Building Characters

character

When I first moved up to Norfolk from London I worked in a fascinating archive, The History of Advertising Trust, which has its offices deep in the countryside where real estate is cheaper than the capital. (Archives only ever grow, they never shrink.) Anyway, it was my good luck to happen upon it, because over the years it provided me with a lot of stimulation, sparking my imagination when I was struggling for ideas.

Advertisements are still a favourite source of mine. I love the lateral thinking, the wit, the ingenuity, the nods to popular culture, to classical art and literature, but I have a soft spot for 1980s cigarette ads. In this decade, tobacco companies in the UK were no longer permitted to show actual cigarettes in their advertising, although they were still allowed to promote their products. I’ve never been a smoker, and I’m not endorsing smoking here, but the imaginative and surreal advertising campaigns that resulted from the efforts to circumvent the ban are as fantastic as they are bizarre. Remember the Benson & Hedges pyramids and the Silk Cut scissors? You can see them here:   http://www.hatads.org.uk/catalogue/search.aspx?titleType=Print%20Advertising

But how could these curious images help drag my exhausted imagination out of the doldrums?

One particular series of ads was for Winston cigarettes and would have appeared on the London Underground. Because of the ban there are no images of lissom women enjoying cigarettes, no curls of smoke floating irresistibly upwards. The strapline reads simply, We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’  But it’s the text that followed that catches the eye.  Picture the scene…

You’re sitting on the train on your way home. You glance at the ad and read, We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’  You read the rest of the text and an idea sparks. You take out your notebook, (because you always carry one, don’t you?) and let your imagination go. By the end of the journey you have a serviceable character study…

  • Look at the person sitting opposite you.
  • Just a quick glance. Try not to stare.
  • What do you think they do for a living?
  • How much do you think they earn? 
  • More than you? 
  • Could you do their job? 
  • Think of 5 possible Christian names for them. 
  • And one nickname.
  • Are they married? 
  • Imagine their home. Their furniture. 
  • What do they keep on their mantelpiece?  
  • What colour bathroom do they have?
  • Consider the ANY DISTINGUISHING MARKS section of their passports. What does it say? What should it say? 
  • Where are they heading now? And why? 
  • To meet somebody? Who? For what reason
  • Do they look like they’re late?
  • And if they suddenly leant forward and offered to buy you dinner, what would you do?

 

I’ve tried this as an exercise with my writing group and it always gets good results. It forces everyone to think a little outside the box and consider alternative character traits. It acts as a catalyst, igniting the imagination and sending it off in unusual directions.

Works every time, often with very interesting results.

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A Word of Encouragement

arvon-note1Sorting out the vast amount of paper that regularly accumulates in my writing room can be a very time-consuming task, not least because I do like to re-read what I’m about to throw away (well, you never know, do you?) During one epic clearance I came across this little missive. Continue reading

Things I’ve Learned Along the Way

christmas-cactus2After a rather bruising journey to the publication of my second novel, my writing mojo has gone temporarily AWOL, so I thought I’d step away from my current project for a while and look back on my writing odyssey instead. This is a rewrite of an old post but the advice is still relevant.

In my experience, writing isn’t a life choice like exercise, or dieting, or what colour your hair should be this week. We don’t decide to become writers any more than we decide to become a man or a woman (well, most of us, anyway). By the time we’re ready to make such a conscious decision, writing has already made the choice for us. It’s a compulsion: innate, instinctive and as inevitable as death and taxes.

Here’s what I’ve learned thus far. Continue reading

Who do you think you’re talking to?

writing-deskWriting is quite a solitary experience. Even when you’re writing in a library or crowded coffee shop you’re not exactly inviting people to sit down and chat. You don’t want to be interrupted, torn from your story and required to make conversation; all you want to do is explore that really important plot development you’ve just thought up. The folk on your wavelength give you a wide berth, appreciating your need to be alone. And you’re grateful for the solitude.

So why is it that after a long day with only the notebook or keyboard for company, you feel exhausted, intellectually drained, fit only for an evening vegetating in front of the television? Continue reading

A Sense of Place

giants-causeway1I was recently on holiday in Northern Ireland, where we visited the Giant’s Causeway on a wet and windy day. I was intrigued to see that the car park was laid with a hexagonal brick-weave, reflecting the basalt columns that make up the Causeway. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed a car park surface before. It’s only when we go on holiday, take a walk in unfamiliar territory, move to a new neighbourhood, that we actually take a note of our surroundings. We don’t realise how little we notice our immediate environment until we change it. And this can have a big impact on our writing. Continue reading

Writing Groups: do you need one?

I’ve been a member of a writing group for almost ten years now and I can’t tell you how valuable it’s been. The comments and criticisms I’ve received have been very helpful and the regular input and support from people who understand the writing process is a huge benefit. You soon learn whose opinions to take seriously and not to get too hung up on negative comments. Even when the other fourteen members all agreed that the latest chapter in my WIP was rubbish. To a man they fell, like a row of dominoes, queuing up to tell me how bad my work was. The criticism went round the table like a Mexican wave. I went home bruised, and questioning my ability. What was I doing wrong? I put their behaviour down to mob mentally but at the time, it hurt. I mean, none of them were even published. Continue reading