Monday, 3 December 2012

Getting to know your characters. Part 1: writing a historical character

Part 1: writing a historical character

I’m deep in rewrites for my Dark Ages fantasy novel. One of my biggest issues with draft 1 was weak characterisation. I thought I knew my characters pretty well, but their personalities weren’t really coming across in my prose.

Over the past few months I’ve been trying out lots of different exercises and workshops to get to know my characters better. I’ll be posting a few different approaches and ideas over the coming weeks. Part one is writing a historical character. The exercises can be applied to writing a modern character.

My novel is set in the Dark Ages. As a 21st Century girl, I automatically feel detached from my characters, even though I’m writing the novel in a contemporary style.

A modern character’s identity can be constructed around what they consume and what choices they make about their appearance and lifestyles. In the Dark Ages no one could flag their personality by their choice of phone, their chosen brand of bag or a penchant for a particular style of music. They had no TV, most people couldn’t read (and if they could, their choice of books was pretty limited), they had no leisure time to fill with extreme sports or camping holidays and they certainly couldn’t choose to go clubbing in Ayia Napa.

That doesn’t mean I can’t imagine what lifestyle choices my character would make if she were alive in 21st Century Britain. If you’re writing a story set in a bygone era, why not try the following exercise out?

I re-imagined my character as someone alive in the 21st Century, and then filled out this questionnaire about her. It’s important not to think too hard about your answers: quickly jot down the first thing that pops into your head. Some of the answers I had surprised me.

Q1: How does she dress?

A1: Like a beautiful beat poet. Outfit 1: Scuffed/ well-worn boots, Indian skirt-trousers, thin tight t-shirt, lots of necklaces and bracelets, sunglasses, chipped nail varnish, short dyed black hair, lots of ear piercings. Outfit 2: converse shoes with little skulls on, black tights and denim shorts, tight tee, woollen hand-knitted cardigan with chunky wool and chunky buttons, sunglasses, etc.

Q2: What music is she into?

A2: Edgy street stuff, and stuff like Bonobo.

Q3: What car does she drive?

A3: Something classic and mechanical. She’d have a basic understanding of mechanics and would enjoy tinkering.

Q4: What are her bookshop habits?

A4: She’d start in the military and history section, then mind, body and spirit, next onto Natural History/ animals, then true life stories. She doesn’t care for books – she is a spine-breaker, a folder back of paperback covers. She plays with her lips as she reads. Skims, picks up lots of books, flicks, puts back. Distracted. If she finds a book she really likes, she’ll find a chair, sit down with her feet planted on the floor, legs wide, rests her elbows on thighs. She might mumble good passages aloud as she reads them.

Q5: What phone does she have?

A5: An old flip-phone, battered, cracked screen, dangling charm of beads, worn keys. All her messages would be saved but she would constantly run out of memory and have to delete the spam to free space. Pay as you go.

Q6: What’s her favourite TV programmes?

A6: Documentaries, Planet Earth, David Attenborough

Q7: Where does she buy her food?

A7: Health food stores, foreign shops, farm shops, Waitrose.

Q8: ideal holiday destination and style of stay?

A8: camping holiday in Britain. Enamel ware. Bell tent. Cooks on a fire. She knows her nature and will eat a lot of wild food. She’ll spice everything up (she’d take her spices with her).

And that’s it. You can add more questions as you think of them. I found that by knowing 21st C lifestyle choices, I could more easily relate, I gained a clearer picture of her and felt closer to her. I can't put any of this into my novel, but because I feel I can relate to her/ picture her, 
I can now confidently start some characterisation exercises that will generate material I can use in my novel directly. I'll talk more about this at a later date. 

I also collected pictures of people I found on the internet that looked something like how I imagine my character to be – modern style people or historical. I found a Dead Weather video and thought there’s something about Alison Mosshart that’s similar to my character Tarmigan, so I watched that a few times and then watched a bunch of interviews of Alison Mosshart and took notes about her gestures.

These pictures aren't mine, I found them on deviantart. Something about them made me think of Tarmigan, though neither explicitly looks like her, and both are modern women (Tarmigan has a pet crow, so the first pic is particularly good for me!):

This method worked well for me, especially as a foundation for further character work. Maybe it'll work for others?

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