Essential writing skills: fifty-plus shades of character

It was Ernest Hemingway, reputedly, who insisted that fiction authors should not create ‘characters’ – they should create real people.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

He didn’t mean use real people – oh, except a bit – but he did mean that novellists, playwrights and the rest shouldn’t assemble ‘characters’, Lego-fashion. They instead needed to portray the smooth and complex dimensionality of real people – who come, needless to say, in far more than fifty shades of grey.

That, of course, is far easier said than done. Real people are tricky; they can say one thing and mean or do another. They seldom present as all-good or all-bad. They have motives. They have ambitions. They learn. From all this the author has to derive not only a believeable character – but also their character arc, their development as an individual. This is what the novel will be all about, irrespective of genre or plot.

And do you think the challenge ends there? Nooooo. You see, writing is always linear; you can portray but one idea at a time, in a sequence. What’s more, the surface narrative is always going to be at least one step away from the deeper character. Writers have to learn not merely how to unpick the deeper character, but how to portray the deeper character through a linear sequence of carefully selected narrative events.

The obvious word that springs to mind about this point is ‘aaaargh!’ – but never fear. It’s do-able. Yes, it takes practise – but then, everything does. And the results are well worth it. For now – with more detail to follow – try this:

  1. Think ‘real’, not ‘constructed character’. What motivates your character?
  2. What are they looking for – is there motion to their nature? This could offer clues to the character arc.
  3. What story or event might best suit this character? Yes- that’s right. It’s best to start with a character and believeable character arc first. Then look for a story for them. And yes, I know that’s precisely the reverse of the way most people think.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: grammar – the writer’s playground

It was Winston Churchill, I believe, who once insisted that ending a sentence with a preposition was something up with which he would not put.

Wright_Typewriter2As any of us who have dragged through High School English know, grammar is often touted as the basic building block of writing. Which, in many ways, it is; you can’t write things that scan properly without it. It’s there for a reason.

The onus is on authors to get it right, though that doesn’t mean losing perspective. Grammar is a tool, not an end-goal. The so-called ‘grammar Nazis’ who nit-pick authors for any technical glitch that they can attribute to the writing don’t achieve much other than showing themselves up as small-minded.

It happens though. Some years ago a book reviewer – not someone writing the reader commentaries one gets on Amazon, but a journalist commissioned to prepare a discursive article about one of my books – took a ‘point off’ for my use of ‘impacted’ as a verb. I’d done it deliberately, and it’s correct to do so. ‘Impact’ began life in the early seventeenth century English as a transitive verb. It’s still such today, though it is more often used as a noun. A fact that gives due context to the remark – which was, of course, an attempt to put me in my place; simple bullying of a kind that, alas, happens quite often in this sort of book review. (‘I can’t write books myself but I will trawl your work for anything I can claim proves that you are incompetent and ignorant as a book author’).

So the point about grammar? Just like musical rules don’t constitute good music alone, grammar alone doesn’t constitute good writing. There has to be a dynamic to written style – something that isn’t contained in the grammar rules, but which exploits them, perhaps even bends them. Advertisers and journalists do it all the time – how often do you see sentences that start with a conjunction?

This doesn’t mean being ignorant of grammar. You have to know the rules in order to break them. But once you have them down pat you can play with them. For stylistic purposes, the rules to bend are typically those associated with words – like, don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.

Actually, judiciously, you can. It means finding a balance; bending the rules enough to be interesting, without being blatantly egregious. It’s a skill, but one that comes with enough practise in writing. It’s as much an essential skill as any other – giving your writing what, in due homage to Frank Zappa, I always call ‘writing eyebrows’.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: what Lucas and Tolkien show us about the hero journey

Sorting out a viable character arc and hence plot for your story is perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of writing to get right. But it’s also the most important.

Like all writing, it’s a learned skill – practise makes perfect, and you can’t play games with the structure until you’ve mastered it. For beginning writers perhaps the best way to approach that is to fall back on the fail-safe story – the three-act hero journey. This is absolutely classic structure and character arc, used and re-used by writers old and new, experienced and novice.  It’s the literary equivalent of the four-chord rock song. But that doesn’t mean every writer who uses it ends up with the same story – far from it. In fact, the onus is on you, as the writer, to make an original tale around that structure.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in ‘Prince Caspian’.

To show what I mean we need go no further than two classics, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and George Lucas’ Star Wars. On the face of it, they’re radically different tales – different settings, different genres. But they’re both based on the hero arc. Check this out:

  1. We meet Bilbo/Luke in their normal world. They are set in their ways, but something niggles them – something is missing in their lives.
  2. They meet an older mentor figure (Gandalf/Obi-Wan), and a dramatic event pushes Bilbo/Luke, forcibly, out of that normal world (Bilbo’s ‘unexpected party’, Luke’s discover of his murdered uncle and aunt).
  3. Bilbo/Luke at first flounder; but the mentor offers guidance, and they begin to learn how to handle themselves. There is a first test away from the mentor (Bilbo vs the trolls, Luke sent to look for Leia in the Death Star while Obi Wan is dealing with the tractor beam) .
  4. Bilbo/Luke gain confidence from their experiences.
  5. There is a pivotal point at which they are stripped of their mentor (Gandalf departs to deal with the Necromancer, Darth Vader kills Obi Wan) after which the hero has to find their own strength (Bilbo versus the spiders, Luke leading the attack on the Death Star). Tolkien had a lot more space to explore this side of the arc than Lucas – Bilbo’s hero growth in The Hobbit was multi-dimensional and the Lonely Mountain sequences focussed on his ethical journey after he’d found his personal heroism.
  6. Bilbo/Luke achieve a great victory on the back of their new-found strengths (Bilbo uses the Arkenstone to try and reconcile the crisis over the unguarded dwarven treasure, Luke uses the Force to hit a small target and blow up the Death Star.)
  7. The story ends; the character arc is complete.

So there you have it; the hero arc – an arc which must be entwined with specific plot points to work. If done right – and both Lucas and Tolkien nailed it – the drama flows from the character development, and the narrative of the plot matches the essential pivot points of the character arc. That one-two punch keeps readers on the edge of their seat.

And if you need another example, go check out The Wizard of Oz. Same story.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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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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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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Solving the biggest NaNoWriMo challenge

The biggest challenge in the 50,000 word/30 day NaNoWriMo challenge – or, indeed, for any writing defined by word count – isn’t actually meeting that target. Yes, you do need to meet it – but that isn’t the real issue.

Wright_Typewriter2The real challenge is making the structure of what you write work to the 50,000 words – meaning proper balance between beginning, middle and end. That’s harder than it sounds. Any writing must have proper structure and pace for it to carry the reader on the essential emotional journey that lies at the heart of the art.

The exact proportions will vary depending on the purpose and intent of the writing, however as a rule of thumb for a novel plot you might think about 20 percent introductory, 50-60 percent expository and 20-30 percent ending. There are a few principles:

  1. Don’t use the beginning as an information dump. That’s not what it’s for. Beginnings are there to unfold the characters to the reader – to reveal what the character needs (as opposed to what they want). Call it Act 1.
  2. Keep the expository tight. Does a scene advance the character’s journey down their character arc? No? Cut it. Think of the whole as Act 2.
  3. The pace has to rise and fall in a series of rising waves until…
  4. The ending – which is the final point where the events leading the main character down their arc come together in a final challenge. This is the third and final act in the story.

From the viewpoint of writing, the purpose of the “50,000 word” length – and of keeping tally of the words – isn’t to hit a daily target of 1667. It’s to allow you to put approximate scale to the three acts and their components. If you’re running outside that scale, there’s likely to be something structurally awry.

Why is this important? Because if you get the structure right, everything else follows. After NaNoWriMo, you’ll have a good basis to build your novel.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: pantsing and planning your writing

Writing a novel – quickly and with quality – demands every skill a writer can bring to bear. It starts, not with actually writing, but with project planning – and moves from there.

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…

Project planning? Sure. There’s a school of thought that urges writers to indulge in free-flow – ‘seat of the pants’ writing. You start off with a blank page and start typing, following your imagination. Hey, apparently Stephen King does it, among others.

Actually, none of these writers quite do that. There’s a distinction between writing to produce a great novel that’s going to appeal to its audience – capturing and holding a reader – and just writing for the joy of it. The former is what professional writers do, and it’s often hard work. The latter’s a form of entertainment for the author, a pastime.

Sounds harsh, but it’s true. So what’s really happening when a top author ‘pantses’ their way through a book – and how do they make it work?

Several factors are at work here. The first is that these people are experienced – they’ve paid their dues, they’ve become ‘unconsciously competent’ at their craft. Writing is part of their soul. Words are their servants – these authors don’t struggle with the mechanics of styling or composition. They know how characters work, what constitutes a character arc, and how that integrates with a tight plot.

More to the point, most of these writers have also done the necessary groundwork and planning for their book. Isaac Asimov once summed it up. He never plotted a novel out as such – but he always knew where it would end. That gave him the direction to aim for. And it was essential.

All these authors, in short, blended planning with free-form; they had the structure of what was to be done – and then used their imaginations and competent writing skills in free-flow creativity around that skeleton. Best of both worlds.

This points the way forward for all of us. It takes about 10,000 hours – or a million words – for an author to make the transition from the first halting steps when they don’t know what they don’t know (‘unconscious incompetence’) through to realising what they don’t know (‘conscious incompetence’), familiarity with what’s needed (‘conscious competence’) and then – finally  – the glorious moment when writing becomes part of their soul (‘unconscious competence’).

There are no short-cuts. And that learning never stops – all writers are, really, apprentices at their craft. But the onus is also on to have a good foundation – and it seems to me that the best-of-both-worlds approach to planning and free-flow is an excellent approach for all writers.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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