Magazines - "Hello!" magazine
    • TV - Reality TV; fly-on-the-wall TV; The Fast Show; YouTube. Forget about plot. It might help to turn the sound off.
    • People-watching - remember, it's parts of behaviour you're interested in, not complete people.
    • Lifestyle consultants - they're the experts. Books like Edward de Bono's "How to be more interesting" offer tips
    Us writers are lucky - if we're attending a tedious business meeting or social event we can start people-watching, collecting material. If your spouse accuses you of ogling, reply that you're just doing research. If a workmate wonders why you're reading, "How to be more interesting" say it's not for you, it's for a character in your novel.
  • Construct a character from the bits and behaviours. Avoid the temptation to make everything symbolic, to make everything fit neatly together. Barthes suggested that by adding details that are non-literary and arbitrary, with no symbolic value you can create a "ring of truth" - "The Reality Effect".
  • The result might initially be a Frankenstein's Monster. Don't worry. Wait for a bolt of lightning to bring the character to life. Once the character moves, the useless bits will drop off as you re-write

You might feel that the resulting character's contrived but it works well enough for me! Some rough edges don't do any harm - they add to the realism. In my poetry book I've got deathbed scenes, etc. One reviewer said my stuff had the "unmistakeable authority of experience"; "The strength of the personae in the pamphlet is the thing that attracts attention" which is embarrassing because my stuff's all lies.

A character needs something that sparks them into life. An experience can be character-building, and they say "cometh the hour, cometh the man". The next bunch of exercises looks at situations, language and settings that can give birth to characters or enhance them. Remember, any advice you might give to a friend might also be applied to your characters, and vice versa.

Exercise 4 - Show not tell

Where do characters come from? Sometimes, especially in a first novel, they come from inside the author. Such characters can end up looking and sounding all the same. Characters are often copied from relatives or friends. This can be risky, even if traits are combined and genders changed (it's been claimed that "The Godfather" was based on the author's mother). Let's try an exercise on that theme

Think about your mother or father. Make a list of 3 qualities that describe him or her. Write a paragraph that captures some or all of those characteristics through significant detail. No word on your list should appear in the paragraph

Get people to do this on sheets of paper and swap papers afterwards. Get people to guess the qualities.

Exercise 5 - Tales of the Unexpected

You can find out a lot about people by how they react to unusual situations. Write a paragraph (a scenario plus plot) about a family member meeting a famous person unexpectedly.

Alternatively, at customs they find something strange (not illegal or rude) in your character's luggage. Your character has to explain how it got there. Invent a scenario.

Exercise 6 - On the spot

Once you've created your characters you can develop them by interviewing them as if they were real. You can find some questionnaires online. Gotham Writers' Workshop offers a questionnaire with questions like

  • What makes your character laugh out loud?
  • What is her biggest fear? Who has she told this to? Who would she never tell this to? Why?
  • Your character is doing intense spring cleaning. What is easy for her to throw out? What is difficult for her to part with? Why?

Suggest some questions that might provoke interesting responses.

Exercise 7 - What's in a name?

JK Rowling has revived interest in character names. Non-fantasy writers also need to be careful when naming characters. Invent a few names, or write your first reaction to one or more of these names. Which ones would you hesitate to go on a blind date with? Lavinia Blackmun, Wladziu Valentino, Sharon Smith, John Thomas, Florian Cloud de Bounevialle Armstrong.

Think up a character type and a genre. Now think up a name.

(Florian Cloud de Bounevialle Armstrong is Dido; Wladziu Lee Valentino was Liberace).

Exercise 8 - Scene, then heard

If you create sufficiently vivid locations, characters will emerge

Close your eyes. Try to imagine yourself in the kitchen where you grew up as it was then. Look around. How many chairs are there? Where's the tea-pot kept? (on the fridge on a knitted tea cosy). Where's the litter bin (by the back-door; it's a pedal-bin with a broken pedal). What's on the top shelves at the back? (spare keys).

Now have your mother walking in as she was then. She thinks you're the home help. She asks what you're looking for. What would you say?


Once you've got a character, what next? Jean Saunders writes - "I sincerely believe that you must be prepared to love all the characters you create" but I think that's going a bit far. Alternatively you can

  • treat them "like galley slaves" (Nabokov)
  • put them in a room and wait to see what happens (Beryl Bainbridge).
  • Fitzgerald, somewhere between the 2, said that "Character is plot, plot is character".

One tip though - don't do all the character development beforehand; leave some to happen during the story. The characters at the end shouldn't be the same as the characters at the start.

I hope you too have been changed a little by this evening.

See also

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