Ideas, skills and tips to make the magic of writing happen… it’s Alchemy!
Making an Entry
I find one of the most challenging aspects of writing fiction is the introduction of a new character, especially one of lesser importance. This may seem a counter-intuitive – shouldn’t a Main Character (MC) be more difficult to introduce than a minor character?
The reason for this is that you have more space and time to introduce the MC. They may be the focus of the opening sentence, paragraph, chapter. Hopefully when we meet them there’s something dramatic happening and we can see them fighting some aspect of the epic battle that is their life.
But for a minor character, we don’t have that space, we need to introduce them quickly so they can play their part and get out of the way. But just because they don’t do much, doesn’t mean they can be throwaway and a writer can afford to be careless about them.
Let’s imagine a doctor who’s about to deliver some surprising new to the MC. ‘Dr. Jenkins entered the room. He was old, his hair had thinned out, and dark circles grown around his washed-out blue eyes.’ So, we get the picture of an old male white doctor. But it doesn’t make for particularly interesting reading.
The first thing to think about is whether you’ve made a good creative choice in visualizing this character. The old, white, male doctor is something of a stereotype. Why white? Why male? Why old? Why not a young Indian woman?
Once you’ve made that creative choice, a powerful exercise is to write a few hundred words about that character to get to know them – a background piece. Place them in a situation a little before the point at which they enter your story and have something happen to them. Have some dialogue too. For the young Indian doctor, I wrote about her at lunch. She spills food off her tray and is angry with herself at her clumsiness and waste. This sets her up to enter your story as tightly wound, and maybe not in the best possible mood.
Then consider their voice, and how they speak. Is it clipped, uncertain, quiet, loud? (Our Indian doctor talks quickly and with precision in her word choice). Are they garrulous, economical, circuitous? (She is very to-the-point, but prone to long silences as she marshals her thoughts).
And then, how do they move? Fluidly, arthritically, slowly, quickly, erratically? (She is precise, matching the precision of her word choice, as if consciously taking up a well-chosen point in any environment).
You can then consider the aspects of physical character. Eyes (shape and color), mouth, nose, coloring, hair, build. Use these as ingredients into the overall introduction of the character, and not the totality of their introduction. Too often I read something like ‘Dr. Jenkins entered the room. She had long dark hair and almond-shaped eyes of the deepest brown.’ Dull imo, and frankly not that informative.
Lastly, consider if there’s an action you can give them that could add interest to their moment of introduction. The common wisdom in screen-writing is to always have a character doing something interesting when they’re introduced. So not sitting on the sofa watching the TV, or waking up, or making a sandwich. For our new Dr. Jenkins, I like the idea that she’s frustrated by some cleanliness issue when she first enters the patient’s room.
Work all of these into the background piece we talked about earlier, and then start writing version of their introduction. And don’t expect your first version to be your best!
So, here we go:
‘Dr. Jenkins entered his room and immediately noticed a used nitrile glove on the floor. It stopped her in her tracks. She looked over at the patient, her deep-brown eyes seemingly seeking the affirmation that she was correct to be offended. “I’ll have an orderly come make sure the room is cleaned,” she said, her voice low and precise. There was a long silence as if she was considering some kind of apology. “I was trained in Philadelphia,” she finally said. “Not in India like most people think.”’
Who’s That Talking Back to Me?
God invented editors to remind writers they can’t play god with their characters.
I don’t remember who said it, but it’s true. In this short essay I’m going to talk about another aspect of writing when we as writers are far less in control than we think we are. And that is the character’s voice.
I first encountered this when I was writing a screenplay, HBKR (it was a dramedy based on a popular emo rock band, and was squarely rejected by a studio who said they didn’t get what the hell I was talking about). In HBKR a minor character called Poppy – bit punk, bit crazy, heart of gold – suddenly started jumping off the page in her dialogue, her reactions to what was going on around her. Whatever situation I put her in, what she said was authentic, funny, unexpected – even unexpected to me. As I continued writing it was almost like I couldn’t wait to see what she would say (and do) next. She was a total scene-stealer. Eventually she started directing some of the events and dramatic flow of the story. Kid you not. Of course, Poppy being Poppy she went from a minor to a major character as well. An altogether more serious character was Columbia from The Theory of My Wonders. She didn’t have much of a dialogue voice, that wasn’t her thing, but her internal narrative was incredible. She had these theories – the Theory of Falling, the Theory of Trust, the Theory of Cruelty, The Theory of Dying and many many more – and in fact each chapter touched on one of her theories. They’re stark, weird, sometimes wrong-headed and sometimes even delusional. But they’re her’s much more than they’re mine.
The obvious following question is, how then do you find these characters that have this driving voice, this authenticity? And the answer is, they just kinda pop up from time-to-time. There’s no formula to create them, it’s just plain happenstance and good luck. In The Theory of My Wonders there were only Columbia and one other small character that had this voice – out of twenty or thirty characters in total.
That’s why you should keep writing and throwing away work. You don’t want to be trapped trying to work with characters who’re making life difficult for you (I’m starting to drift into an analogy of a movie director trying to work with a bunch of uninspired actors). So you may have a great story concept, and all the writing skills (or a good editor to fix them later), but if your characters are going to come alive on the page you’re going to have to try and try again until they show up.
Still, nobody said writing was easy. But I promise those authentic characters will come to you – and they will lift your heart and your writing!
What’s Your Story?
As my first post in Alchemy, this has to be the place to start – the story.
The pre-eminent role of a fiction writer is to tell a compelling story. Amid all the advice about style, character development, stakes, punctuation, editing, publishing – it almost entirely comes back to the story. Frankly I don’t like Dickens’ writing style (it’s archaic) and prefer Hemmingway’s (stripped-down, punchy) – but I’d rather read Dickens because the stories are simply more unexpected, even joyful.
So, what’s your story? The story you’d love to tell? It doesn’t matter if it’s about your life, or a turning point in your life. It could be a slice of an imagined life, sci-fi, romance, historical drama, adventure, noir, fantasy (not my favorite, although I still think back fondly on Narnia and The Hobbit). As a writer, or fledgling writer, you have the entire world of human experience and imagination from which to draw inspiration. Don’t let the mechanics of all this, the seemingly endless banging away on a keyboard writing and re-writing and editing stand in your way. Start with your story.
If it helps, here are my stories. The Theory of My Wonders, which was inspired by Isamu Noguchi’s ‘Monument to Mankind.’ I imagined it as one of a new seven wonders of the world, and built a strange sci-fi drama around that. Bad Napkin was inspired by finding the plus-minus list a romantic partner wrote about me when I was in my mid-twenties (as you can imagine, the relationship ended pretty soon after that), and I tuned that into a Young Adult comedy. An unpublished sequel, Bad Behavioral Science, developed around my fascination with (you guessed it) behavioral science experiments (there’s a great one in which you cheat at tic-tac-toe/noughts-and-crosses to see how quickly the other person gets angry!) But perhaps my favorite was a very short story, six hundred or so words and no dialogue, about a young woman on the brink of fame as a singer – it was called The Mermaid and was published in three different compendia’s. It was an imagined self-reflective moment in the early life of Amy Winehouse, her realization of fame taking her away from reality (so from human to half-human, like a mermaid geddit?) There’s even talk (and, yes, mostly talk) of trying to make a TV movie of it.
So, start with your story. Be bold. Be different. Be real.
Because that’s what a storyteller is.