TT: Alan Gets Into Someone’s Head

JANE: So, Alan, last time you mentioned that the biggest challenge you’d faced when you started in on writing fiction was getting into character’s heads.

Here's Edna!

Here’s Edna!

Did your writer’s group exercise based around writing a character sketch give you any insights into making a character come alive?

ALAN: Yes, I think so. I chose a picture of a cleaning lady and wrote three brief character sketches that described her as three very different people. Then I took one of those character sketches and wrote a (very short) story about her with a proper beginning, a middle and an end. I’m quite pleased with the results. All I’ve got to do now is try and work out how I did it…

JANE: Maybe if we step back and look at those three character sketches, you’ll have an insight.  Are you game?

ALAN: Yes, indeed.

JANE: First, though, I have a question for you.  Why did you pick a cleaning lady?

ALAN: As soon as I saw the picture, I remembered an incident from when I was a student. We had a party, and wrote a message on the wall: “We love Mrs Francis our wonderful cleaning lady”. She had to clean it up the next day, of course. But she did it with a huge smile on her face – she really was a lovely lady and I remember her fondly. I thought I could use that anecdote in a character sketch. And I did!

JANE: That’s neat!  I have another thought on that, but I want to hold onto it for later.  So, how about those character sketches?

ALAN: The first two character sketches described Edna, an office cleaner. I used almost exactly the same words to describe a nice Edna and a nasty Edna. It was a useful exercise on how important the choices of words and similes are. For example, the nasty Edna had “formidable curlers that looked as if they could put a permanent wave in the girders of the Eiffel Tower” while the nice Edna had “formidable curlers that only came out on Saturday when they gave her lucky hair for the bingo”.

JANE:  Nice variation on a theme.   Another good thing to remember is that the point of view of whoever is viewing Edna might influence whether they saw her as “nice” or “nasty” based on their own past associations with women who wear curlers.

So, what was the third sketch?

ALAN: The third character sketch was a longer piece that described Edna’s life in a small Yorkshire village in (probably) the 1950s. She was an amalgam of various such ladies that I remembered from that time. There was a little bit of my grandmother in her, and a little bit of a friend’s mother…

JANE: I’m curious.  Why did you name her Edna?  Was that the name of one of those ladies?

ALAN: I have no idea, except that really is her name. If she had a different name, she’d be an imposter. And no, I do not know anyone in real life called Edna…

JANE: Character names can be like that.

So, which one did you choose to write your story about?

ALAN: The nice Edna from the original character sketches. She helps Phyllis from Accounts Receivable with the month end report by applying a little bit of homespun wisdom and a dirty joke. It’s only 500 words, but I think it works quite well.

JANE: Sounds intriguing.  I know that sometimes there are contests for very short stories.  Maybe you can try your piece there.

Earlier, when you mentioned you’d chosen a cleaning lady, I mentioned I had a thought but wanted to hold onto  it.  Now I’ll trot it out…

One of the ways to avoid writing cardboard characters is to think of actual people you know – or as you did with Edna Three, several actual people you know.  A really good exercise is to write a story using real people as characters rather than thinking of them as abstract concepts like “detective,” or “biologist,” or “ship’s captain” or “cleaning lady.”

It’s astonishing how much we know about even casual acquaintances.  Yet, if asked the same questions about a character many writers would just look puzzled.

ALAN: Can you give me an example?

JANE: Sure.  There’s a clerk at my local grocery store I see regularly.  The longest conversation we’ve had is probably less than 120 seconds.  Nonetheless, I know she hates hot weather, doesn’t like bananas, struggles with her diet, is a former smoker, has a small dog she’s very fond of, and watches football.  She is not patient with people who don’t hold up their end, but can be surprisingly kind if someone really needs help.

The green grocer at the same store is divorced, but gets along well with his now adult children.  He’s afraid of flying.  Although very friendly, he prefers to work with stock to being put on a register.  He likes small towns, enough so that he gets up very early to commute in for his job, rather than live closer.  He’s fully bilingual in Spanish and English, switching between languages depending on who he’s chatting with.

And that leaves out physical descriptions entirely.  And names, both of which tend to be the first things many writers – both new and experienced – think about when putting a character together.

ALAN: That’s clever. I’d never thought of approaching it that way. I think I sort of assumed that successful story tellers had characters just walk into their fingertips and then drop straight out on to the page. It was a bit frustrating that it didn’t work like that for me.

JANE: Well, sometimes they do just appear – and start running the show.  However, not every character does.  I want to clarify something.  I’m not saying that all your characters need to be copies of people you actually know.  Far from it!  However, I do think you should have the same sort of “gut feeling” for your characters that you would about a casual acquaintance.

Now, mind you, I’m not saying that all this needs to come out on the page, but sometimes knowing these little things about a character helps give them more dimension.

ALAN: Thank you – that’s given me a lot to think about. Meanwhile, from hints that Lyn has dropped, I think the next few meetings of the group will be concentrating on how to make a place seem real. I’ll let you know how it goes.

JANE: That would be delightful.  Maybe in a few months we can pick up this theme again.  Meantime, I wonder if our readers have anything to add about their experiences with fiction writing or in writing groups.  (We had a little last week, but I’m inviting more!)


5 Responses to “TT: Alan Gets Into Someone’s Head”

  1. Jas. Marshall 6 Says:

    One make-do sort of tip for characters if you’re stuck: pick an actor with a particular style and cast them in the role. Call the character by the actor’s name. Soon enough, the character will start diverging from the actor. Then, once you know who the character really is, go back and find the character’s real name and clean up the differences.

    For real fun, purposely mis-cast someone – the differences will become jarring and you’ll quickly figure out who your character is supposed to be … or you’ll find a whole new way to tell the story. Casting Clint Eastwood as your protagonist’s teen-aged madcap best friend will quickly reveal new things about ALL of your characters.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      I’d never heard that one… I can see it working though for someone who watches a lot of TV or movies. I particularly like the idea of casting out of type.

      But I DO wonder if casting TO type might contribute to very formulaic characters.

    • Jas. Marshall 6 Says:

      The answer to that is yes. For the script-writing version of NaNoWriMo, I did that once. I cast a rom-com with everyone specifically to type. The script was written and done in the one month with practically no effort at all, and was so formulaic, it could easily have been a Hallmark Channel weekend movie. (Seriously, I watch them and I know what time it is based on the status of the characters’ relationship.)
      That’s why the key to using actors as characters is to START with the actor in the role, but then be sure the story comes first, which means the more formulaic parts get changed, until you’re no longer writing about the actor but the character. If you don’t, EVERYONE will read your book and say, “Seen it.”

      • Jane Lindskold Says:

        Thanks! I think you have something interesting there — I especially like the idea of Dirty Harry as the best friend. Go write the book now, sir.

  2. Paul Says:

    I vaguely know an actual bestselling author who admitted to me that she uses TV or movie characters, or at least once did, as the basis for her characters. She revealed that when I commented that one reminded me of actor Roddy McDowell, “I thought that was my little secret,” she said. But the character was dead-on Roddy McDowell’s screen persona.

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