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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Crossed-wires world: Synaesthesia

12/05/2013 at 00:30 (Personal, Reviews, Synaesthesia, Writing) (, , , , , , , , )


The peculiarity of a sense-liaison between sound and colour – present for as long as I can remember – only became apparent when, as a child, I tried illustrating to a classmate how her laughter appeared in my head as Red. Red as a fire engine, though not as boxy; more a flare, like spilled paint.

The look she and others in our P.E group directed at me was of narrow-eyed confusion. They stared around at each other, and I could almost hear the sarcasm dripping from the Wow mouthed between them. Already sensitive to the social mores of school, I retreated quickly. They were careful not to call out when around me, after that tentative experiment. Perhaps they were afraid I was hoarding their essence like some freaky audio-tape.

They wouldn’t have been far wrong, actually.

It’s not easy, trying to explain to others what can’t be projected, seen by all. I speak from the experience of a persistent mental illness, unrelated to Synaesthesia, which is the term I eventually found when researching this crossover of senses. Before the casual revelation to my peers, I’d automatically assumed that they, along with all the human race, experienced the same things I did. We had all been taught that the sky is blue, that grass is green, etc. We all agreed on those universal factors. Surely then, this couldn’t be much different?

I have vivid memories of sitting on my parents’ laps as a nipper, being read to and seeing not only their voices (consistent to this day) but the shapes that certain words would make. Studying A Level English Language – primarily phonetics, and the many origin-tributaries running to our language river – provided further stimuli. I became accustomed to the pleasantly fragile, lightly-hued words derived from ancient French, which stood in direct contrast to the sharp-angles of Latin, the ruggedly dark stumps of Germanic. I memorized phonetics in relation to how they appeared in my head, shapes and colours; these could then be applied to essays and exams. Believe what you will, but it’s to this little extra that I ascribe passing through A Levels with flying colours. No pun intended.

Though musical instruments may shift in tone or volume, they generally remain consistent across repeated listens, with colours typically appearing as clouds, undulating ribbons and/or flares. Vocals – spoken or sung – create something akin to stencils on wallpaper, heard over backing music. This also relates to the layering of instruments, with an orchestra often overwhelming my head in brass “rings”, string “wires” and woodwind “ribbons.”

A perfect example of this sound-colour layering, can be found in The Velvet Underground and Nico’s “Venus in Furs.” On a seabed of turquoise, the ostrich guitar rings out an overlay of brass flares:

The voice of the late Nick Drake ripples oboe-green across the bark brown of his guitar finger-picking:

Very rarely, a singer’s voice will alter, and then it is usually across time. At the beginning of his career in the 60’s, Leonard Cohen’s vocals were honey brown, fluidly loose:

Cured with age, alcohol and living, his vocals have aged beyond former reediness to now appear as lowland jagged teeth, darkest brown rock.

Of course, I don’t actually *see* these rocks in any clear detail. Nothing comes close to real definition; only vague shapes and colours, yet still able to evoke the memories of things read, semantics studied, images seen on TV. It has certainly made my life as a reader and writer more pleasurable, with my greatest weakness found in metaphor and simile. Synaesthetic language is charming for me in any text, and I will repeat certain phrases to myself, to find their colours fully. Alice Hoffman, Jeffrey Eugenides and Truman Capote are all masters of this art, and most influential to my style.

Neurologist Richard E Cytowic defines Synaesthesia as “a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” Certainly, this would explain the unplanned nature of the sound-colours I have experienced. The metaphors employed in writing are only a later-shaped event. Cytowic goes further in prescribing a diagnostic criteria:

* Synesthesia is involuntary and automatic.
* Synesthetic perceptions are spatially extended, meaning they often have a sense of “location.” For example, synesthetes speak of “looking at” or “going to” a particular place to attend to the experience.
* Synesthetic percepts are consistent and generic (i.e., simple rather than pictorial).
* Synesthesia is highly memorable.
* Synesthesia is laden with affect.

This rules out the idea that synaesthetes experience any kind of perceived effort. The sensory mingling is instantaneous. The clearest method of visual explanation might be found in Disney’s Fantasia, specifically the Soundtrack intermission:

Universally accepted soft shapes for soft sounds; sharp striations for the harder instruments. Easily understood by syn / non-synaesthetes alike, but as Cytowic defines, “Synaesthetes nevertheless choose more precise colours than non-synesthetes and are more consistent in their choice of colours given a set of sounds of varying pitch, timbre and composition.”

Defined as a neurological condition, Synaesthesia is certainly one of the less intrusive to normal life – though some synaesthetes have described experiencing sensory overload (“Cytowic has famously described a man who tasted shapes; someone tasted tunes; another was referred for counseling when she told the assistant principal of her school – ill-advisedly — that when she kissed her boyfriend she “saw orange sherbet foam”. One was so surrounded by spatial imagery, excited by everything from the alphabet to shoe sizes, that she explained “My entire life, everything, has a place that goes all round my body.”)

Variations of Synaesthesia have made a fascinating kaleidoscope for me to twist. From believing all humans experience sound-colour coalition, to wondering if maybe another CAT scan was in order, I’ve now discovered that any of the five senses may intermingle. James Wannerton, president of the UK Synaesthesia Association, “chose his companions not based on their personality or looks, but because of how their names tickled his taste buds.” This “relatively rare form is known as word-taste or lexical gustatory synaesthesia.”

Imagine standing before a choir, tasting it as you would a pizza – the thick crustiness of bass, mellow cheese of alto, sharp tomato sauce of baritone, delicate spice of soprano. Of course, the caveat being that when Wannerton experiences a sensory mouthful unpalatable or ultimately overwhelming, he must deviate to avoid distraction (or spitting) – “these days if he has to work with someone with an overpowering first name, he chooses to refer to them by their middle names, or just re-christens them with an new one. And talking to people in a crowded room can taste a bit like putting lots of strange things into a food processor at once.”

Daniel Tammet, FRSA, autistic savant and writer, was tested and found to have Synaesthesia relative to his savant-memory abilities, and the Aspergers’ Syndrome diagnosed in 2005. He argues that “savant abilities are not ‘supernatural’ but are ‘an outgrowth’ of ‘natural, instinctive ways of thinking about numbers and words’, and that “the brains of savants can, to some extent, be retrained, and that normal brains could be taught to develop some savant abilities.”

Tammet describes “his visual image of 289 as particularly ugly, 333 as particularly attractive, and pi as beautiful.” Indeed, Tammet “holds the European record for reciting pi from memory to 22,514 digits in five hours and nine minutes on 14 March 2004.” No small feat, and certainly a boon in any educational field wishing to tap alternative methods of education, as researchers at the Universities of Sussex and Edinburgh hope in their studies of savants and Synaesthesia.

In Wannerton’s case, as a boy in school, “every time he heard a sound as a young boy, he had an immediate and involuntary taste on his tongue. Hearing the name Anne Boleyn, gave him a strong taste of pear drops, making some history lessons a treat. In fact most monarchs in British history came with a specific taste, which meant he could reel them off with ease.” I know I could put this particular variation to good use. Having suffered poor Math ratings since I began school – with numbers often jumbling up as a useless medley – I would gladly accept a memorable mind-menu in order to recall all of my timetables; to be capable of flipping them about as sums in my head, or in Tammet’s case, to perceive them with spatial awareness / emotional attributes (“the number 6 apparently has no distinct image, yet what he describes as an almost small nothingness, opposite to the number 9 which he calls large and towering.”)

In conjunction with Cytowic’s definitions – particularly, “laden with affect” – Dr Simner of Edinburgh university points out that the
“brains of synaesthetes have extra clusters of connectivity, and there are differences in the grey matter of the brain – an extra thickness is seen in certain areas.” These areas correlate with a study performed on Tammet in 2008, which “concluded that his abilities might be explained by hyperactivity in one brain region (the left prefrontal cortex)” – the area of the brain “implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior.”

When Prof Jamie Ward performed studied on Wannerton’s brain, he was “asked to think about words which have good and less palatable tastes to him” – defining his senses with emotional resonance in relation to how he perceives them, as with Tammet and numbers. “We see many parts of the brain lighting up, including areas associated with taste, emotional processing and mental imagery.” I have often wondered if perhaps the only reason I can form colours / shapes in relation to sounds heard, is because of the latter’s appeal (or lack of.)
Then again, this was present before I had conscious decisions and preferences. I still don’t like the colour mustard-yellow, yet this is how the voice of one of my relations has always appeared to me. Not only that, but in accordance with their rather staccato speech patterns, it always resembles a mental lightning flash. I have no real dislike of my older sister – though we fought a fair bit as kids – this is simply how I register her voice in my mind, like a personalized ringtone; and it works on the same level for many others in my life, though not all. Some appear as blank spaces, for whatever reason, though their emotional connection to me may be great. Perhaps it’s simply an emotional-colour whiteout, due to high intensity of feeling.

Renewed studies into the syndrome, after it fell into limbo – “the 1980s cognitive revolution began to make inquiry into internal subjective states respectable again, scientists once again looked to synesthesia” – and the rise of the internet, have allowed synaesthetes, and those intrigued by its potential to work together in uncovering the truth. Certainly, more artists than ever lend their abilities to sensory-mingling (Syd Barrett being an oft-quoted favourite.)

Author Pat Duffy experienced something close to my own self-revelation as a child: “I realized that to make an R all I had to do was first write a P and draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line.” Fascinating, I think, that she naturally progressed from a primary to a secondary colour, with the simple shift of one letter to another, an extension of shape.

For Duffy, the truth “was a moment when that most basic of questions that binds human beings socially, ‘do you see what I see?’ seemed to hang in a vacuum, independent of any shared context.”

If, through my writing, I manage to create an extension of the sound-colour phenomenon experienced every day, I’ll have found my own personal truth.

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