Archive for the ‘Character’ Category


Writing Shifts: Where the Magic Happens

January 17, 2015

writing suprises picWhen I was twenty one, I did the whole backpacker thing. I went to Europe, Asia, Australia and a few counties in the northern part of Africa.

This was in the pre-internet era, when the closest thing to a GPS was a Star Trek tricorder. So I couldn’t easily look up locations and places to stay. I had to haul guidebooks around with me. From these books, I regularly made ‘a plan’.

It’s just like writing a novel. It’s very much the same. I have ‘a plan’. A map. I have a direction. An intention. My characters will go from A to B.

Well, I was reminded recently: sometimes characters don’t wanna go from A to B. They want to zig zag to point H. In fact, they want to abandon the alphabet altogether. They want to travel to location ^.

This can be frustrating. WHAT ARE DOING? you want to shout. THIS WAS NOT IN THE ITINERARY!

But it can also be delightful.

On a whim, you are in new territory. Like the time I went from Bath, England (planned, on the itinerary) to Glastonbury (not planned, not on the itinerary) — and loved it so much I stayed for four days. In fact, Glastonbury had such an influence on me, a decade later I HAD to include it in my Regency mystery. It became an integral part of my main characters past.

I also went from Barcelona, Spain (planned, on the itinerary) to Tangier, Morocco (not planned, not on the itinerary) and suddenly found myself taking a road trip with a Brit and an America. Morocco by station wagon! Genesis and Super Tramp on the cassette tape!  Quelle suprise!

This happens all the time in life, not just while travelling or writing a novel. So I should probably expect it. But I don’t. Whenever it happens, it feels magical.

I have been touched by the mystical ‘flow’.

So when, in my latest novel, a character suddenly, inadvertently, even reluctantly, becomes a Mary Wolstencraft/William Godwin type proponent for reform…part of me rails against the impulse. This will mean more research for me! This was not THE PLAN!

But, really, I am also thrilled: it’s perfect. It’s exactly where she was meant to be.

Sudden shifts like these = writing magic.

Enjoy the view, my dear. Enjoy the view!


Describing First Person Narrators: This is Not A Fashion Show!

September 15, 2014

I recently had my manuscript read by test readers. One comment that came back indicated that I needed more description of my first person narrator at the beginning. She thought I described the other characters well in those first scenes…but:

What the heck did my heroine look like, hmmm?

Turns out I don’t describe my heroine’s physical characteristics until  the story really gets going…page 24, to be exact.

Why is this? I asked myself.

I realized I have a pet peeve. I dislike descriptions of first person narrators about as much as I dislike prologues, which is to say A LOT.

When I come across them in my readings of other books, I tend to eye roll because 9 times out of 10 the first person narrator is looking into a mirror and ‘fluffing out my long blond hair’ or ‘staring into my blue eyes pensively’ or ‘brushing my brunette bangs off my forehead’…or whatever.

OK I GET IT! I REALIZE YOUR EYE/HAIR COLOUR NOW! Thanks so much, narrator. Now bring me back to the story.

The other 9 times out of 10 I’m getting a fashion report. ‘I put on my jeans and a sweatshirt’ or ‘I decided to wear a turquoise halter top and a pair of black leather pants’ or ‘I couldn’t decide between the pink sweater or the leopard print one’…or whatever. Just get dressed and get out the #$@% door!


I think it’s because is seems so unnatural in first person narration. This mode of narrator is like listing to a friend. It’s very intimate, like they are right there with you, telling you a story over a cup of coffee…and when we share stories, we rarely stop to say: ‘so I looked in the mirror and put mascara on my long lashes to accent my startling green eyes’. Who says that in real life? Do you?

To me, description of any kind must be used judiciously (by which I mean, sparingly). Otherwise, it disrupts the flow. That’s why I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to description. I have been very  selective in my use of description, trying my best to a) use only as much as necessary (no mega paragraphs describing people, places and things) and b) incorporate it as much into the flow of the story, linking it to action, thoughts/observations.

This is tricky and I must confess to being a bit of a walking contradiction.

I avoided the ‘looking in the mirror’ tactic but page 24 has my first person narrator glancing at reflections in a window to compare/contrast her looks with another woman. (At last, she reveals her hair colour! Huzzah!)

I also must confess to describing her state of dress…but, for gods sake, this is the Regency period…have you SEEN what the women are wearing? I’ve spent hours researching women’s Regency wear, which is gorgeous, and also extremely important in the eyes of Regency Society, which is constantly evaluating the worth of both men and women by the cut of their cloth.

So, by god, whether it’s a pet peeve or not, that research is GOING IN THE BOOK.

It certainly is a delicate balance. I need to set the scene in the ‘minds eye’ of the reader and for that I need good, solid description. But too much and I worry I risk the reader’s annoyance.

(It can’t be a Regency Fashion Show!)

As to my beginning scenes, I went back to see if my first person narrator could throw in a few sentences about her looks. But there is so much going on in those first few scenes, it just didn’t seem to fit. It felt too awkward. Perhaps I’ll reconsider. But, for now, page 24 it is.

And is it wrong to have a vague impression of a character? Isn’t that how a reader can internalize a character, make them their own? Isn’t that why movies can sometimes ‘ruin’ books, by solidifying the looks of a character so firmly in the mind, they no longer became intimate/personal co-creations? (i.e.: Professor Snape will forever be Alan Rickman to everyone in the world who’s seen the HP films.)

What about you, fellow readers/writers? Thoughts?




Blah Blah Boring

September 24, 2010

I’ve a character in my novel who needs to explain a few things to the heroine. He needs to tell about what happened when he went to the Red Lion Inn a few days ago…its very important to the plot, so it must be done. This information must be revealed and he has to tell her . It can’t come across in flashbacks or a dream sequence or any other writer-trick, because the book’s written in the heroine’s voice, first person. He tells her the news and she tells the reader, and, of course, she reacts and converses back at him and tells the reader all about that, too.

Sounds simple?


It’s actually quite painful to write an explanation. Though necessary, the detail is tedious and it feels like it takes too long to impart. I’ve tried breaking it down into chunks, and delivering it via dialogue, interspersed with the heroines’ wry observations and her own lively reactions, but still it comes across like some kind of boring legal document, overloaded with detail after detail:

And so, in part a, subsection i, sub-subsection 1.0, the man then followed the other man down the street to the physicians.

In part a, subsection i, sub-section 1.1, the man waited outside the physician’s house for the man to reappear…

Either that, or I have a bad case of the “and then’s”, such as:

And then he followed him down the street. And then he waited outside. And then he saw a body being carried to a horse cart. And then…

ARG! How do I make this explanation less boring? Any and all suggestions greatly appreciated!


Stage Directing Characters

July 7, 2010

Being a writer is so much more than just stringing a bunch of words together. You have to be a therapist in order to understand your characters motivations, a costume designer to deck them out right in proper historical garb, an architect to achieve the correct balance and proportion to your plot, a playwright with an ear for dialogue …and, it appears, a stage director.

Take my latest scene (which I am STILL fussing over). It’s where Mr. Elliot and my heroine are alone together and have a conversation. He’s supposed to be flirtatious, while she’s more stand-offish but also pleased and amused…

I’ve got the dialogue down…but my question is: what do they do in the meantime? He’s leaning against a tree twirling a piece of grass in his fingers. But he keeps smiling and laughing too much. It’s ridiculous. She, meanwhile, keeps squinting at the view, then glancing at him sideways, squinting at the view, then glancing at him sideways…I’m starting to get eye-ball strain in sympathy…

All this non-verbal communication is just as important to this scene as the dialogue. How they act indicates their inner emotional states.

Unfortunately, my stage director is at a bit of a loss here. So I just keep getting my character/actors to try different movements. “Ok, Mr. Elliot, take a few steps closer to her. Give her a hungry look. And you, Mrs. Honeychurch, why don’t you look over your shoulder at him? Purse your lips a little, hmm? I said ‘a little’! You look like you just swallowed a spoiled oyster! Aw, forget it! It’s not working! Break for lunch!”

I guess I just have to keep trying until I get it right! Thank god Angela Ackerman has created an Emotions Thesaurus to help out frustrated writers like me (it’s on the side bar of her website). Thank you, Angela!

(And for an additional (& funny) look at the frustrations of writing non-verbal communication check out Roni Griffin’s ‘Enough With The Eyebrows’ )


Writer As Therapist? Discerning Emotional Patterns

July 2, 2010

I am still stuck on a particular scene in my novel, the one that takes place on the Elliot’s ‘garden patio’. It’s causing me problems partly because its such a large scene…I’ve 18 people I need to account for.

But mostly I’m fussing over it because something VERY IMPORTANT happens here.

This is where my heroine meets HIM.

This is where she meets THE MAIN LOVE INTEREST.

Now I have to take a moment to clarify. There are three love interests for my heroine in my story. Two of them are subtle…she initially doesn’t like them much, but there’s an undercurrent of attraction there which the reader is well aware of whilst she denies it…

But the third man. Well! Mr. Percy Elliot, newly returned from adventures in the Far East, is to be the most compelling, the most obvious, the most tantalizing & irresistible of them all…

My question, though, is: how do I play him?

I  mean, my heroine has an emotional history. She’s got a ‘checkered past’ with not much luck in the relationship department. Is Mr. Eliot a continuation of that bad luck? Or is he the one she resolves her issues with?

Out of the three men, who does she choose? And is it for good or ill?

It’s made me realize that on top of a plot graph there is an emotional graph too. My heroine has an emotional arc which follows the series of events, and ends, presumably, with emotional resolution of some kind. Lesson learnt. (And Happily Ever After? Learnt lessons, though, are not always happy…)

I just can’t decide. I’ve tried asking my character about it but am getting the cold shoulder.

I guess it’s a touchy subject.


Doing What Your Character Demands…

June 15, 2010

One of my characters has decided to come back to England from Turkey, causing me untold anxiety in the research department…especially since he’s due to give a ‘lecture’ about his travels to the Royal Society in about three scenes from now…

I have tried to negotiate this. How about a country I’ve actually been to, Mr. Elliot? Spain, perhaps? Morocco? Italy?

But no. This character won’t be dissuaded. It’s got to be somewhere suitably exotic to the English imagination of the times, a reasonable distance away, not an enemy of the state or under Napoleon’s control and preferably not the exact same itinerary as Lord Byron, who traveled abroad during the same approximate time period…

So Turkey it is.

I had no idea when I started this novel that I was going to be googling ‘Turkey in 1813’…and not getting much for it, it seems. Drat! So it won’t be handed to me on a silver platter…which means a more refined internet search, that will likely take me hours & hours and days and days. I might even have to order a ‘real’ book from the library. (Where is that Research Hot Line when I need it, eh?)

My novel is set in the Regency period. I have read a lot of history books on this era because it is my ‘thing’ (see blog: I ‘Heart’ The Regency). I can feel my way around Regency England quite well (and when in need of additional inspiration, there’s a plethora of Jane Austen adaptations to put me in the mood..) I also have a pretty good grasp on France during this time, given Napoleon’s dominance and the love/hate-on the English had for all things French.

But Turkey?

What is this character thinking?!

Actually, I already know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking:

Better get to work, writer! I’m giving a lecture to the Royal Society three scenes from now and you need to prepare my notes!


Dialogue x 171

June 3, 2010

In this new scene I’m writing three families get together at a country estate so there should be a lot of revelatory dialogue happening here, no problem.

Here’s what’s it sounds like so far:


That is the sound of a pin dropping. Pins are dropping, crickets are chirping, tumbleweeds are rolling through this incredible desert plain of silence.

Usually when I put a bunch of diverse characters in one place, they pop and sizzle. It’s like a conversational jamboree. I can’t write it down fast enough. But here? Nope. Nada. Nothing.

Then I realized: I’ve a total of 18 characters gathered together on the patio by the back garden. If each of them talks to the other, that’s something like 171 conversations. So its not so much that no one is talking but that the din is too loud! It’s all lost in the white noise. I can’t track what each individual is saying.

I need to break this tableau down into more manageable pieces. Thus, only specific characters will get their dialogue detailed with the precision of my fine tip pen. The rest will be painted with the more suggestive swath of a watercolor, mere impressions, a general outline.  Not everyone needs to be heard here, or I’m going to give my reader a cranked neck as they watch the conversational ping pong ball dash around the garden patio 171 times.

Right. Time to get my telephoto lens and my tiny spy microphone. Time to creep through the bushes in camouflage and eavesdrop a little closer!

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