Essential writing skills: ways to build a real character for your novel

One of the ways to transform a ‘character’ in your story into someone ‘real’ is to start with a good foundation. What makes people tick?

At this level, people are simpler than you might think. One powerful motive is self-validation – feeling worthy and valued, even to themselves. This can produce all manner of outcomes, because there are so many different things people identify with – and so many different ways they validate themselves.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

Let’s take one example – imagine a university Professor who, for better or worse, validates his self-worth by the status he imagines he has in his field of employment. What does that produce? He will see others – who ‘compete’ for the same status – as taking away his self-worth. This sounds ridiculous but it’s actually fairly common in the field – this is why academics end up fighting over what, to those of us in the real world, appears to be nothing. Would such a character have the confidence to confront someone they viewed as a threat? Perhaps, but let’s suppose they mix this with a fundamental underlying insecurity.

That opens up story narrative. When affronted by someone who they imagine has taken away their self-worth they respond not by confronting their supposed assailant, but sneakily through back-channels, a cowardly back-stab that means this Professor character doesn’t have to actually introduce himself to his targets. And if confronted; why, he is a Professor – how dare anybody question his status or authority?

What else can we add, to make a point of difference in character? Laziness? A sense of entitlement? And so we begin to build up a picture of a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist. A Professor, perhaps – someone, perhaps, who feels entitled to position and status, who does not work particularly hard but who draws validation from the little they achieve, presenting as ‘puffed up’ to any they work with.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdStereotypically, one might also imagine a character of this nature to be physically lazy and over-weight. Of course, all this is purely to show the thought processes that might go into a character. I’ve deliberately portrayed a cliche – a classic bully. Such a character, you have to admit, is at best a pathetic one-dimensional caricature. Not compelling for readers – but by going to the extreme I have, I hope, given something of the basic mechanics of how characters might be developed.

The trick is to be a lot more subtle – to build from a strong skeleton, mixing and matching the surface elements to produce that most elusive of literary creations, Hemingway’s ‘real’ person. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing inspirations – the glory of Notre Dame Cathedral

Today’s writing inspiration – for NaNoWriMo entrants and for writers of all persuasions – is Notre Dame Cathedral. I took this photo late in the day after Evensong had finished, hand-held, using Fuji ASA 200 Supericolor stock. I had to guess the exposure, as my light meter decided to break just at that instant. But it came out OK.

I took this photo by guesswork after my camera's light meter broke. I was using 200 asa Fujicolor film which I figured was going to be pretty forgiving - and so it turned out.

I took this photo by guesswork after my camera’s light meter broke.

Notre Dame is an inspiring place in so many ways, bringing together as it does such a fabulous blend of tradition, culture, history, fantastic architecture – and mythology, right there in the heart of a wonderful city, Paris.

Have you been to Notre Dame? And does it inspire you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing inspirations – Sydney harbour on a sunny Saturday

Today’s writing inspiration – for NaNoWriMo entrants as they plan for next month’s writing sprint and for writers of all persuasions – is a photo I took the other week of Sydney harbour on a sunny Saturday afternoon, filled with boats scurrying in all directions.

Sydney harbour on a sunny Saturday afternoon...

Sydney harbour on a sunny Saturday afternoon…

Sydney has to be one of the world’s great cities – certainly, with its bridge and Opera House, one of the most iconic. What we forget is that it is also a city of vibrant life, pivoting around Port Jackson with its 240 km of winding coastline.

Have you been to Sydney? And does it inspire you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing inspirations – Gandalf and friend in Wellington airport

Today’s writing inspiration – for NaNoWriMo entrants and for writers of all persuasions – is a photo I took last week in Wellington airport.

Gandalf and friend...

Gandalf and friend…

This sculpture, by Weta Workshop, is enormous. Effectively life size. And, though we all know Tolkien’s story, I think there’s a good deal there to inspire original tales of our own, if we step back and let our imaginations drift.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing inspirations – deco dreaming

Today’s writing inspiration – for NaNoWriMo entrants and for writers of all persuasions – is a photo I took during the 2014 Napier Art Deco weekend. It’s a fun festival celebrating the magic of fantasy Hollywood, all to the backdrop of the fabulous art deco buildings in Napier, New Zealand.

Anybody might think it was 1940...

Anybody might think it was 1940…

The V12 Rolls Royce Phantom, centre frame, never did grace Napier’s streets at the time. But it’s fun to dream, fun to imagine. What I wonder, would the lives of the people who owned such a vehicle in the late 1930s have been like?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing inspirations – sombre gravestones in a sudden sun

Today’s writing inspiration – for NaNoWriMo entrants and for writers of all persuasions – is a photo I took of headstones at Dovedale cemetery, near Nelson, New Zealand.

Headstones at Dovedale, 2013.

Headstones at Dovedale, 2013.

It was a patchy day. By the time I took this photo the light was fading – but it carried an electric glow that I tried to capture. There was a mood to it. Inspiring? I hope so.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Finding the balance between writing well and writing weird

Here’s a thought for you as you prepare for NaNoWriMo or that novel you’ve always wanted to write. Archaeologists recently discovered a wind instrument, a bone flute, on which it was possible to play the Star Spangled Banner. The holes in the instrument had been spaced in a way that matched a modern scale.

Wright_Typewriter01Sounds ho-hum, but this instrument was 30,000 years old. It had been fabricated at the height of the last Ice Age, which means that the musical intervals that sounded pleasing to its makers were the same as the intervals that sound pleasing to us.

The same, it seems, is also true of stories. Humans are story-tellers. Three-act stories seem to be part of every culture around the world, cultures that are rich and diverse within themselves, but which all build their story-telling around the same basic structure.

We write in three-act structure, in short, not because it’s dull and conventional, but because it works. Like our sense of tone, we seem to be hard-wired for stories that have a beginning, middle and end. Sure, there have been efforts to change that from time to time – avant garde thought experiments – but they have never quite grabbed and captured in the way that the classic form does.

That’s an important point when constructing a novel – and especially when building one that has to be knocked through in thirty days, like NaNoWriMo. Although that doesn’t mean being boring. The trick is being different enough to be interesting – without dislodging the essential structure that readers identify with, expect and which – as I say – appears to be a fundamental part of human nature.

More soon – check back for regular posts on writing structure, writing technique – and writing inspiration, coming up through October and into November.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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