Building a Character

Characters are essential to every story.

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But how many times have you heard the phrase ‘wooden characters’ when someone referred to a book they didn’t like? Personally, I can think of several books I’ve read to which I could attribute that phrase.

I have a top tip for all you budding writers out there: get yourself a character template. They are available from various sources. Try Google for starters and see how you get on.

The format is not really important. The key thing is to give you, the writer, a method of recording details about your character.

You’ll need to know basic things like name, age and appearance, of course. But you’ll create a much more realistic person if you think about the deeper aspects of their personality.

For example, your John Doe may well be a tall, dark and handsome eligible bachelor, but does he have a dark side? How does he deal with conflict in a relationship? Is he argumentative by nature? Does he have demons from his past that haunt him?

You may well choose to model a character on a real person you already know. If so, make sure you change the name to something completely different. Some people would be flattered if they appeared in your novel; others might take it in an entirely different light. No one needs a libel case when they’re trying to publish their debut novel!

Have fun creating!

Christian Cameron

I came across Mr Cameron’s work in my local library; the series I became interested in starts with a novel called Tyrant.

It takes place during the time of Alexander the Great and among the peoples he was busy conquering.

The central character, Kineas, is one of Alexander’s most highly regarded Generals. However, when he returns to his home of Athens, he finds the veterans of these wars are being sent into exile. He becomes a mercenary, and along with his trusted band of soldiers, becomes embroiled in a tactical battle for survival, in the process finding himself an enemy of Alexander.

I really couldn’t put this one down, and I can say the same for the second and third in the series. The fourth and fifth are very high on my To Read list.

The research Mr Cameron puts into his work is certainly above and beyond the call of duty, as it were. He is a lifelong reenactor, both of the ancient and medieval worlds. Fascinating.

Virginia Woolf – A Room of One’s Own

“…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, first published 1929.

However, A Room of One’s Own isn’t a work of fiction; it’s more of an essay. It was written based on a series of lectures she gave to ladies colleges in Cambridge University.

It also has more than a touch of feminism about it. However, it’s important to consider the context in which it was written.

Woolf’s father believed that only the boys of the family should be formally educated so in fact, when delivering these lectures, Woolf would have been speaking to ladies with far greater opportunities than she herself had.

On reading the piece, however, you become aware of how she advises these young ladies that it was very much still a patriarchal society, and if they wanted to become writers, they would do well to ensure their own financial security.

An interesting read, certainly, I’m not so much a Woolf fan generally, but I did find this engaging.

Creative Writing Nightclass – Free Writing

After some thought and deliberation, I joined a creative writing course in January at a local college.

A brave move, some would say, to be going back to college after all these years to learn something new, but I am loving it.

There are eleven students enrolled on the course, both men and women and from all walks of life. It’s what you might call “a good mix”.

The tutor is a writer, naturally, and each week we cover a different topic associated with writing.

I’d like to convey some of my learning, if I may, onto you, Dear Readers. So, off we go…

In our first week, the main lesson I learnt was about the practice of free writing, and the importance of learning this craft by practice.

Stephen King said in his book On Writing, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Good advice, I think; but easier said than done.

Both as a result of reading those words, and of the first night of my course, I am now in the habit of writing almost every single day. If I climb into bed at night without having written at least a few lines in my journal, I feel there’s something missing from my day.

Also on that first night, our tutor introduced us to the discipline of Free Writing. Every week now, we spend a few moments in silence at the beginning to centre the mind and relax a little. Then, after a prompt of some kind, we are encouraged to write. Not a great deal, just for about ten to fifteen minutes. Just to allow the creative juices to flow, as they say.

It certainly seems to have unlocked something inside of me, and long may it continue!

Penelope Fitzgerald: Human Voices

I have recently finished “Human Voices” by Penelope Fitzgerald. It’s a comedy of sorts, written from inside the BBC during the Second World War. Not my usual fare to be honest, but it does one good to branch out occasionally, does it not?

The characters seem a little exaggerated but then, having never worked in TV, perhaps I’m not the best judge of that. I love, for example, how the author describes one character going off in a huff because their carefully planned programme had to be canned because it didn’t give the right message to the public. I guess at that time, absolutely everything had to be considered within the context that Hitler was about to land on British shores at any moment. A programme that might challenge the current mood of solidarity was probably not considered suitable broadcast material.

One wonders how we would react to a similar situation in 2012, over seventy years later.

Would the BBC once again step into the breach and do their duty by providing the nation with uplifting and motivational programming?

How do the recent scandals within (and without) the Corporation change our view of the BBC as an organisation?

And what of us, the licence-paying public? How have we changed in the last seventy years?

It’s often remarked how the community spirit has left us these days, particularly in urban areas where most of us have barely even laid eyes on our neighbours, much less have had a conversation with them. Would we somehow draw together in a time of crisis and help each other, as our ancestors did? I’d like to think so.

I welcome your thoughts…

T. S. Learner

I have recently finished reading the second novel by thriller writer T. S Learner called The Map. As in her first, Sphinx, it’s a hair-raising journey of endurance and personal development for the central character and the historical elements of the story are wonderfully well-researched. I discovered exactly how well-researched when I visited her website http://www.tslearner.co.uk/.

She travels all over the world to learn about ethnic cultures and glean information which she can weave into her stories. She is currently working on a new novel (working title Dynasty) which is set in Zurich and involves the Swiss Roma community. So, off she went to Switzerland to meet some members of the  Roma, as well as a German-Swiss watch designer and a university lecturer. Sounds like a great novel. I can’t wait until it’s published.

I wonder how much travelling I’ll be able to do during the course of writing?

Sarah Rayner: One Moment, One Morning

The other day I finished reading an amazing novel. It’s one of those which had been sat on my bookshelf for some months, since I moved house back in April. However, it had never made it’s way off the shelf again for some reason. Instead, it sat there in hope, collecting dust.

Last week I decided I was spending far too much money on new books without ever having finished those I already had. So, I made a commitment to myself. For every new book I purchase, I must read one of my existing books first.

The book I chose was called “One Moment, One Morning” by Sarah Rayner. I read the back page. It said something about a train journey, three different passengers and their experiences. It sounded harmless enough. A bit of light reading, I thought. So, I grabbed a bookmark and started.

To say it was an emotional rollercoaster is not an exaggeration. I think the tears might have started before I finished the first chapter. I won’t give away any spoilers, but it’s a harrowing story about a personal tragedy, seen through the eyes of three very different female characters

I was very much captured by the author’s beautiful style. I could really feel the desolation of one particular character and how she comes to terms with her loss.

Let’s just say I would dearly love to be able to capture the same emotions in my readers when I write. Something to aim for, I guess.

Andrew Davidson: The Gargoyle

I picked up Andrew Davidson’s debut novel The Gargoyle at a book stall which comes to my workplace from time to time.

I always browse the stall when I can, but they very rarely bring anything I’m interested in. It’s mostly children’s literature and cookery books. Not that I have anything against these particular genres.

Indeed, I have a very healthy collection of cookery books in my kitchen and just about every one has tell-tale signs of being used frequently!

On this one occasion, however, I spotted a novel. I picked it up and it sounded interesting so I bought it.

Like many books I buy, I carefully placed it on my bookshelf and there it remained for quite some time until I spoke to my partner about it and he said he had enjoyed it. Having learnt that he has an impeccable taste in literature, I thought it was high time I gave it a go.

I remember that day I started reading it. We were going on holiday abroad, my partner and I, and he was going to a barber’s shop the evening before we were due to fly to have a wet towel shave. Apparently, they’re all the rage these days! So, we went into the shop and after he was settled in the chair, I opened the book and began to read.

I was gripped from the very first page. The action is narrated by the central character whose name we never learn. He is involved in a serious car accident and suffers life-threatening injuries and terrible disfiguring burns all over his body. His recovery is aided and abetted by another hospital patient by the name of Marianne who believes they have been lovers in a previous life, centuries before.

This is a book I couldn’t put down until the very last page. Highly recommended.

Online Writing Prompts

I enrolled on an online writing course a little while ago via a website called www.writingbliss.com.

The course is called Daily Writes and cost me $5 (about £3). You receive an email every day for 31 days which sets you different writing tasks. It’s proved very useful in a number of ways.

Firstly, and most importantly, it has got me into the habit of writing on a regular basis. Previously, I would just pick up my pen and paper when I felt like it. The problem with this strategy is that there would never be a good time when I just ‘felt like it’.

Admittedly, I haven’t written every day. I do still have quite a demanding full-time job, after all. However, I am beginning to discipline myself. I have created some time, most evenings, when I sit down with my journal and my pen and I complete the next activity. At the weekends, I might do 2 or 3 activities in a day, or I may do none, if I’m particularly busy.

Secondly, I’ve found it’s given me some much-needed focus. Often, I would just sit there, pen in hand, and not have to clue where to start. The prompts are invaluable and well thought out. I have written small poems for example, something which I was never attracted to when I started. There is an activity where you are encouraged to write a classified personal ad for yourself too which is great fun.

Thirdly, there’s a wide variety of tasks within the course. This is helping me to discover my natural writing style and what forms of writing I enjoy or dislike. I guess I always just presumed I’d be a novelist but I hadn’t properly considered the alternatives. Now, I may give them some more thought.

Finally, it has given me the confidence to know that I am definitely becoming a writer! I still allow my partner to read most of my work so far, and I hang on his every word when he gives me his constructive criticism. His most recent compliment is that I ‘have prodigious talent’. Wow.

I should point out that I haven’t yet reached the end of the course. I’m currently on day 22. However, a few days of hard work should see me get it finished off. I’m looking forward to the sense of achievement.

Incidentally, if you feel that receiving an email every day seems like a bit too much for you, there are plenty of other courses available on the site. Feel free to browse and see what suits you.

I am truly enjoying my journey so much. I sincerely hope you guys are too!

A Journey Into The Craft

I can’t remember when I first wanted to write. I have a vague recollection of writing a fantasy story about dragons and witches when I was a child. However, like a lot of things with me, I made a great beginning, a reasonable middle, yet I never reached the end.

I’ve always had a voracious appetite for reading, though. My mum taught me to read simple words before I started school so I was ahead of the game already. I read the entire seven-book Narnia series by C. S. Lewis before the age of nine and had made a serious dent in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy before starting secondary school at 11.

It never occurred to me that I could really be a writer myself until I met the love of my life. I was absolutely bowled over when he told me about his First Class Honours degree in Creative Writing, and the small fact that he’s a published poet. How romantic is that?! I thought, as I fell head over heels in love.

So, as I’m now the wrong side of 40, I’ve decided I need to get off my butt and give this thing a go rather than just dreaming about it. So, with the best tutor in the world by my side, I picked up my pen and paper and began to write. Imagine my surprise when he was seriously impressed with my novice attempts!

“A little editing required” he said. “Otherwise, it’s great!”

“Well!” I thought. “I have no excuse now! Let’s see what I can make of this…”

So, this blog is about my journey into the craft of writing; and it is very much a craft. It’s not a linear discipline, like mathematics. There are no right or wrong answers, no taboos, no limits. The only boundaries are the imagination.

I’ll be talking about writing courses, writing retreats and any tips I can share for budding authors out there. I’ll also be talking about the books I’m reading at that time, and discussing my favourite authors.

No doubt, there will also be comments about my beloved cat, Lily. She’s been my loyal companion for six years now and I don’t know what I’d do without her. She has a more calming and relaxing influence than yoga, meditation and a good bottle of wine put together.

So, I hope you enjoy my ramblings. Please feel free to add your own comments.

Thank you for reading!