I was lucky enough to attend a workshop on The Importance of Character, taught by novelist Debby Holt, at the Winchester Writers’ Conference on Saturday 26 June 2010. Debby Holt is the author of five novels published by Pocket Books, and she met her agent Teresa Chris at the Conference. I found Debby to be a very bubbly, enthusiastic tutor and there was a lot of laughter during the session!
I thought I’d share some of the notes I took, and I hope it reflects the workshop accurately. This is the session where I took the most notes; as the day wore on I found I wrote less and less as I got more exhausted – it’s a very packed day!
- Debby started by reading us the opening scene from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – the author cleverly makes the blackly-painted Thomas Cromwell sympathetic by showing him being attacked by his father and refusing to fight back. The reader is engaged with him from the start.
- Read, read, read! (This was also the advice of Terry Pratchett and I suspect most writers – if it’s not, it should be.)
- Debby keeps a reading diary and makes a note of what she learns from each book she reads. She uses this to kick-start her own writing.
- Empathy – the reader must be able to engage with the character, even if they are horrible. What draws you to characters in the books you like? Even villains should have sparkle!
- Every main character needs flaws – for examples, look at Jane Austen’s heroines. We don’t like perfect people! We love losers like Nick Hornby’s main characters.
- But don’t be afraid of having characters who are really nice.
- Show, don’t tell. How can you show character? You can use their clothes or appearance, their home, eg what’s on the mantlepiece, their speech patterns – dialogue should be distinctive for that person – even their name.
(NB: My favourite authors for brilliant character names would have to be Dickens, JK Rowling and Derek Landy – the dark underworld tailor in the Skulduggery Pleasant books named Ghastly Bespoke is a favourite!)
- The five Ws – who, what, why, when and where? Ground your character in reality or they won’t be believable. Use a convincing setting. Interview friends and family about their jobs. (Debby has run out of jobs for her characters as she has used all her friends and family up!) For locations, look on estate agents’ websites and do virtual tours. Your research will be in your head as you are writing even if you don’t use everything you find out.
(NB: the virtual tours idea is a great one – I did some research on private schools yesterday and was able to get a good look at the type of building I wanted to use by watching a prospective parents’ video.)
- Be careful if your characters come too easily – they may be someone you know! This happened to Debby, but luckily, she told us, they were dead so no offense was caused!
- The non-sequitur or Ulysses factor. I had never heard of this expression, but apparently the latin translation is ‘it does not follow’ (see wikipedia entry). Debby explained that novelists like the wonderful Kate Atkinson will have their characters going off on trains of thought that allow the author to fill in some background detail, eg a sudden memory. We all see things in different ways and characters will pick different things out of a scene that will spark off their own thought processes.
- The importance of anecdote – this is a good way to reveal information about other characters in short bursts – but make sure they are interesting anecdotes!
- If a character doesn’t serve the plot in some way, remove them.
- Ambiguity is good. Keep the reader guessing. We are fascinated by people we don’t understand. And we love to be surprised!
- Credibility factor – be consistent otherwise the plot won’t work. If a character is known to be a liar, don’t have her believed at a crucial point.
- Viewpoint – different viewpoints can be effective as characters will see the same thing in different ways and this will reveal information about them.
- Where can you get ideas for characters? Try films, fairytales, other books, adverts, magazines. Or go and do some exercise and your brain will loosen up and give you some ideas!
- When you read your work back, do you find your characters interesting? You should do!
Thank you to Debby for a great workshop. I have already started using her tips in my writing and I’m sure I will benefit from them.