characterization

Week 1 of “Start Writing Fiction”

Image of blank writing page

The joy of a new notebook

I am just about to start the second week of a Creative Writing MOOC from the Open University – “Start Writing Fiction” on FutureLearn. Week 1 was all about various aspects of writing fiction, in a “Getting Started” kind of mode. It encouraged the keeping of a notebook – which, of course, is the best invitation to go and buy a lovely new notebook. I have even written something in it – some character sketches of people I have seen in the last week. Once you open your eyes to detail, there are a million quirky and wonderful people all around to inspire better character descriptions. So I learnt something already (or rather reinforced what I should have remembered): the value of observation.

We also had to try two blends of fact and fiction: 1 fact and 3 “lies”; 3 “lies” and 1 fact. I found this harder than I thought I would – I don’t usually struggle to come up with ideas but I think I was feeling self-conscious. Most of my writing so far has included real life people or facts, probably in the 1:3 ratio. I am a sentimental person and like to use things from the past as a launch pad, spinning off what I would have liked to have happened or just sprinkling them in as little memories for myself. Some places and people were too good to forget.

The final step was reading some character studies – short excerpts from George Orwell and Zoe Heller – and studying what they were doing. This reminded me of the wonderful book “Reading like a writer” by Francis Prose. Time spent on this kind of study is time well spent in improving my writing. This time it was the different ways to introduce a character – short and pithy vs a subjective observation that tells more about the narrator too. I would have liked to have spent more time on this kind of thing, maybe try writing “in the style of”.

Week 2 is the “Habit of Writing” – it’s not too late to join if you fancy a little tuition and a wide community to chew it over with.

I also had the option this month of doing a day-class for 8 weeks (which costs, not free like the MOOC). I was looking forward to seeing how MOOC vs real life class shaped up BUT it’s proved difficult to make the time and place, I missed the first class…I suspect the MOOC is going to win out in terms of convenience. Isn’t this their major benefit? However I would have liked to meet some new writers locally. Pros and cons…I’m fortunate to have both as an option.

Working on minor characters

People

I have a bad habit of reading things, getting rid of them and then a day later realising there was some gem of wisdom that has resonated with me and that I need to re-consult. So I can’t tell you where I read this but someone mentioned writing out your plot from the perspective of minor characters as a way of solving problems and building consistency.

I tried this for one character and it was massively helpful – revealed a few plot glitches and showed me where he wasn’t quite working. Now I have taken a different view of him (equivalent to changing his star sign, if you go in for all that) and he has really become a much more complex and satisfying person. I have literally written his side of the tale in one long splurge but I plan to divide it up and split it scene-by-scene so when I go through for my re-write, I can factor it all in accordingly. I’m onto my second character now and half way through I came up with a reinvention of her background which has made everything much more convincing. It’s also a hugely enjoyable thing to do!

I don’t think any of this is going to rewrite the plot in a major way but there’s nothing like making sure every scene works for every character to ensure it’s watertight.