Someone Else’s Shoes
Character is probably the most important aspect of any convincing story – both the people who drive your story and the tone which you choose to tell your tale: the passages between the characters’ actions and dialogue when you become the chauffer. Bob Dylan said, “I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” And so should be true of the characters that you’re creating.
Using the spider web method, of building details and ideas – however insignificant and random – around a central bubble with the character’s name inside is an effective way of getting to know your new best friend (or enemy). Of course, you don’t have to use these jottings, but it will help you in building the image of the character in your mind. Each important character should have one. It serves as a great quick-reference when writing, reminding you how he/she might behave.
This is an example of one of my early efforts. On the right is the character’s name, OJ, with such random suggestions as ‘curls up to sleep – still a child’ and ‘(lives in) house near abattoir’. Over the page are more in-depth facets of character, listed rather than diagrammatical, evolving the character. On the left is notes on research.
(I have developed a touch more organisational skills since; these days I even iron my pants).
When introducing a new character, if they’re only going to play a bit-part, one brief introduction to their appearance will suffice. But if someone is to live with us throughout the story, subtle drip feeds of detail from your profile is the best way to build up the character in the reader’s mind’s eye. If the character is clear in your mind, so will it be in your reader’s, allowing them to create the missing pieces for themselves. Even when you have planned the character meticulously, they will naturally evolve as your story does: by interacting with other characters; by outside influences affecting their life; how others respond to them, as much as they react to others.
One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure
My book originally ran to approximately 195,000 words. Way too long. It didn’t so much need to be edited as it needed to be butchered. We all know that it’s almost impossible to do this yourself – emotional attachment to your precious baby, yadda yadda yadda . . . To pay for a good editor isn’t cheap, but for me it would have been great value at twice the price – the same with cover design. I don’t really want to confess that I demonstrated far too much TELLING rather than SHOWING – where my authorial voice was telling you what was happening rather than allowing the characters to show you what they were about. Rather than spending three paragraphs telling you that a character had once bought a pair of kick-ass leather cowboy boots and where he’d bought them from, using dialogue, in a pair of sentences another character could instead say: “Still wearing them old pixie boots, huh?” And our man replies: “Sure am. And if the stall in Camden market hadn’t closed down I’d go get me another pair. The holes in the bottom are letting in more water than the Gatun Locks!” It’s more fun, and it won’t bore you. Instead it will help you get to know the character quicker.
A better example would be of an entire chapter that my editor encouraged me to cut from my book (which I’ll include at the bottom of this page). It was the fourth chapter, i.e. the part of the book where you are still attempting to hook your reader. There’s very little dialogue in the chapter; it is all backstory, telling you why my character, an English gentleman and his family, had come to live in the U.S.
Me: “But I worked so hard on this part. It took hours of research and don’t you think that I know my story better than you do? How will the reader otherwise know where he came from? Why they came here in the first place?”
Ed.: “Don’t you think I know editing better than you? Cut it. Have him reminisce of the past days in London. Perhaps have his wife talking of her struggles in settling in a new country; maybe have her still arguing years later of her lingering fears . . .” *(NB: this exchange did not really happen)*
I didn’t even do that. It had to go. Because it didn’t need to be there. I did scratch my head until bled before I could summon the courage to hit delete. It’s incredibly boring, this chapter; embarrassingly so. And the story is so much better for its absence. (Incidentally, there were only a few other parts that I had to delete in entirety. And I really enjoyed rewriting the parts where I’d been telling y’all. And how much better we all are for it. Dialogue should show us any backstory. My editor reminded me that the author is just the cameraperson, observing only things that the camera would see and record. Great advice.) This was such an important lesson for me. After hitting delete with a shaky finger, I realised that it hadn’t been a waste of my time at all by working on that chapter for so long, only to discard it in a touch of a key. It still existed in my mind; it had shown me what the past had been for Mister Henry Charles Wilmington. It might not still exist to be a part of the finished book, but it was an in depth character profile of an important character in the first platform of my plot. Except for in the context of the novel, it never was trash. For me, it was gold. And I’ll definitely be doing these style of profiles for characters in future . . . even if only ever intended for my own use.
The World Is Your Palette
When I was driving along with a friend one time, he asked me how I came up with ideas for stories. A mud-splattered truck was waiting to pull out from a side road ahead of us. So I replied: Imagine where that truck’s come from? Why is it covered in mud? What could be in the bed of the truck? Why did the driver have a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, as if trying to conceal his identity? Did you notice how deeply tanned his forearms were, as if he works outside all day? “He did look a bit like one of the hunters from Southern Comfort didn’t he?” Exactly!
The next person you see, imagine their backstory. It’s so easy to do. Anyone can. Or imagine what home life was like for an old teacher of yours – favourite or tormentor. Basing characters on people you know or have met is the age-old way of creating character. It is a common belief that Ian Fleming used the name of an erstwhile school acquaintance for supervillain Blofeld. It doesn’t mean that the boy he knew had designs on destroying the world, but a familiar name is great place to start. I once used the name of a customer in the shop I worked in, just for the cheapest of jokes I could get out of it – he was called Cockburn. The stories behind characters in The Simpsons and Star Wars – two of the most successful ever television and movie series’ of all time respectively – are family / neighbourhood based. There’s an entire year’s worth of examples once you start looking. Combine the backstory of the new stranger you encounter with someone that you really know, or once knew (and remembering to be incredibly delicate and mindful or you’ll be liable for libel), and you have an instant character. There are an infinite amount of ways of building a character: They’re all around you, every day. To someone else, you’re one. One of my all-time favourite man-of-characters is Harry Enfield. Have a look at how he found inspiration for his characters – and I don’t believe that he was ever so inconspicuous with the sources of his invention. The slobs were upstairs neighbours of his in the block of flats he lived in. Some of the sketches that he wrote were actual exchanges that he witnessed.
The final thing that I would like to draw on this topic is of using characters to paint a change in tone, much in the same way that in Once Upon A Time In The West each of the three main characters has his own theme music when present in the scene, like Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals or Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. (However much I’d like my theme instrument to be an electric guitar, I’m probably more of a kids’ whistle.) It’s a smart, subtle and fun way of introducing a new character, danger or romance to your tale. The great Cormac McCarthy does it beautifully, making his dialogue and settings sing to you. In The Reputation of Booya Carthy I used it to the best effect when Alf – a mysterious wandering hobo – is introduced in chapter nine. By using clipped, staccato sentences, the intention was to raise the reader’s sense of awareness, of danger: what is this new element, arriving in the dead of night? Why has the bright setting turned to deepest black, exacerbated by this strange man muttering to himself? Why is he not scared for his life on a night when tensions are running high? It’s also a nice, rare example of when TELLING and SHOWING can live happily side by side, by drawing the outline of a picture for your reader and allowing their imagination to colour it in.
I’m going to contradict myself here. My editor suggested pulling that section too, saying, though well written, try and create a narrative arc by bumping the story forwards. Now, the editor is always right. But sometimes the characters know better than anyone.
A Good Bad Example
If you’re still with me, being mindful of the fact that this took place in the first fifty pages of my story, here is the example of a chapter that had no place in my book . . . but was a most helpful character profile. I learned so much from this dull length of boredom. Beneath it is my editor’s notes, verbatim.
The master known as Mister Henry was Henry Charles Wilmington. He was father of two boys, George and Luke, their sister Victoria, and husband to Elizabeth. Much unlike men of his generation, and generations to follow, he had been active in their upbringing. And he had delighted in doing so. It was little Victoria that he doted upon in particular, though he would not have raised one of his children above another by any torture. Or he would never admit it. She was a perfect miniature of Elizabeth. Despite Victoria being only four, she walked with the haughtiness of an aristocratic lady that both amused and heartened him. He was raising his boys to be intelligent, confident, and debonair. Henry was well travelled and knew that, around the world, if one presented himself with such attributes he would be wordlessly welcomed. But, of course, one must also be humble with such grace.
Elizabeth had not been at all pleased when he had told her one night at their home in Kensington, London, that they were to travel to America, more specifically, to the south. She had still imagined it as a wild country where Native Indians scalped innocent victims – man, woman and child. Where war ravaged each town, survivors living in boarded-up ruins, looting and killing each other for vegetables. She imagined that there were no roads but only dusty cart tracks linking one nefarious ghost town to the next. And down south they had those “ruthless dark-skinned folk”.
She had heard that those lawless folk ruled the south, that you could travel in a motorcar through an entire town and not see a single white face. She believed that there weren’t any whites in the south. She declared that she would just as soon live and forage in the desert in Africa than live in that “Godless place”. It was certainly no country for her precious offspring to grow up in.
But a woman’s opinion was nothing more than just a sweet-headed notion in Georgian England, and certainly only dared broadcast behind closed, private doors. Henry hushed her and reassured her that all would be fine. They would take their own personal butler from their home in Kensington and an English nanny for the children.
A friend of his had by chance recommended his nanny only recently. This friend’s children no long required her, the youngest having recently left for boarding school in the countryside.
‘She’s just kicking her heels around the place, really,’ he said to the crowd of gentlemen at one of the Wilmington’s grand dinner parties. ‘Nina’s more like a maid now than a nanny. But she was always more than a nanny . . . Now, you know that is an inappropriate remark for a gentleman, however entertaining you may find it. What I was intending to say was that she helped to school the children. Supplemented their education with further academic studies at home. Terrific job she did too.’
So it was settled. They were to move away from England for two years, or however long it took to complete the project that took them there. They would take with them Geoffrey their butler and Nina – having spent a month with the family as a nanny, to everyone’s delight – had agreed to go with them to America.
It was Henry’s expert knowledge of trains and their works that had brought him to Mississippi. Whilst studying engineering at Oxford University in the second decade of the twentieth century he was constantly working on new designs for trains. His obsession was making a train run faster, more conveniently, whilst striving to accomplish the running with as much economy as possible. His work had not gone unnoticed. Upon leaving Oxford Henry was immediately recruited to Trackcorps – the major rising company in rail engineering in the UK, already revolutionising rail travel many years before the nationalisation of railways by the government in 1923. Within four years of graduating from Oxford University Henry had played a significant role in designing and modernising the haphazard linking of rail lines in the south of England, and had also routed rail lines in five European countries. Though his designs for new, high-speed economy trains were never used in their totality, engineers and designers picked his designs apart as inspiration for new designs of cargo trains on the continent. In England he was revered as nothing less than an engineering genius. “A modern-day Brunel” was how he had been introduced more than once at presentations and parties, as well as articles in national newspapers. How pleasant it is to be mentioned within the same breath as one’s idols.
Henry Charles Wilmington idolised his family more than was socially permitted to a man of his stature. Everything that he had done since George had been born seven years previously was to secure the future of his children and to seal the family name in the highest echelons of society. Though he was somewhat of a workaholic, it was always in the forefront of his mind that everything he did was to achieve an even greater future for his family.
And so with the likely demise of Trackcorps in sight, struggling to fight the might of the four largest railway companies since nationalisation of the railways, and unwilling to be amalgamated into one of them – as had nearly all of the small private companies – Henry Wilmington had been employed in America to design the routing and rerouting of cargo trains across the south, with Henry as head of the team working from Mississippi from where the new rail lines were provisionally to start from on the eastern harbours of the state.
He would certainly not have led his family to the state of Mississippi if he thought that there was even a chance of endangering their lives. He was a man whom would stand in the way of a runaway train to slow its advance as his family made their escape. Despite his well-preened, temperate appearance, there was no one in the world who could touch his family whilst Henry Wilmington was still standing and breathing.
But since landing in the so-called land of the free, as the Americans sang in their national anthem, Henry had come to realise that it was anything but free for the blacks, the alleged freedmen. The same people that his wife had so feared, encouraged by the gossips of upper-class London society, Henry had seen treated with incredible cruelty. They were clearly as oppressed as, he imagined, they had ever been.
He heard boasts from wealthy men of how they tricked and swindled families who worked hard to pile up dollars for them, and the delighted guffaws of their impressed company. Well he was not a man who could stand for such wickedness.
It was permitted for convicted criminals to be released from their incarceration and in to the employment of companies. He had seen to it that Trackcorps encouraged such workman, were responsible for them, and ensured that they were paid what they were owed, like any man should be, and not exploited as so many were being. Though they employed poor white convicts as well, it was the blacks that these wealthy men who Henry ate and drank with proudly told of how they worked them to death, feeding them wasted meat and stale bread until they simply wasted away, and not just to save a penny. Prisoners were easily replaceable. And the legislation encouraged such evil behaviour: the prisons were filling up quicker than men were being released. So many convicts could simply not be housed. And, of course, the state was benefiting from the money made. Like the popular hideous adage said: kill a mule, buy another; kill a nigger, hire another.
Henry could not see to it that all were saved, but he would certainly ensure that he could save as many as he possibly could from such doom. Where his companions took such pleasure from destroying these men, Henry delighted that he had never yet turned one impoverished man away who asked him for work.
In the little spare time he had Henry was plotting ways he could help fight for the civil rights of the blacks and the poor. The Reconstruction Amendments – amendments to the Constitution in the years following the civil war, designed to abolish slavery – promised to guarantee the “blessing of liberty”. It was quite simply being ignored where it suited, and with rewards rather than reprisals for those who lived by their own laws. Well Henry Wilmington would not stand for it; he would just not stand by and watch human people being destroyed, no matter for their colour or race. What if he had not offered work to the parents of that dear little boy that had ventured in to his office to listen to his music? What would the future have then held for him and his family? He had saved them, and had started many others on their path into the future.
Should not the penal system encourage reform and redemption rather than obliteration? It should demand it!
Being a stranger in foreign land Henry had at first pitied the nation. He had not felt that he had the right to start waggling a finger at the authorities and the influential figures, telling them how their country was leading their own people to ruin. But the more he saw the more disgusted he was, and the stronger in his belief he was becoming.
The opposed could call him nigger-lover, call him a traitor, call him Judas. They could call him anything they willed. But he had decided that he would see that these poor people finally had the strength to stand up for their rights.
“I would remove this chapter fully. You are giving away too much of the story. This is pure TELL and pushes the reader onto the back foot. You are denying the reader the chance to ‘learn’ the plot and, instead, are just spooning (sic) feeding it in an unnatural manner. The reader will quickly turn off and become bored.”