Writers, do you beautify your main character?


Prince Albert – Winterhalter

The recent TV production, VICTORIA, enchanted viewers in the first three episodes thanks to the girlish, if skittish character of Jenna Coleman’s princess. The appearance of the awkward and distant Albert added drama, if not as much attraction, as riveting Rufus Sewell, Lord Melbourne.

I discovered that the ridiculous hair style of Albert was no TV concoction when I visited the Chateau de Compiégne, Picardy.  There the wonderful portraits of Franz Xavier Winterhalter (known for his true-to-life painting) formed a special exhibition.

Winterhalter became one of the royal pair’s  favourite painters. It seems that Victoria praised his truthful representations, so we must accept that her own portrait is as she was, with bulging pale blue eyes, plump arms and stocky little body even in her youth. Whereas Tom Hughes is near to a spitting image of Albert, Jenna Coleman’s Victoria is very much beautified.

It may be that the scriptwriters came closer to the couples’ personalities. After all, clashes between two strong spirits is the stuff of drama. If one were portrayed as wholly sweet and cooperative, the series would fall a long way short. In my own case, I preferred the image I had concocted from history books to Tom Hughes, but sadly his lisping portrayal of the penniless prince was probably near the truth.

Have you written a character close to truth of someone you’ve actually known, while another you’ve deliberately beautified? Readers are left unsatisfied when excuses are made for the protagonist with unblemished features and unstained character, whereas the antagonist’s redeeming elements are ignored. Such black/white characters are termed ‘cardboard’. It’s surely the shades of grey that grip a reader, so don’t beautify your characters.

History is far more interested in what Victoria really looked like, not how beautiful a painter could make her. The same is true of writing.

Strengthening your writing via stimuli.

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Writing stimuli. What gave you that sudden idea that made you urgently scribble it down? It’s worth exploring.

The power of olfactory stimuli in activating memory is well known. But it’s much harder to ‘dream up’ a smell that might affect the character in your story, than it is a sound or sight.

When we’re stuck for ideas for a visual stimulus,  Art can provide perspectives, narratives, symbols to enrich our writing.  For auditory stimuli, theatre and radio present us with ideas and emotions through sound patterns, speech or music.  snuff_optThere is no equivalent for smells.

So having found the right sound or sight stimuli to cause your hero to pale with emotion how to find the right smell/scent/perfume/stink to cause emotional impact? Leave aside the obvious triggers: magnolia, blood, excrement, cabbage (who wants to write hackneyed stuff?). Will the character stop short as spinach fumes enter his/her nostrils, or candy floss?  What particular scent might have been recorded in his/her long term memory?

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You can prepare for that blank moment. How about noting down your own strong reactions to any smell, pleasant or unpleasant? List the source for each. This will make you rack your brains, and may well summon up incidents that you can use in your story. Add any smells that you already know act as powerful reminders for you – and write down why.

A scent for one person may be a stink for another. One perfume might raise very different memories for two different characters. Identifying that memory can enrich your story line. For instance, the whiff of musty clothes in a charity shop reminds Kara of a great aunt, but Debra of pass-me-downs when she was young.  The scent of aloe vera takes Anna back to the birth of her baby, but reminds Dan of a little lane in Almeria where he was set on by teenage thugs. They find themselves quarrelling . . .

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With such a list of smells, you can google them to add any interesting facts to their source and the memories they evoke for you.  Strengthen your writing with that detail that enthralls readers and brings them right into your story.

9 points on writing edgy stories

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My second post on writing edgy short stories.

Here are some suggestions. (My previous post will add meaning to this.)

1. Write with a clear voice. Not yours, your character’s. It doesn’t have to be first person. You can write third person from the main character’s (MC) point of view. What matters is that point of view, the reader feeling sure s/he is standing in the MC’s shoes.

2.  The reader doesn’t have to like the MC. It is edgier if a sneaky liking for a character makes the reader uneasy or worse. (What sort of person must I be if I feel sympathy for this baddie I’m reading about?)

3. Short stories can’t cope with having too many characters. The edginess may depend on being in the MC’s head most of the read, so the reader has to be drawn to him/her in some way – even horror or outrage can achieve this.

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4. Dialogue has to do its job well and pithily. Every word counts; every unnecessary word detracts. A character merely saying ‘Whatever‘ can give a total feel of his/her reaction, whereas a whole sentence may not.

5.  Structure. If you are working on : 1/5 start, 3/5 middle. 1/5 end, that final fifth must hit home. Either shock the reader by reversing all his/her expectations or let your MC cross over some unacceptable line. It may ‘only’ mean stealing a child’s bike and pretending innocence. However, the ‘journey’ must be there, and it’s vital that whatever happened is some kind of shock to the system.

6.  Edginess doesn’t necessarily require extreme sexual or aggressive behaviour. Risk of some form is usually involved but an action close to home can cause the uneasiest feelings, or an everyday event suddenly appearing to have a different significance.

7.  The edgy story does not have to be crime or erotica. It can suggest something subtly sinister. It can be socially provocative. It can be funny.  It’s no longer edgy for sexual abuse to be involved, not because it’s any more acceptable, but because it’s now hackneyed as a character device.

8.   It is still edgy to nudge into those actions that would be too awkward to admit to a friend. e.g. a friendship established in the first 4/5th of the tale where we worry that this friend is about to cheat or betray. The last fifth reveals that we are wrong. The kickback is that the assumptions we made highlight our own prejudices.  Edginess must produce unease.

I hope I’ve achieved this in the first two of my Crime Shorts, A Boy with Potential and Homed. Do let me know if I have.

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The detail in writing fiction

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Jonathan Wolstenholme “The Collector” 2005

It is often the tiny detail that remains in the reader’s mind and catapults him into the imaginary world the writer tries to create.

I’ve used Jonathan Wolstenholme‘s painting to portray a focus on detail. Minute detail is the interest in another post featuring cross-fertilization.

The collector uses detail to identify his butterfly, the artist and dancer attend to detail to create a new perception or meaning, and the writer can produce significance and emotion through tiny touches of detail.

It was while watching the DVD of Room on the Broom with little people that this post suggested itself. In the delightful children’s book, a dog, a cat, a bird, a frog in turn ask for a place on the witch’s broom in return for finding her lost items. But the DVD adds a layer to the original. After the cat is installed, it suffers jealousy when the witch takes on new passengers. All this is conveyed silently, by a raised eyebrow or a turned-down mouth, the invention of the animator. The book is satisfying enough to the child (theme: one good turn deserves another) but with the added detail of the cat’s facial expressions, the child’s own difficulty in sharing or accepting a new sibling, is illustrated safely. An added layer is given to the story.

In an expensive perfume, it may be one drop of a rare plant essence that makes it unforgettable (perhaps irresistable).

Shaun Tan’s The Arrival,  a flowing wordless narrative about emigration, is chockful of meaningful detail. One example: leaving his country, the emigrant says goodbye to his loved ones. Tan portrays this by a close-up of the hands clasped, the next when loosened, then the fingers leaving those of the others; a tremendously evocative set of images. This is detail that resonates with the reader. Another graphic artist might have left it to the hug or sad face.

pavlovaTurning to dance,  the delicacy of Pavlova’s left arm makes this pose arresting.

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The drop of blood changes perceptions and significance in this book cover for True Blood.

In textual works, small detail can hit the heart-strings. I’ve tried to do this in Intrusion (Book 1 of A Relative Invasion). Seven-year-old Billy is on the station platform without his parents. As other evacuees are hugged goodbye, a wind from the oncoming train lifts Billy’s name tag against his face, and lets it fall again. (A moment of hope that the exodus won’t happen, thwarted.)

Kate Atkinson’s heroine in One Good Turn breaks an established routine of breakfast by eating the remains of a packet of chocolate digestives with her coffee, and on the peach sofa in the living room. This little detail implies rebellion against her absent house-proud husband.

When in Brick Lane, Nazneem, poor, in an East End flat, gives money for a charity that has touched her lover’s emotions, she gets it from a tupperware box under the sink, a telling detail.

I’ve been arbitrary in my choice of examples. Many writers boost the crises in their plot , but it’s these little details that can give satisfaction during and after the read. This often doesn’t happen with a wholly plot driven novel.

It’s like the difference between eating a large pizza, and a meat and two veg  meal. We may feel full initially but the protein makes the sense of satisfaction lasts so much longer.

Intrusion and Infiltration. Impact out in summer 2016.

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A Talent for Short Stories

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GOODBYE CROCODILE  –  Conor Patrick

  published by The London Magazine

The London Magazine has a long-standing reputation for selecting and presenting work of a high literary quality, poetry and prose. They produced this collection of short stories in 2013. It does them credit as well as its author. I reviewed it then, but recently saw that it had not received a great deal of attention, so I flag it up again.

I always enjoy Irish writing.  What is it about Ireland – the oral tradition? – that it produces writers who so understand pain. People suffer elsewhere, after all.  Yet Irish writers are so skilled in capturing the image that strikes at the heart.

Conor Patrick is one of these. His writing displays both the velvet of his Irish genes and the sharpness of his past American environment. In this collection, he gives twelve stories that grasp that time of change or realisation and exposes it. Many of his characters are on the verge of adulthood and perhaps that is why they are lightly drawn. They are fawns not stags, often coping with raw or threatening circumstances. The settings show a wide variety of rough and ready America with characters who are struggling to survive physically or psychologically.

These are literary pieces, rich in description. The boy in the cathedral absorbs the effigies and images ‘lifting heavenwards their stained glass faces.’ In my favourite story, ‘Be Still the River’, perhaps the most beautifully written, there is an image of the ‘carapace’ of a pram. This image poignantly highlights the death of the mother and of a bereaved younger sister’s childhood. The girl does not have the large fish she had worked so hard to land only this remainder of a pram. She is used to pulling fish from the water as the one means of sustenance.

Patrick masters that task of suggesting half a world in the one paragraph – sign of the excellent short story writer. I highly recommended this collection to the serious reader.

Writing: how to improve your focus

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Samuel Johnson in close focus

It’s commonly mentioned by writers as a problem: keeping focus on the book you’re currently writing. It isn’t just the intrusion of other writing or everyday chores. More than ever, writers blame the ingress of social media caused by two pressures: firstly the attraction of seeing friends’ and family’s daily activities, with consequent need to like, comment, or even worse, engage in a to and fro dialogue; secondly, the constant emphasis on the importance of social media for marketing the books we write.

There is only one way round this problem. Limitation. In the same way that we curtail, if not curb, our pleasure in food and drink in order to escape obesity, we can avoid gluttonous social media activity.

Easiest to restrict family/friends to a time of day assigned to relaxation. Just best not to open those Facebook etc at other times. There’ll always be something to divert you. For marketing, wisest to schedule a set day and time for such work and avoid it at all other times.

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I wonder if Pasternak was having trouble focussing in this picture, or was tormented in sympathy with his characters?

Keeping focus on the book in process does not mean never doing anything else until it’s finished, however. You can take off for a break somewhere entirely different and yet keep your focus on your characters. Keep them and their problems in mind and relate what you hear and see to their situation.

For instance, working on my WWII trilogy, A Relative Invasion, I realised that my protagonist, Billy, had not been punished by his adversary, cousin Kenneth, for a well-meaning interference. Manipulative Kenneth would surely not let Billy get away scot free.  Taking time away from the computer, I set off to wander round an arboretum and get some fresh air (and fresh ideas). On the way, I listened to a radio programme about printing and book binding. The word ‘pigskin’ made me sit up. Of course! The pigs Billy loved and fed daily had been taken to the abattoir to Billy’s great distress. Kenneth could punish by giving Billy a pigskin wallet for Christmas.

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Van Gogh

The arboretum itself made me realise that I hadn’t included much description of the boys’ surroundings beyond the initial one. How would they react to the countryside when evacuated away from the blackened buildings of London?

I listened to an interchange between some children nearby. The running and quarrelling suddenly stopped when one of them saw a squirrel burying nuts. It was vigorously stamping its feet, or that’s how it seemed to the younger child. She turned to her mother, ‘It’s having a tantrum!’  The other child laughed. A lovely moment, and one I could work at for hostility between my two boy characters.

There were other ideas, too, that came from this outing. These could be called ‘writing refreshments.’

I could have taken a break and thought of other things, but keeping my focus on my book didn’t stop me benefiting from this time away from the computer. In fact, I wrote more rapidly once I got home, all the new ideas fresh in my mind. As is often the way, one new idea helped others so that the narrative moved along.

Have any of you gained unexpected ideas through taking a break away from your desk?