Writing Reality – Fleshing out Characters

07/07/2013 at 20:33 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )


When writing the people who will populate my current novel, End of the Line, I work with various techniques to give them physical, emotional and symbolic qualities that help the reader achieve a vicarious experience. It’s not enough for the teen protagonist, Joe Blackthorne, to lever himself up off the page. I want him to stand (then slouch, being a tall lad and very conscious of it); to breathe, to look around … perhaps to nervously ruffle his hair. He needs to become flesh and bone, thought and idea, dream and memory. The essentials that will progress him beyond a written character, to a human being.

After all, the true achievement in writing comes from being able to unsettle that audience status quo, that what they have picked up is just a book. They need to care, to continue.

These are some of the tricks of my trade.

Get spatial

I don’t know about you, but I tend to struggle with linearity when it comes to plotting narrative flow. Bullet points and timelines always seem to end up sagging under their own weight. Relevant information drops off into a forgotten mess, leaving the less important stuff behind – my mind is cluttered with odd-sock ideas. These are great in and of themselves, but require space of their own, just as key narrative events need theirs.
So I take the lot off the line, and hang them up in the clouds.

With End of the Line, I’ve filled two A3 cartridge paper pads, and have plenty more to spare. Pencils, eraser, sharpener and good old exam highlighter pens (remember how much fun you had, colour-coding notes? Get back into that mindset) are the necessary tools to fill in the pages that will become an atlas of my novel’s world.

Each page becomes a cell; the name of each character, the nucleus, and it’s from here that ideas begin to grow. More often than not, details of the story will change with each monkey-thought session, jumping from page to page, often causing overlap. That’s fine – they’re just going through narrative-osmosis. This is where the highlighters come in handy, to mark out interactions between characters and their relevant scenes. I also date each fresh notation, as it’s a work in progress – with each page stuck up on the wall behind my bureau, I have constant visual reminders of character traits, as well as an endless source of inspiration, with progression tracked.

If there’s no way of pinning name-clouds on your own walls, keep their pad beside your main writing station. Use it as a memo pad; populate it with stickers, photos, newspaper clippings nail-torn out. My personal favourites are hair salon snippets, with the most creative makeup/styles going straight into the “teen gang” inspiration bank.

Do make sure the original owner of whatever you’re tearing into, is actually done with the piece first.

The information that appears in these name-clouds may not be all-inclusive to the novel, but they are noteworthy facts nonetheless. Whatever scene I am writing a character into, I need to know where he/she is coming from – their reactions, who they may or may not turn to for help or comfort; what they’re likely to say. To write such things as truth from respective POV’s, and not my interpretation of events, I need to know a character’s context.

For example, Joe has come from a decent middle-class background. His father worked in the City; his mother quit her job to dote upon her only child. The latter is emphasized by the lack of the former’s presence in Joe’s early life. Theirs was a happy household, well-tended, if a bit strained around the eyes. Joe’s father, Mickey, would often run late from work at the office – he was, as Joe describes to his new friend Li, a “shadow on the wall.”

When Joe’s mother died in the simplest, stupidest kind of accident, the already solemn child grew inward rather than out. Framed in the current series of events, he is a 17-year old with bark-hardened hands, and a head full of information lacking emotional context. He reads avidly in a bid to keep ahead of peers; particularly when his father’s drinking spirals them into a council-funded black funk of a house in Reighton. This is Mickey’s old home town, where the economy is sour as off milk. Joe is determined to avoid becoming “just another Dole scummer.”

This proves harder than he’d feared. He finds himself drawn into feral teen gang wars, played out on the town’s disused rail line; when he makes an unlikely friendship pact with Li, a girl leading a double life in the footsteps of her older sister, he feels himself diminished by events. He is fighting for his own identity.

None of this is aided by the childhood reputation his father left town to escape. Joe is now bearing the brunt of old blows. To cap it all, his insomniac nights are plagued by nightmarish visions of brambles, a rising blue moon, and blood.

Trying to keep hold of all the above was giving me one heck of a headache. So scrawling the name JOE BLACKTHORNE into the middle of an A3 page, was a vast source of relief – the thoughts flew easily into their own space, not tied by linearity, though I do keep close contact between facts with the necessary colour-coding.

Quirks/Tics

I have a habit of twiddling hair at the back of my head, between my fingers. It’s a comfort thing, dating from childhood. Others have noted that twiddle-speed tends to accelerate/decelerate depending on my mood, and they’ve learned to use it as a personality marker for when I’m best approachable, or hostile as a morning cactus.

I’ve injected habitual/subconscious tics like this into the novel, to work blood through my characters. Some people crack jokes when nervous, others chew on their nails. I do emphasize the need to use tics sparingly though, as a pinch of seasoning, or a character will start to resemble the punchline of a bad joke.

Think about where these tics might come from, who influenced them. Look to your own, to family and friends – watch people out on the street (bus stops and train stations are great places for this, with tics dropped like coins in holey pockets.)

Joe’s a tall lad, gawky with it and – particularly around Reighton – made to feel very aware of how much he resembles his father. He walks with a slight stoop, as a man plodding an old furrowed ditch might. Interestingly, this occurs more frequently towards the start of the novel, and when he meets Li. She is small, fine-boned; he feels he might accidentally crush her. On Joe’s name-cloud, I highlighted this point as narrative non-essential, but of relationship-building note.

Garth Hakken Sr., a male resident of Reighton who has spent much of his life in jail, has the small, twitchy movements of a bird accustomed to confinement. Joe Blackthorne tugs at the thick forelock of his hair, as a subconscious need to distract himself with physical pain from moments of emotional distress. On a basic level, it also relates back to his father being on the Dole, and their lack of spare cash for a cut.

Colour Symbolism

F. Scott Fitzgerald has ever been a source of inspiration to me. In The Great Gatsby, his use of the synaesthetic metaphor transcends literary device, to become a sort of symbolic colour-coding of its own. There’s the green light on Daisy Buchanan’s dock; the continuous presence of yellow, as a sham veneer of gold. These inspired me to better illuminate (or indeed, disguise) my own characters, their intentions and relevancy to the plot.

The term toxic beauty occurs frequently in relation to Li’s older sister, Siobhan. Still missing after 15 years, and with a background chequered in renown as much as disgrace, she’s a girl wonderful to know and daunting to be in the presence of. A girl who completed each school year with top marks, while consistently defying her father’s moderate expectations by holding anti-demolition demonstrations around town, as part of a student body. Not to mention her frequent night-wanderings down the disused line. Her disappearance left deep seeds of doubt and pain in the town.

Her presence is still felt, in the petrol rainbows running down gutters after heavy rainfall; in a secret photograph Li finds, where Siobhan’s customary plain-pretty appearance is transmuted by her wearing “peacock” eye makeup (bright turquoise, broad enough almost to become a mask; brass flares along the lids.) There is the sense of another world, another time; of secrets waiting to be unlocked. All far more interesting, when hidden in plain sight among colours.

Another bearer of secrets, is the character of Daena. She is a wanderer through my fictional world (a Stephen King-inspired universe, our world yet not, broad and many-tiered), and as such has an undefinable quality. She is pleasant and intelligent, while significantly vague. There is the sense of trying to catch smoke when speaking to her.

To accentuate this, as well as her nomadic life, I gave her the colour blue as a symbolic marker. It lives in the rose tattoo on her shoulder (the blue rose being a sign of mystery, the unobtainable, since none may be naturally bred); in her long blue-black hair, and the alto voice that Joe (who has synaesthesia) describes as “ink floating through water.”

Redgrave is a teacher at the local college; he has a Blackthorne bone to pick, and isn’t fussy whether it comes from father or son. He is a man who carries others’ secrets as much as his own, and is difficult to gauge in terms of allegiance. While acting in an almost-unprofessional manner towards Joe – using his power to undermine the boy at every turn – he is also seen to demonstrate a curiously empathetic warmth towards the lonely Li, as he once did her sister.
To enhance this unsteady image, I refer to his having purple-black eyes, to their strange iridescence, as of a bubble’s slippery take on the world.

Sensory Spectacle: Write what you Know, Learn what you Don’t

I really can’t reiterate enough the worth of personal experience when it comes to writing. Sure, you can research a subject in its entirety, bone up on notes – but without actual sensory markers to give them context, these facts may fall a bit flat. Field research can be fun (or in my case, literal.)

It’s worth considering the simple beauty of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s in this context. His minimalist prose and knack for striking to the core of a subject, helped him weave characters as exotic as they were universal. In the spring of 1958, Capote was on the New York scene. Among social gatherings, he would find the inspiration for his novella with the local tittle-tattle and socialite scandals; it’s acknowledged that his composite template for Holly Golightly was in fact drawn from many of the Manhattan socialites he had known:

“… the ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks.” (2.12), Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

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In writing characters, I try to find them in their natural environments. In this way, I learn their habits, so as to be better equipped for descriptions of response, when I stick my hand into the mix and shake things up. In the case of the novel, I’ve wandered a local disused rail line so as to truly know the slippery judder of my boots on mossy sleepers; testing their give, when not only walked but run across, as my protagonists are forced to do when chased by a gang. I want to embed the images with whatever sensory perception I can. When Joe runs hell-for-leather down the overgrown line, I want the audience to know that tingling bitch-slap of a nettle on the skin, or the weird korma smell which ferns give off when hot under a midday sun.

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Consider symbolism again, when writing the relationship between circumstance and character. Mariah Hakken, wife of the afore-mentioned jailbird, lives on a decaying council estate with four tearaway kids; she has been riddled up with mental illness for much of her life, and now exists in a near-hermit state in their family home. The tang of the corrugated iron roof is her bitterness; the sickly sweet scent of the buddleia overflowing in great purple swathes, is her life degrading by deadly degrees.

Take yourself out of your own environment, if it won’t fit that of the character you’re trying to depict. Ask friends/family for passes into places you’d normally have no right of way to – though if you’re writing a court room drama / cop thriller, do take care to keep the photography and notations to a minimum when in public. You don’t want to be suspected of anything nasty, and definitely don’t want your precious notes confiscated, when all you were trying to do was capture the sticky sparseness of a coffee-ringed interview room.

Your audience may well have already read other works of fiction in your genre – convince them that yours is different. It’s like a lived-in pair of shoes, easy to slip on and walk around in. When describing a situation, I like to call upon all five senses wherever possible, putting their slant on things – but it’s important to keep within the personal experience of whichever character being written. It’s no good having an alien character wax lyrical about how the twin sunset they’re watching is akin to the bombs of the London Blitz, if they were never there.

Keep within context, but don’t be afraid to go out on a limb when it comes to elaborating on sensory experience.

Walk to your own beat

As mentioned in this blog entry, I work to a specific soundtrack for each fictional piece, with one or more artists assigned to a theme and/or mood. Just playing them before I begin writing, can frame me neatly in the right mindset. A track may flow on my iPod shuffle, and the melody/lyrics will create a sense of its belonging in the blood and narrative arc of a character.

Incidentally, this ties to field research. I’ve scared myself nearly witless with twilight wanderings of local woodland, listening to Soley’s Kill the Clown; while jotting down notes of what I feel, I’m very conscious of the hairs on my neck going up, and write that in too – plus anything that immediately springs to mind, by way of comparison.

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Personal Reference – Opinion and Dialogue

You don’t need to go smashing through every fourth wall here. Anything ladled on may act as an anchor rather than a buoyant to your work. Narrative structure can become warped by reality, character voices may be lost in your own shout.

That being said, don’t be afraid to raid your own past and that of others. I’m currently rereading all of my old journals, dating back to teen school days, in a bid to recapture the often irrational and overly dramatic mindset of that time. Hormones don’t play easy with teens, and believe me this would be serious research, if I could only stop cracking up.

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My first journal began life in 1998, when I was on the cusp of adolescence. The full-on existence of school life sings off each scribbled, exclamation-marked page. Every sentence is a staccato, or a meandering stream of thought. None of these silly adult inhibitions, like sentence structure. I’ve found that child-woman again – all the longing, the lust, the fear of change and changing emotions (not to mention what growth spurts were doing to my body.) The pale fear of being left behind; the dark, twisting terror of becoming lost in the face of a teeming adult world.

Call up old school friends, get them down the pub – rehash shared experiences, while keeping careful note of their own inflection on stories. This is particularly handy if writing a retrospective narrative; more often than not, rose-tinted glasses are apt to be slipped on. See how what is said, compares with what’s based in your own memories. If you’re feeling brave, ask for their memoirs. Go to the library, pick up the autobiography of someone you’re interested in, or is in some way relevant to your piece. Draw inspiration from their experiences.

When working across genres, you will find that – regardless of what a character wields, preaches, loathes, stands up for – there are hearts beating beneath; there are inspirations to be drawn on, memories to be consumed by. Allow each soul their own opinions and ideals, based on the hand they’ve been dealt in life.

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9 Comments

  1. Anjali Mitter Duva said,

    Very timelly as I sit here with Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, reading the Characterization page and forming a 13 year old half Indian, half French male protagonist in 19th century India. Thanks!

    • celenagaia33 said,

      This is the best news I could hope for. I’m so chuffed with the response this article’s got, so glad I can reach out and help fellow writers 🙂 Good luck, and happy writing! x

  2. Carrie said,

    I never even thought of the colour symbolism in The Great Gatsby while I was reading it, but I think it portrays the message subconsciously. I’ve started a new story set in the late 1800s and I was really struggling with the idea of getting the scenes right for the period. I think I need to focus on the people/characters and get them right first. 🙂

    • celenagaia33 said,

      I’ve always believed that, regardless of era, genre, fact or fiction, the narrative is crafted as much by circumstance as people’s reactions to them. Even twins can have an individual mindset/belief system, based wholly on what they’ve experienced.

      When I was in hospital being treated for anorexia, the symptoms among patients – from all over the world – were staggeringly similar; and yet our stories were our own. We all responded to the treatment in our unique ways; though we enacted similar food/exercise/OCD rituals, everyone had their personal inflection. One girl would bang her forehead against hard surfaces as punishment for what she perceived was a moral error – her dad, she confided in me, used to slam her head against her wardrobe while yelling at her.

      These things stay ingrained in us; they shape our reactions. I’m a perfectionist because my parents were military, and a host of other influences. The trick in writing, is using these experiences to craft people as opposed to characters. Get their back stories, find out who they are. Chances are, the story unravels before them as you do, one point linking to the next.

      Good luck, honey 🙂 having read your blog and seeing your own interests/style online, it’s safe to say you’ll craft real people.

  3. Diane said,

    Thanks for all the great information. This new writer is very appreciative!

    • celenagaia33 said,

      This blogger is humbled 🙂 Thank you so much; it’s a real affirmative to me that I’m doing something right in life, helping others like this. Good luck with your writing x

  4. Writing Reality – Fleshing out Characters | Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History said,

    […] Writing Reality – Fleshing out Characters. […]

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