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.

Character Reference

passports1

I’ve just had my passport photograph updated – who is that woman? She looks like she’s had an interesting life – it’s certainly left its mark. Which ties in nicely with this week’s theme – creating characters.

People-watching can be very fertile ground and there are plenty of opportunities for observing personality traits and characteristics in colleagues, friends and total strangers in the course of your working life and leisure activities.

I’ve been lucky to work in some colourful and exciting environments, full of large than life personalities, who transfer easily onto the page, albeit with a little tweaking. Here are some possibilities for you to consider: Continue reading

Positive Outcomes

I’ve never been one for New Year resolutions that involve any sort of deprivation. So I don’t resolve to lose weight, drink less alcohol or give up eating chocolate. I much prefer positive resolutions – those that require some action or input on my part – so I might decide to take more exercise or adopt a healthier lifestyle, or, more usually, read and write more.

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Very funny….

The trouble with writing humour is that it’s so subjective; lines that will have one person giggling up their sleeve will leave another completely unmoved. Consequently, many writers don’t even attempt it. Some say they don’t have sense of humour themselves, or that it’s just too difficult. I don’t write much humour myself, though I do like to inject sarcasm and understatement into my characters’ thoughts and dialogue. But conjuring up funny scenes is just beyond me.

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A moment in time

An interesting event this afternoon. Actually, ‘event’ is too grand a word for it. It was more of a moment in time, but quite a strange one all the same.

This week we’ve had some old friends and their children staying with us. Today being the last day of their visit we decided to hire a couple of canoes and paddle up the river to the pub, where we would have lunch. There was a break in the clouds and the sun shone on our little expedition; the river was calm and almost empty of other river craft. Our journey through the bucolic countryside was punctuated with wildlife and the city-dwelling kids were enchanted.

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Romantically inclined

My first one and a half novels were love stories. The plots were rather convoluted, and they strayed from the acceptable norm of romantic novels in lots of ways, but basically, they followed the traditional rules of romantic fiction. Even though the storylines featured fraud, death and dishonesty the stories were, at their hearts, romances.

The new novel, however, features much unpleasantness and a lot of humour, but I’m struggling to identify the romantic thread. With this in mind, I revisited the accumulated advice on writing romantic fiction to decide, once and for all, if what I was writing could be considered a romance.

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Beginner’s luck pt 2

Now that we’ve sorted out the peripherals, we can get down the process itself and examine some of the rules of writing from a beginner’s perspective. A lot of what is written about the art of writing applies to those who’ve been writing a while. It’s easy to get bogged down in does and don’ts even before you pick up a pen or sit at a keyboard.

But before I begin, I must add a note about a point I made a few posts ago. Regulars to this blog might remember I was having a go at Stieg Larsson for leaving a plot point hanging – see the ‘Chekhov’s Rifle’ post. Well, I have some humble pie to eat. I complained that one of the main characters in ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ had a perfect opportunity to use a weapon she had previously dropped into her pocket, but she didn’t. I wondered at the time whether Larsson had just forgotten about it.

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