The Importance of Characters in Fiction.

Ross & DemelzaAt some point in our lives, I’m sure we’ve all felt a special bond for a book character. It’s one of the great things about reading – it makes sure you never forget the book and makes you want to return to it again and again. It was not until I read the Poldark series by Winston Graham that as a writer, I fully understood the importance of characters within novels.

Set in Cornwall, England during the late 1700s, the story focuses on Ross Poldark, his family and the lives of miners within the district. Ross returns home after fighting in the war for American Independence, to find the woman he loves engaged to another man. So what is it about this character that drew me to him? Maybe because it was my first real introduction to a brooding male (I would later come to thank the BBC, Colin Firth and Toby Stephens in later years). It is this kind of character that attracts readers; a past that makes them vulnerable, that makes them see their flaws and are willing to learn from those past mistakes. It demonstrates that despite their faults, such characters are not entirely bad as we get to see the goodness in them as well.

I just adored the relationship between Ross and his wife, Demelza; both in the books and the original series (and that’s where I’ll stay). They came across as a happy couple with a good sense of humour and a strong friendship. Unfortunately, like all relationships, things did not always run smoothly. Their marriage became tumultuous on a number of occasions and they had come close to going their separate ways, yet they managed to work things out and over time, made their marriage stronger.

Back in my high school days when I read the series, theirs was the kind of relationship I wanted with my future husband (minus the mishaps, and yes, I believe I’m lucky to have found that). It is certainly saying something about fictional characters when you wish for such a relationship in your own life. This is because the characters within the series come across as real people (and it is said that the character Demelza was based on the author’s own wife), and this goes for all the characters within the books. Other characters such as Jud and Osborne Whitworth are truly unforgettable. This series is one that I come to again and again as it feels like I am visiting old friends and I am always learning from a master in characterisation.

We are drawn to particular characters because of their personalities, which in turn, create their stories. If writers can create characters that come across as real people or even leap off the page, then they have created something truly special.

And if you haven’t read the Poldark series yet, I highly recommend it. 😉

Are you a Poldark fan? What are your thoughts on the series remake? What are some of your favourite book characters? Is there a particular book or book series you enjoy coming back to?

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3 Reasons Writers Should Watch Television.

woman watching tvI’ve read advice in the past that writers should either cut down on watching television or don’t watch television at all. In order to get more writing done, we need to prioritise and make the most of our time. That’s a very valid point as the key is to live by the old rule ‘everything in moderation’. However, it would appear that this is the ‘golden age of television’, so there are still valid reasons in which to make the most of our television viewing as writers.

1. Research

One of the more enjoyable ways in which to start your research is by watching television. Things like documentaries and real life stories can not only provide you with interesting facts, but can also help fire your imagination and allows you to dig deeper. I have a tendency to watch television shows that explore the darker side of life, and therefore, there are some situations where I need to catch a glimpse of first-hand accounts. Through watching such shows, I can envisage certain situations for my characters and assist with certain elements within my stories.

2. Characters

Like some of the books you read, one of the first things you may think of when it comes to television shows is the characters. Some can be larger than life, like Gene Hunt on Life on Mars or maybe a group of characters that work so well together they almost feel like family (Firefly and Criminal Minds for example). There are also times when a character leaves the show, that the show may never be the same again – think Mulder in The X-Files. My husband said at the time ‘Mulder IS The X-Files’ (and yes, happy dance that it’s staging a comeback 🙂 ), which demonstrates the importance of characters within a show; sometimes you can’t have one without the other. When it comes to writing our own characters, we really have to work hard on making them as unique and realistic as possible. We need to ask ourselves what makes ours different? Watching television can help.

3. Genre

Watching television can give us a good insight into particular genres, including our own and allows us to ask questions about our own stories. What shows in particular genres have become popular and why? What has been done differently within this particular genre and how can I apply something similar within my own writing? Sometimes you can take an idea from a show and ask yourself ‘what if?’ and apply it to a different genre with a completely different outcome. We can learn from watching television, not only for our own writing, but it can also give us an idea of what the public wants.

Since getting pay television installed in our house last winter, I’m the first to admit I have been watching more television that I used to. I am, however, watching shows that not only interest me, but I know they will help me with my writing projects. Next time you watch television, remember to put your writer’s cap on – you just might learn something. 😉

Has watching certain television shows helped you with your writing? Do you find watching television a distraction from your writing and not watch it at all? Were you disappointed to see the end of Firefly? Are you happy to see the return of The X-Files? What shows/characters do you like best?

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Writing Historical Fiction, Part 2.

Continuing on from last week’s post, this week I’m going to talk about characters within historical fiction.

The majority of people who attended the historical fiction course with me at the NSW Writers’ Centre, were writing about real characters from history and even stories about distant relations. I felt quite alone in creating a purely fictitious character!  Funnily enough, when discussing characters, our teacher mentioned Scarlett O’Hara, saying she was ‘a flawed character if ever there was one’.  When it comes to characters in works of fiction, Scarlett is one of my favourites – she is truly memorable because of her flaws, and as writers this is what we want from our characters.

  • Characters help drive the plot.
  • Readers want to go into a different world through your characters.
  • An interesting time in history can’t be interesting unless you have engaging characters.  Test their moral strength so that readers can identify with them today.
  • Fictionalise real characters.
  • When writing about real characters, it’s good to visit family to get more research, anecdotes, etc.
  • You need to have real characters in the right context – don’t make them do anything out of character.  Research the real character.
  • Characters can have weaknesses to keep them real so readers can identify with them.
  • Know the main things about your character before you write – the rest will evolve as your story progresses.  Characters need to ‘grow’ and not remain static.
  • Trust your subconscious – you don’t have to know everything that’s going to happen in your story before you write your book.
  • Characters have to indicate something about themselves; what they’re thinking.   There has to be a purpose in their dialogue.  Do not use modern speech or jargon.
  • If you’re not sure about details, ask yourself:- does it further the plot? set the scene? establish character? set the atmosphere?  Find a way to weave what you want into the story.

Above all, writing historical fiction needs to be historically accurate, well researched and have engaging characters.

Image copyright MGM


Stuck on Character? Interview Your Protagonist.

Recently, I’ve gone back to working on my first YA novel.  I have had a long journey with this novel (five years to be exact), continually tinkering with it, simply because the novel hasn’t been good enough for me as an author to send out.  I was continually changing viewpoint, never completely satisfied, and I couldn’t understand why.

After having kept some distance from this novel, I could always look at it with fresh eyes.  Sometimes, however, as authors, we can still be too close to our work.  We need a different set of eyes to tell us what we can’t see.  I was told by an expert through a critique that the protagonist of this novel was ‘not quite there yet’.  My main character obviously needed more work.  The only way to go about it was by simply asking questions.

I made a list of all the characters within the novel, including minor ones and began interviewing them.  As I worked on this technique, I found myself getting inside their heads more and discovering what made them tick.  Along the way, I discovered that the second most important character within the novel was crying to be heard.  The best way I found for me to do that is to write in first person.  I began writing her words, continually asking her questions along the way.  By doing so, I wondered if she would become my new protagonist, however, my entire story would change, and that was not the story I intended to write.

By using this technique, I discovered new things about some of the minor characters, helping to add more conflict to the plot.  All that remains now is to use the same approach on my protagonist.   I’ll just have to ask the right questions.

Finding the Write Angle: A Different View.

When you look out the windows throughout your house you always get a different picture.  Changing the angle on a subject with a camera can also give you a different way of looking at something.  It’s the same scenario when changing viewpoints with characters in a work of fiction.

When writing the first draft of my young adult novel, I told the story from the viewpoint of my protagonist, but I felt something was missing.  The story was fine; it would engage the reader and keep them turning the pages, although, telling the story around a young girls’ death requires the readers’ sympathy.  The reader could sympathise with the protagonist, who was the best friend of the victim, but what about the victim’s family, and more importantly, the victim herself?  The reader needs to know that character, and the only way that can be achieved is if I allowed the victim to speak.

Having read some of the works by James Patterson (does that man ever experience writers’ block?) I can see why he is onto a winning formula.  Keeping his chapters short and telling his stories through the viewpoint of more than one character, not only engages the reader, but also makes them understand why a character acts the way they do.

So now I need to go back and write from the viewpoint of the victim, leading up to the time of her death.  I’m sure it won’t be a pleasant experience, but if I can write with great feeling for this character, then I’m sure to be on to something for my readers.

Image by Debbie Johansson.