How much of me is there in a character?

Do I base them on people I know?

walking away with style

The truth is that you have to start from somewhere and then build up. Very few characters come to an author fully formed and a writer blends together ideas to build a more real character.

Observing people and blending together traits of their personality gives me, as a writer, the material I need to create new and interesting characters. If I see someone on the street who has a distinctive walk I’ll try to describe it in words;

She rolled her hips as she walked along the pavement, a smooth action like the endless waves on a deep, wide ocean. 

I’ll make a note and perhaps add it to a character’s profile if it’s appropriate. But we must be careful not to give any one person too many eccentricities otherwise they will come across as unreal and far-fetched. 

This is not true if you’re witting a character with a collection of associated traits which together make him or her stand out. If for instance your character has Asperger’s syndrome then it would be acceptable to make them socially inept, they will a loner, not like crowds and not want to make eye contact when talking to people. If a character has a condition that makes them who they are it is important to give them the correct “tics and flics” and not to make light of the condition lest you offend those who in real life are affected. 

Generally I like to create characters in a database and know as much about them as I can. Name, Address, Age, Sex, all the basic stuff. Then I go deeper and add fields for hair colour, accent, smoker yes/no, drinker?, height and colour of eyes, even what car would they drive. By the time I’ve filled the twenty seven fields I will know them quite well; and I still don’t know what story they are going to be added to. I just like creating characters. 

If I place a character in a book I will fill in the rest of the fields. What do they do for a living, what is their relationship to other characters and how do they feel about what’s going on in the story. I have nearly fifty possible fields to fill and at the end I will know them better than I know members of my own family. 

But are they based on people I know? Well yes and no. Claudilia Belcher who is the main character in the Wimplebridge stories is a blend of a handful of people I know, mostly they are still living but one is tragically dead. Friends may recognise facets of themselves but not whole individuals.

            How much of me is there in a character. I said that I blend them together so there must be some of me in there. Their thoughts are my thoughts and their words are my words. May be a writer’s creations can say things the author could not get away with voicing himself. That’s a whole topic on its own and one for another day. 

where do you get your ideas from?

Today I am returning to a frequently asked questions, “where do you get your ideas from?” is something I can be sure I’ll be asked whenever I am talking about writing or the business of being an author. 

I’m a polite person, brought up by nice and loving parents who taught me right from wrong. And I know it’s wrong to grab the questioner by the throat, slap them around the head a few times, then get up really close and screaming “open your fu**ing eyes, you moron” 

Look around you and do it with an open mind. Observe your surroundings, the places and people. See how the crowds ebb and flow through a railway station, one way in the morning and the other later on. Have you ever noticed how young men walk with a swagger and how old women move with more care. Watch a group of drinkers going out after work and see how they greet each other, it’s very different from a parent and child no matter what their ages.  There’s inspiration poring forth from everywhere. It gushes like a fire hydrant, you just need to seewhat’s in front of you.

An example. Earlier this year I was traveling on the London Underground. It was a Saturday morning, around nine thirty. At that time of day during the week the tube would be packed with commuters going to work but on weekend it’s more relaxed and there were plenty of seats available.  Some people still chose to stand and it was one of these that I noticed was drinking from a can of beer, a bit early in the morning for me but he might have been coming home from a party or even just finished a night shift. In a city like London, one which never sleeps, there are plenty of people whose clock runs at a different time to yours or mine.

Anyway back to our underground train. Two or three stops after I noticed the young man drinking he got off, or I did, I don’t remember and it’s not important, but by then I had created a back story for him, a family and a job. He worked in a big building with lots of companies spread across many floors. His job was to maintain the infrastructure of the building, heat, light, air conditioning,  that sort of thing. He also ran the cardboard compactor and from time to time he’d abduct a homeless person and put them through the compactor, streaming it live on the dark web for strange people who got their thrills from that sort of thing. He was paid a lot of money by each viewer to let them watch, more if he could stage a particularly warped fantasy devised by a viewer who’d also come and see it happening live.

The story needs a lot of work and anything or everything could change but the fact is I’d got inspiration from just seeing a person on a train and wondering “what if…” You see there are no sacred cows, nothing is out of boundsand the only limited to what you can write is what you’re willing to put your name too.  

If we are surrounded by inspiration then we need a way to record it. That’s why I always carry a note book, it gets filled with jottings, some terrible drawings and maybe even snippets of overheard conversations but I’ve always got it to refer back to and use when I want to build a character or remember a scene. 

Two falls or one submission

Those of my readers who have reached the middle of their fifth decade will probably recognise this title as one of the rules, and there were precious few, of Saturday afternoon wrestling on TV back in the late sixties or early seventies.

I remember sitting with my grandmother and giggling as this otherwise respectable lady was transfixed by World of Sport on ITV. Nanna, as we called her, was old even then. I was six or seven and everyone who wasn’t in my class at school was old, but she was my father’s mother, and born in the eighteen nineties which made her a Victorian. That’s old.

I don’t remember exactly when she died but I do remember watching Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy, real name Shirly Crabtree, with her on wet Saturday afternoons. Nanna would shout at the small black and white portable screen as the two combatants threw each other from one side of the ring to the other. They’d bounce off the ropes and come back, often knocking their opponent to the canvas with a forearm smash or a flying tackle. The referee would count; one’a, two’a, three’a, and so on to nine. The injured fighter would then spring up, miraculously recover from his injury, and resume the bout. It was all staged of course, but to a boy who hadn’t mastered the five times table or joined up writing, it all seemed terribly real.

Moving forward to the present day, or yesterday to be precise, I could hear Nanna’s voice as clear as if she was right beside me. I was racing my sailing dinghy, a twelve foot long Comet Duo, in winds that were probably a bit strong to be out. Phoenix is a two person boat but as a sailor with a larger, well padded, frame I prefer to go out on my own. I usually have enough weight that I’m not to be overpowered by the wind and I can put a reef if conditions dictate I reduce the sail area. But yesterday the gusts were so extreme that, even reefed, I was struggling to keep her upright. Twice I failed and capsized, nipping over the gunwale and onto the centre board where my weight was sufficient to bring the mast out of the water and pointing skyward again. 

It was after the second incident that I heard Nanna’s voice coming down the decades. “Two falls ref, that’s two falls.” She’d obviously decided that I should be sent to the changing room for an early bath. As I knelt in the bottom of my boat, half soaked and mostly exhausted, I agreed with her. It was time for me to bang on the canvas and tell the referee that I’d had enough, I was only half way around the course but the elements had won. I was ready for a shower and some dry clothes, I indicated to the safety boat that I was retiring, opened the self-bailers, and set a course back to the club. 

It wasn’t the best race of the season so far, but it was one of the best afternoon’s sailing I’ve had this year. The most exhilarating and physically challenging without doubt. You have to know your limits and I’d had my two falls. Just like the fighters all those years ago I might look beaten but I’ll be back again next week, all recovered and ready for another bout.

Authors should watch more TV

Those of you who have read yesterday’s blog will remember that I claimed not to watch much television.  So, if that’s the case, why was I up till three this morning before dragging myself off to bed for a just a few hours sleep. Why would I put myself through it, knowing I’d feeling as rough as a badger’s ass for most of the following day.

Well the answer’s simple. Killing Eve. I watched the first episode of the second series and couldn’t stop. I ended up watching five episodes, each of forty five minutes and back to back. If I hadn’t stopped when I did I’d have finished all eight and not made it to bed at all.

What kept me watching? Well the fantastic acting by Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh in the principle parts was worth it alone but Fiona Shaw and Nina Sosanya were both outstanding too .  Good writing and characterisation is the foundation everything else is built upon and in Killing Eve it’s rock solid. As a writer of novels I know that rule number one is “have a great plot” and I guess the same goes for screen plays and drama. It may be even more important for them, so the story keeps moving along while the background locations and visual effects to give context. In print we describe the location of the action. We tell the reader how green the grass might be and we use words to emphasise the heat of a burning building. On screen it’s done in a visual way, but we both need a good plot.

Authors should watch more TV because they can learn from it, but be selective about what you view. If you want to see how a plot works you could do worse than a marathon of Killing Eve. I suggest you settle down for a few hours of drama, turn off your phone and be ready for the long haul. Once you start watching you won’t want to stop. 

That’s it for now. I’m off to see the end of the series.

How do you find time to write?

Like most authors I have to supplement my passion for writing with a day job. That’s just a fact of life. Unless you’re a multi-award winning household name, with titles from floor to ceiling at WH Smith’s, you’re going to need something to help pay the mortgage.

So how do you find time to write? It’s one of the questions I’m asked most often, and especially by people who know me from my day job as a farmer or general manager at the family business. The answer is simple, I don’t know. 

Writing is not something you can just sit down and do for half an hour between other tasks. If you want a structured story you need a structured way of working. It’s taken a lot of trial and error but this is what I’ve found works for me. 

I’m at my most productive in the early morning, and I mean really early. If I’m at my desk with a strong brew of coffee and two ginger biscuits by five thirty, then it’s going to be a good day. This is when I have my best ideas about storylines and plot direction. I like to write for a couple of hours and if possible I’ll finish a scene or chapter. I know I’ve reached the end of a day’s creativity if I’ve written a cliff hanger and want to turn the page to see what happens next.

By mid-morning I’m thinking about other things; for instance the business of being an author. I’ll do some social media stuff, I might post a blog or even spend time on the day job. There’s always things that need attending to around the farm, deliveries to be done for the factory or a car that need its MOT arranged. 

As the shine wears off the afternoon I’m ready for proof reading and corrections. I usually make a cup of tea; hot, not too much milk, and leave the teabag in please, before I sit down to start the process. I’ve said I’m at my most creative at home in the morning, but my Basildon office in the late afternoon is the best environment for amendments and alterations. I can easily spend a couple of hours there, as afternoon becomes evening, with a fresh manuscript and a bold red pen.

I like to read, I’m doing a lot more of it nowadays and having a Kindle is a great help. I’ve always liked murder mysteries, but in the beginning I had a notion that if I were to be a serious author then I’d need to read the highbrow, classic, novels. I tried one or two and found them dull. I discovered there’s loads of great stuff available written by living authors and for some strange reason my favourites are mostly from Scotland. I love a well constructed sentence and a story that draws me in. Christopher Brookmyre and Stuart MacBride write books I can’t put down. Anything by Peter James or Ian Rankin is a masterclass in the art of penmanship. 

Television, apart from a few well thought out and professionally crafted programs, is just chewing gum for the eyes. The original remit of the BBC was to Entertain, Educate and Inform but today most channels are satisfied with serving up a diet of cheap shows which require no cerebral input from the viewer. I’ll listen to the radio for news and follow a few podcasts. Commercial radio can be good, the talk shows on LBC get quite heated at times but the adverts become repetitive and after a while I need to switch off. I download the Times each day to my iPad. Sometimes I even read the odd article.

And so to bed, perchance to dream – sorry Shakespeare. I’ll have a podcast in the background or a comedy on BBC Sounds as I nod off. With a little luck I’ll be back at my desk in the morning with fresh ideas for my “who-dun-it” or an idea of how they pulled it off.

My favourite stories have always been the ones where the baddy isn’t caught.