Archive for the 'Characterisation' Category

Anatomy of an Edit

When I first started writing I loathed editing. I much preferred the freedom and playfulness of a first draft. Editing felt like hard work. And it can be. But I think what this actually reflected was my lack of confidence as a writer. When editing you have to be able to make tough choices – cut characters, significantly alter the story structure, change settings, murder your darlings etc. And how do you make these choices? By knowing your craft. Understanding characterisation, world building, story arc and sentence structure all direct how you shape your story. And while these things can be learned, they are only really absorbed with time.

As I’ve become a more experienced storyteller, I’ve come to really love editing. When I first read a manuscript after letting it sit for a good month or so, I can suddenly see all its flaws (and an occasional strength too). I get a flood of ideas about how to make it a stronger story. Instead of getting the old rush of dread I now tend to get excited – all the possibilities! And I think this comes from the confidence of feeling like I know what I’m doing (mostly).

A few days ago I edited an old short story of mine, which I last looked at about 18 months ago. It was far from a first draft, but even so I made some major changes. In case it’s helpful, I thought I’d break down some of the editing choices I made:

I tend to do a basic edit on paper, make some notes, then do the bigger restructuring on the computer

  • Change of tense: The story is a humorous mix of thriller and action. Originally it was written in first person past tense, but it struck me quite clearly that it needed to be in present tense. Even though it’s in first person, the past tense removed the reader from the action. Present tense made it feel much more immediate – it sat you more firmly in the protagonist’s shoes and better built the tension towards the climax.
  • Sentence order: The first sentence is vital. It’s a lead in to the story, the character, the setting and the voice. It was clear that my first two sentences needed to be switched. The same was true for several other paragraphs. The first and last sentence of every paragraph needs to lead the reader in and out of an idea, and with distance I could better see what each paragraph was about and how to do this. I also restructured many a sentence, shifting the stronger words to the beginnings and ends.
  • Beef up the action: My characters have a bad habit of just standing around talking, instead of DOING things. The first three paragraphs of my story set it up well and were a great intro to the voice of my character, but there was absolutely no action. In each one I had to have my protagonist doing things that revealed his character, instead of just relying on voice. The old adage – show don’t tell.
  • Character motivation: It wasn’t always clear why my character was making the choices he was. To make readers better empathise with his drive and his choices towards the climax of the story, I had to thread in some subtle tells about his character earlier.
  • World building: The story is set in the future. On a spaceship. But it was written by a girl (hi) sitting in her suburban home in her PJs. On rereading it a number of words and phrases jumped out as inconsistent within the world of the story. For instance: I had mentioned an astro park, so was setting up an earth that no longer had real parks but instead made fake ones for people to wander through. But then later I compared a man’s arms to tree trunks, which was my suburban voice intruding. It doesn’t fit in this story as trees are not a regular part of their world. My protagonist is a pseudo mechanic in a world of machines, so he’d more likely compare the man’s arms to thick pistons.
  • Bring on the funny: The voice of the story is quite wry and sarcastic. A number of times I dropped out of the voice and had to work to keep it consistent. I also added a few bits of funny to keep up the pace and offset the creepier moments.

There were likely lots of other decisions I made along the way that I’m not even aware of. It took a few hours to finess all the changes, but I’m really happy with how the story has come together.

So I’ve embraced my inner editor. It’s no longer a chore, but a challenge I look forward to. In fact, I so love editing I have started editing others’ work. I’m now doing picture book and early chapter book manuscript assessments through the QWC. And loving it.

Now after waxing lyrical all about my editing crush, I must get back to working on my novel. My latest WIP. My first draft. Hmm … anyone sense a whiff of procrastination?

Say Cheese…

As some of you know, I’m currently plotting out a new story – a YA urban fantasy I’m really excited about. I’m planning it in way that’s new for me, so I decided: why not continue the trend? In the last few days I’ve also been using a new characterisation technique.

Up until now, when working out character design I’ve often drawn my characters to help get them clearer in my mind. But I had no idea how much further it would take me if I found actual photos of them. It’s a technique I first came across on the blog of a good friend of mine (who is a superstar YA writer). So, I set out to find look-a-likes for the characters that had already grown in my head. And it turns out – it’s a hell of a lot harder than it sounds.

It took me hours. Oh so many hours. Because you don’t realise until you’re actually looking for your characters just how real they are to you. I’d find myself flicking through reams of images on photo sites, thinking ‘Her chin’s too narrow’ or ‘He’s too skinny’ or ‘She looks too chirpy’ or ‘His skin is too perfect’. Then I figured out what many others have before me. It’s much easier to think of actors that remind you of your cast. Then again, they can’t be actors you’re too familiar with, otherwise it’s impossible to put your character’s personality onto them as they already come with strong characteristics. However you don’t need to find one person who is your character in every way – just one photo that captures their essence. In this way, I finally found my perfect cast. My protagonist is a boy I vaguely recalled from some long ago mini-drama. His crush a girl I glimpsed on a crime show the other night. His best friend I had the most trouble finding and my fiance actually suggested this girl, who turned out to be perfect (Note: I have slightly altered some of her features in Photoshop):

Once I figured out how it was done, I had a lot of fun with it. So, how does finding real photos of your characters actually help?

  • When I’m picturing how each story scene plays out, I now see these teen’s faces and they’re so much more real to me
  • If I’m wondering what a certain character would do, looking at their image helps me to get into their head
  • Seeing them as I write keeps my descriptions of their physical traits consistent, but also their personalities (the body language of the people in the photos says a lot about my characters)

I can’t tell you how much I love this technique. I know I’ll be doing it for every novel from here on in. Anyone else done this before?

Writing Mojo

I’ve lost my writing mojo. It’s gone. I’ve looked in all the usual places: under the bed, in the space below the fridge, beneath my pup’s cushion. In fact it’s so far gone, even writing this blog post is hard. But how did I lose my writing mojo, and even tougher, how do I get it back? It’s certainly not as easy as it was for Austin Powers, who only had to fight a few bad guys to win back his glass vial of mojo.

Losing your writing mojo is sadly easy. I’ve talked before about how writing is a rhythm, and anything that interrupts this rhythm can be the cause. For me it was moving interstate, which meant several weeks of having everything packed in boxes, living out of suitcases and being in unfamiliar houses. Finally my new office is set up, my computer is booted up and ready … but still I can’t write.

What I’ve discovered in the last few years is that writing is really about thinking. If you’re not thinking about your story, you wont be able to write about it. So when your rhythm is interrupted, by stress or change, other things fill your head that can evict your story. When your story isn’t in your head, ideas stop bumping into each other, your characters stop speaking to you and your subconscious stops working on those little bursts of inspiration. Knowing this, the answer to getting my writing mojo back is clear:

  1. Get my story back in my head
  2. Get back into my rhythm

To tackle number 1, first I have to decide what project I’d like to work on. Then I read what I’ve got – a first draft, character profiles, even just a few scratchy notes on the back of an envelope. Whatever it is, it gets me thinking about the story again. At first, when I’m just getting back into the flow, I find I have to remind myself to be thinking about the story. But after a few days my subconscious is doing it for me, ticking over characters interactions whenever I have a moment to think or even at night while I’m asleep.

Tackling number 2 is all about routine. I start back into those daily activities that remind my mind and body that I’m getting back into my writing rhythm. For me that’s getting up early and going to the gym, doing a few little chores in the morning, blogging regularly and taking my pup for a walk in the afternoon. These are things that make me feel good and productive, but also give me time and space to be thinking about my story.

Sometimes it can take days. Sometimes it can take a week or so. Either way, I just have to be patient. I know it will come back. Soon ideas will be bursting at the seams and you wont be able to pry me from the computer. But you’ll have to excuse me for now – it’s time to take my pup for a walk…

Fattening up your Characters

I don’t mean literally – no need to go putting your characters on a high carb diet – but a lovely blog reader recently asked how I develop my protagonists, and I find the process is a lot like fattening them up. When starting out you begin with just bones – the bare outline of your main character. Through time, research and writing you start to build up their flesh, and in the final stages you add quirks and traits that lay their skin down over top, leaving you with a 3D living breathing character. But how do I get there?

Bones:

  • I often begin with a small kernel of knowledge about my main character. Something that’s important to them. The hint of their voice or personality. A snippet of conversation. A glimpse of how they look or how others see them. Like any story, it starts small, but you have to begin somewhere
  • Help the bones to grow: I use my natural writer’s curiosity to ask question after question. Who is this person? Why are they important to this story? What about them and their needs could drive a whole novel towards its end? Where do they come from and where will they go? The questions start out big, but become more specific as the story narrows down
  • First draft: once I know enough about my character and their story, I begin the first draft. That’s when I figure out how little I really knew…

Flesh:

  • I only truly begin to understand my main character once I have sat with them through an entire draft, watching the way they speak and move and react to the world. By the end of it I have a more through understanding of them, and need to go back in draft two to make sure they’re acting consistently
  • At this point I also make sure that the person I want my character to be isn’t inhibiting who they actually are. As writers we need to let them be their own person, even if they do things we would never do
  • Character profiles: before draft two I use a detailed set of questions to plumb the depths of my character’s personality, from their childhood through to their desires, strengths and weaknesses
  • Character sketches: as an illustrator I draw these myself, but others I know find magazine images of people who perfectly capture the look they’re after. This is important not only to make sure you describe your character consistently, but to ensure you’re conveying their personality through their physical appearance – how they stand, hold themselves, dress etc.

Skin:

  • The skin: the nitty gritty details that make us all individual. For me these traits develop over time, after being with my character for several drafts
  • Encourage the details: I do this by imagining my character – watching them move around, putting them in various situations, wondering how they would react to something joyous or uncomfortable or during a confrontation. As I walk around day to day, I wonder how my character would react to the situations I face, or what they would do in place of characters on TV
  • Collect foibles: writers are great people watchers. I’ve always been fascinated by the quirks people around me have – the words they use, the way they speak, the ticks and mannerisms that make them unique, the walk that means you recognise them from behind. If you can give your character unique mannerisms, they’ll suddenly become very real

It’s easy to get intimidated after reading a brilliant book with characters so real you wish you knew them. But don’t feel you have to know everything about your main character before you start writing. It’s all about layering. All writers layer, adding more character details with each draft. Characters will always begin as bones, mere shadows of who they will become. I’m currently at the ‘skin’ stage of a middle-grade adventure novel, and certain minor characters are only just starting to feel real rather than stereotyped. In a few more layers it will be ready.

What techniques do others use to develop character?

Character Profiles

Rabbit - playI used to be one of those writers who groaned at such things.  Looking back, I’m not really sure why.  Maybe because at the beginning of my journey I was just enjoying free writing.  Maybe because back then I’d only just written my first novel, so I hadn’t really realised their value.  Maybe because the mentorship has made me more focussed on the intricacies of plot and characterisation and the craft of writing.  Whatever the reason, now I can’t live without them.

Once I’ve sat with my characters through an entire first draft, it’s time to develop their character profile.  This way, in the second draft I know exactly what’s important to them and their story.  Some people would do this before the first draft, and maybe one day I will too (my techniques keep changing as I become more experienced) but for now that would terrify me.  I’d freeze, because I wouldn’t know what to write.  But after the first draft, I do, because I’ve had the freedom of playing with the characters and learning about them through their experiences and decisions.

Kate gave me a wonderful resource sheet I’ve been using, which includes a set of questions you must be able to answer about each character.  Some of the questions are more physical and descriptive in nature, but my favourites are:

  1. Their best qualities / strengths
  2. Their worst qualities / weaknesses
  3. What do they desire most?
  4. What is their greatest fear?
  5. What kind of childhood did they have?  How does that change their character now?
  6. How will they change through your story?  What lessons do they need to learn?

These questions sound simple enough, but when you have these things clear, your characters will suddenly become 3D.  Back story will naturally thread within their current tale, and they’ll begin to interact with each other in new and fascinating ways.  It also makes it much easier to tighten each scene, making every event in the book reveal things about each character; scenes that test their strengths and play on their weaknesses, or a plot where their greatest fear gets in the way of their strongest desire.  These thing can be used to create a character arc across the story where the reader witnesses your characters change and grow.

What has surprised me the most is question number five.  Strangely enough, this isn’t always something people naturally think about.  Yet whenever I do, suddenly my characters make so much sense to me.  Suddenly it’s clear why they’re anxious and constantly finding things to worry about, or why they’re an extrovert always vying for others’ attention, or why they’re a bully.  This is where the character’s back story suddenly comes to life in my mind, which then naturally weaves into the second draft.

Anyone else use character profiles?  Or have interesting questions to add to my list?

Forest or Tree?

Rabbit - lookAre you a big picture person or a details person?  A forest or a tree?  To be a good writer you need to be both, but like with most things, we all have natural preferences.  Things that are more appealing to us, and that we naturally navigate towards.  Of course there is always overlap, but for the sake of this post I’m ignoring grey and presenting only black and white.  So, here’s how I’m defining them:

Ideas:

A Forest loves to daydream, brainstorm and mind-map.  They let their ideas roam free.  And they will not be limited to just the story in front of them – oh no – multi-book series unroll before their eyes.

A Tree gets excited by each individual idea.  They’ll fastidiously unfold each one like an easter egg, careful not to break the foil.  One book at a time, thank-you, and let them plan out the beginning before they even think about the middle or the end.

Characterisation:

A Forest lets their characters appear as they write.  They discover their past, present and future as the story unfolds, and learn about each character based on their actions and choices.  A Forest will say they don’t write their characters – they just run around after them, writing down what they do.

A Tree needs to know everything about their characters before they start writing.  What are their hopes, dreams, ambitions?  They’ll interview them, find images of them in magazines, get to know every intimate detail of their life, including their flossing habits.

Plotting:

A Forest will let the plot unfold.  They will not be limited by detailed plans – no! – they will let the pure ideas pour onto the page as they write.  They trust in the story to write itself.  Plot-holes – bah! – their subconscious will fix such things.

A Tree will have scrapbooks filled with notes on plots and sub-plots and sub-sub-plots.  Detailed story arcs, chapter plans and action graphs are an absolute necessity before even considering starting to write.

Research:

A Forest will scoff – who needs it?  All they need to know is enough to start writing.  Incidental research can be done along the way, and any holes can be filled in later.

A Tree could write essays on the background research they’ve done, fill encyclopaedias with the knowledge they’ve accrued – all before they’ve even written a word.  In fact, many a Tree has become so caught up in their pursuit of knowledge that years can pass before they remember there was a story to be written.

I feel like I’ve just written a set of star signs (Forests are also givers not takers, and Trees’ lucky numbers are 2, 5 and 8).  I think we all naturally tend towards one more than the other.  I am more of a Forest myself.  For some reason the more detailed planning and researching and editing side of writing never appeals to me quite as much, even though I do quite enjoy it when I make myself do it.  The Forest side of me loves daydreaming about new ideas and plunging into first drafts with the thrill of the chase, discovering characters as I go and the surprise of unexpected twists and turns.  However I am able to be a Tree when I need to be, and to write well I need to channel Tree qualities often.  In second drafts I become very organised, with chapter plans and character profiles, and do much more research at this point.  It’s just that I don’t enjoy being a Tree quite as much.  I’m a much more natural Forest.

How about you – are you more comfortably one or the other?  How have you learnt to integrate the other side into your writing habits?

Like Trying to Wash a Cat

I read a great quote today about editing a novel, which said it can be like trying to wash a cat.  I relate to this, which says a lot considering my cat had an irrational fear of water.  Trying to wash her involved thick rubber gloves, a raincoat and plenty of Betadine for treating scratches – which gives you a clear image of how I sometimes find editing.  Luckily I’ve learnt much through the mentorship, which has made this process more pleasant.  The next stage will be the third draft, which Kate has described as working on structure and ‘making the writing sing’.  Parts of it sing a little already, but more of a bad idol audition rather than the polished rock-star performance I’m hoping for.  Anyway, this got me thinking about how the second draft unfolded.

I was lucky enough to have Kate’s experienced and objective eye to assess my first draft, and together we discussed where to take it from there.  The first thing was to identify the target audience – I was on the cusp of two, so we made decisions about whether to slightly simplify the language / world for a junior audience, or increase the stakes to appeal to a mid-grade audience.  After this we looked at what needed working on.  First up was world building: being a fantasy story, the world presented in my first draft was not detailed enough and I needed to get to know my races better.  For this I did lots of daydreaming, brainstorming and mind mapping, one of which appears below:

2009-01-30a

The next thing I tackled was character consistency: I tend to learn about my characters as I write the first draft, which means they change a lot as I go.  BUT by the end of it I know them quite well.  So I created character profiles for each main character (about 6 all up) which included a number of points about their personality / background, their core strengths and weaknesses, physical traits, and (because I also illustrate) sketches of their face and clothes (which helps with consistent descriptions).  My protagonist’s profile is below:

2009-01-30b

Lastly I did a detailed plot / chapter plan.  One of the most valuable things Kate taught me was a rule for weeding out chapters that aren’t working hard enough.  Every chapter needs to: 1. Propel the plot forward, 2. Develop character, and 3. Reveal more about the world.  I used these rules to write my plan.  Firstly I scrapped any chapters than were ambling along (more than I’d like to admit).  Then I looked at the skeleton I had: what each leftover chapter achieved and what plot points / character traits were not yet explored fully enough.  After this I made headings of every major event in the book in the order it happened and jotted down a summary under each of how the scenes would fulfil the above rules.  I put it all together along a timeline on a pin board (see below), with coloured paper highlighting major plot events.  Yes, I am a very visual person.  And maybe a little anal, but let’s not be judgmental.

2009-01-30c

THEN came the re-write.  I used sections of the first draft, but a lot of it was brand new writing.  The detailed plan made it much less scary and the board made it easy to track my progress, which spurred me on.  This whole process took me just under three months and the manuscript increased by ten thousand words.  Not sure what the third draft will look like, but I’m looking forward to finding out…

 


About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

Released Sept 2012:

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