Character, setting and story: the perpetual balancing act

When I started writing it was really all about setting and character: there was a background story line, but after a while that declined in importance and the interplay of the characters against the West Cumbrian backdrop became the main driving force.

GoodLiar_COVER.inddReaders love the Jessie Whelan trilogy for that reason. No one ever comments that the surprises of the plot kept them reading: it was all about what would happen to the people and the interest of the background.

Then I turned to crime fiction, in which the twists and turns of events and revelations have to be managed differently, but in the first two crime books the two leading characters were still centre stage. CRUEL_TIDE COVER FRONT reduced jpg‘Cruel Tide’ and ‘Fatal Reckoning’ are mainly character driven, despite the skull-duggery of the plots. The tension is not so much ‘who dunnit?’, but ‘would the wrong doers be brought to justice?’ There was little in the way of police procedure as neither of the two main characters were senior police people, and the police were more concerned with covering things up than searching for evidence.fatal_reck-front-cover-1

In the latest book, set in 2001 when everything about policing had changed, police behaviour and procedures are more central. The setting – the disastrous Foot and Mouth epidemic – is also vital, and now I wonder whether the delineation of character is as strong as before. As I re-write and ‘polish’ the question bothers me. In terms of ‘genre’ is this book quite different than the previous ones, and if it is, does that matter? It’s a good story, with enough twists and turns to keep things going. The body count is low – but that’s OK. I’m increasingly tired of dramas that need death after nasty death to sustain the reader’s engagement. After a while, whatever the professed authenticity of the setting, too many crime stories turn out like ‘Death in Paradise’ or ‘Midsomer Murders’. Or is that what happens when crime is adapted for TV? Is it ‘episodic’ presentation that causes the structure of the story to change? Surely what matters is not how many bodies are discovered, or even how they died, but why: what drives someone to attack another? Motive, opportunity, means, in that order. Or are we so jaded that we demand ever more violence?

My final final deadline for the current manuscript is within a day or two. Once the damn thing goes away to the editor I will celebrate for a few days before I have to think about it again. If I had a ‘publisher’ I might be able to relax a little for the next few months while the book makes it way to publication, but when you self-publish every aspect of what happens has to be organised and monitored by yourself. It’s exhausting! As my next big birthday approaches, I’m wondering – again – how much longer I want to carry on. I still have a list of things I enjoy and want to do – sewing, drawing, singing, keeping fit – all of which take time and commitment. The curse of writing is that it seems to squeeze out everything else. I have to give this dilemma some serious thought.

Do villains need likeable traits?

Maybe it’s the optimist or the humanist in me, or just naïveté, but I have trouble reading or writing about a character who is unquestionably and irredeemably wicked to the core.

I recognise that such characters are can be useful to a simple story.

baddy imageFrom pantomime onwards, everyone enjoys booing the villain and seeing her/his downfall, and the same is true of some modern psychological thrillers so that the fear can be cranked up as the ‘goodie’ (or ‘less baddie’) is faced with an implacable foe. Sometimes it’s their very badness that makes the character entertaining: the Devil in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is probably the most interesting being in the work. But I still prefer to introduce some nuances. Weakness in the villain may produce a lower level of fright, but it can add to the tension in more subtle ways.

 

My villain in my current ‘work in progress’ is a formidable person, brave, resourceful, risk-taking, committed to his vision of a family, even if that’s delusional. He is also violent, self-centred and unable or unwilling to consider the long-term outcomes of his behaviour.

boy in prison

Apparently this last is the fundamental flaw in many young men who find themselves incarcerated: a colleague of mine who worked with young offenders was struck by the high proportion who seemed not to understand the steps along the road that had led them to conviction and imprisonment.’How did this happen?’ was their cry, and the answer was found not in their own behaviour but in ‘bad luck’, conspiracies and the actions of others, not themselves. I think in ‘eduspeak’ it’s called ‘external attribution’ and is a factor in many negative outcomes for students.

If a villain is likeable at all, I can find the emotional and moral ambivalence which I’m after in both my reading and writing. My interest in seeing both sides of people and situations is not universal: it doesn’t, for example, encompass the current President of the United States for whom I cannot find anything but contempt. But almost everyone else has some traits that might be deemed likeable, or at least understandable.

I suspect that some of my readers like things to be more straight-forward, and are shocked to discover some of the frailties of characters they want to like. such as Jessie Whelan in my first novel ‘A Good Liar’. The title of that book was chosen deliberately as a play on ‘good’ in relation to lying: Jessie has to be an effective liar, but is still a good person. I expect those readers may be similarly anxious about feeling just a tiny bit sorry for a person who does bad things. Never mind. That’s just the way it’s going to be.

 

Learning on-line: does it work?

Late again this week with my regular blog post, mainly because much of my screen time has been taken up with a new on-line course, and it’s that experience I’ve been thinking about. I was attracted to it in the first place because it was so much easier and cheaper than schlepping down to London for something similar, finding a place to stay, dealing with a large group whose demands on the tutors always seem more pressing than mine – you know the story.

But cheaper things are often not worth the little you pay for them, so a week or two into it, what are my feelings so far? It’s a first for me, and I wasn’t sure at all. But so far, it’s been OK. It does what any good learning experience should do, make you think about what you’re doing by exposing you to alternatives, providing feedback which is useful as long as it’s specific, and encouraging you to change things and be more adventurous. The course, by the way, is called ‘An Introduction to Crime Writing’ and is with the Professional Writers Academy. The tutor is Tom Bromley, and the visiting ‘mentor’ is Sarah Hilary, a familiar name given her success with ‘Someone Else’s Skin’. Her book is one of those that we’ll be reading and discussing with her as a group exercise.

Other than that, the work is spread over four weeks and provides a succession of structured exercises: first week on ‘settings’, second on ‘developing character’, and so on. For each section we have some contrasting examples to look at and critique, and then a piece of our own to write using what we’ve learned, which is posted and critiqued by at least two others in the group.

What’s working so far? First, we were able to see Tom Bromley talking in a podcast in which he explained the course and introduced himself. It’s always useful to see and hear someone you’re dealing with on-line: without that, it’s very difficult to establish any form of relationship, especially when you are trusting that person to provide something worth both your time and your cash. We have audio interviews too with Sarah Hilary, although audio-only is less engaging. Second, the extracts and writing tasks are well-chosen and conducive to learning. In the second section, on Character, we’ve been offered three examples of ‘the detective’ – the genius who has a massive brain and works everything out; the meticulous plodder who just keeps doing the leg work until enough information is forthcoming; the flawed anti-social person who gets there by some bizarre route the rest of us would never consider. I’ve found those differences interesting, and helpful in deciding what kind of behaviour I want from my ‘detecting’ character. Today I’ll tackle the exercise in which we are asked to describe how our chosen ‘detective’ makes and eats his/her breakfast. What a great idea. As well as enriching the setting, both place and time, we can show so much through just watching and recording what happens in the mind’s eye.

Of course when you’re offered examples it’s tempting to mould your character to fit one of these ‘models’. The seduction of ‘genre formulae’ has to be resisted, even against the siren call of the latest block-buster. If a particular approach has worked and sold heaps of copies for someone else, last year, that’s no reason to attempt to replicate it, even though it might be reassuring to an agent. I had an interesting ‘conversation’ with Tom Bromley about ‘Someone Else’s Skin’ and what constitutes ‘success’, which I’ll come back to in a later post.

I’m enjoying the screen contact with some of the group members, although there are fewer of those than I was anticipating. Some have posted a picture and a detailed profile, others have not, although the privacy protections are strong. It’s easier to ‘talk’ to someone if you know where they’ve been and what they look like, isn’t it? We’re all reacting differently to both the extracts and the tasks, which makes for fewer assumptions about what’s ‘good’ or ‘clear’ for a reader, and that’s salutary for a writer.

One potentially unhelpful aspect is the quality of feedback available to any of us from the other participants who look at what we write. Surprisingly, no guidance is offered about what constitutes useful feedback, and how to react to it: it’s just assumed that we all know how to do it, and we don’t. I want to provide and receive specific detail, critical as well as positive. It takes longer to consider and to write, but if feedback is an essential part of the learning we should expect it to be quite rigorous, and some advice about this would be useful.

So far, so good. Compared to some of the writing groups and courses I’ve been on over the years, this is proving relatively useful. When an actual group works well, which involves good leadership as well as the accident of composition, the experience can be more intense than anything you could achieve on-line. But when a group doesn’t work well it can be immensely frustrating. I recall paying a lot of money and travelling many miles for a five day experience that was a model of what shouldn’t happen. It was a group for established writers but with no ‘filters’, so some of the members had no writing experience and had come only for a holiday. The group leaders were also inexperienced and badly prepared. One of them spent most nights drinking noisily with some of the group members. The following morning his apology for not having read our work – one of his duties – was all about what a great night it had been. After one day I absented myself from the group completely and got on with my writing, which I could have done without leaving home. Looking back on what I wrote that week I notice now how dark and violent it was!

 

Do our characters need to be ‘likeable’?

Every now and then I check to see if anyone has posted a review of my books on Amazon. Not that they  make any difference to sales – or do they? – but just out of curiosity. The reviews are usually good, I’m pleased to say, but one for ‘Forgiven’ was a 3 star and I checked it. Can’t recall the precise wording but the general gist was that the reader was unimpressed as he/she didn’t find any of the characters ‘sympathetic’. That’s OK: but I asked myself whether I had really tried to make my characters likeable, and what that would mean.

‘Likeability’, like beauty, is very much in the eye – or feelings – of the reader. Who and what we like depends on who are, our own life experiences and our view of the world. It is therefore unlikely that any one character would be liked by everybody who encountered them. In a novel there will be a wide range of characters to choose from, but even then it may be that none of them appeal to a particular reader, as in the case of my 3 star reviewer.

The only book I’ve read recently that presented me with such a panoply of unattractive people was Gillian Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’, which has been a runaway best-seller, despite my feeling that it relied for its tension on the reader’s detached curiosity about ‘whodunnit’ without actually caring at all, as none of the people involved were worth caring about. I couldn’t even finish it, but I assume I was in a minority. Then I began to wonder whether it matters. Do we need to like the characters for them to carry us through a novel? Can we care about them while still finding them unsympathetic?

The answer of course must be ‘Yes.’ Lear is a monster, Henchard stubborn and self-defeating, Emma vain and self-obsessed. In her own small way my heroine Jessie Whelan is a very difficult woman who creates most of her own crises. As one of my correspondents put it, ‘That Jessie – sometimes I could slap her.’ But without those flaws she could be flat and uninteresting, and her story less rich and worthy of the telling. John, her son, is portrayed as a young man damaged by the restrictions of his early life, awkward, distrustful, self-centred, although he is redeemed later by his love for Maggie and his children. On the other hand, two minor characters who appear in all three books and many of my readers enjoy are Hannah and Fred, who live at Mill Cottage in Boot. They both struggle with disability – the one-eyed woman and the one-legged man – and both rise above it with humour and unselfconscious enjoyment of their lives and each other. I loved writing about them, and mourned for Fred’s sad decline. In planning the current book I’m working hard to create rounded characters with weakness and challenges, not to make them likeable but to make them human. Even the villains can’t be all bad: they too need some redeeming features that drive their behaviour and provide a necessary ambivalence for the reader. Sympathy with the characters is not required, but a flicker of empathy helps to engage the reader, don’t you think?

Character, Complexity and Point of View

Weeks ago I thought the outline for Book 4 was almost finished: just the odd twist here. or an extra chapter there and it was done, waiting to be fleshed out in all its detail in the first draft. Then I had to step away for a while to focus on another project and when I returned to it, I lost confidence. Everything looked trite, predictable, and some of the characters felt wooden and two-dimensional.

So I controlled my impatience to get started, ready or not, and went back to basics, taking each of the characters and writing character studies: what does this person look and sound like, how do they dress, walk, eat? Where were they born and raised, what motivates them, what do they aspire to or fear? What will they do in certain situations, and ow will they relate to the other characters they encounter?

That’s a really useful exercise, but these deeper rounder characters are now so engaging that they demand many more pages to do them justice, and each wants their own voice, or ‘Point of View’.

I love the idea of multiple points of view, with even minor characters able to provide their individual perspective and version of events, but I’m wary of going down this road given the strict advice that accompanied the one – and only – professional critique of my writing, way back when the first novel was in its first iteration and I was floundering. ‘Keep it simple’ was the advice. Only two or three of your characters can be given a ‘Point of View’, so decide who they are and stick to it. To do otherwise runs the risk of confusing your readers and slowing down the plot.

Book 4 is my first attempt at a crime novel. I’ve taken the conventional stance – so far at least – of having two main characters on the side of ‘order and honesty’ but as time goes by I’m getting more interested in the ‘baddies’, without whom there is no tension, wrong-doing and resolution. If the ‘baddies ‘ are two-dimensional, the plot fails. Patricia Highsmith understood this: now I wonder whether I could take the risk of appearing amoral, as she can be described, by making the character of a central ‘baddy’ the driving force of the plot and its most engaging voice. I’d love to do that, but it could be a step too far for a first foray into a new genre. My readership so far trusts me not to shock or outrage them: they’re curious about my characters and want to like them. Would they feel betrayed by a detailed depiction of the despicable?

I think I’ll probably opt for safety this time, with two honest characters at the heart of the story, but I’ll also give depth and voice to at least one of the dishonest characters too, letting us see the complexities and ambivalence, and the flaws in our national life at the time when the story is set, which of course are still with us today. I want this book to be the start of a series, and that adds some pressures that I’ll explore in a future post. I’m still thinking about it.

 

What’s in a name?

I’m ploughing on with the outline of book no.4 and once again trying to think of new and interesting names for my characters. Some of them are already decided, drawn through from the previous books, but others keep changing as I change my mind. ‘Find and Replace’ is very handy at times like this.

Up to now I’ve chosen names in keeping with the Cumbrian west coast locations where the stories are set. I’ve found names on local gravestones, in newspapers of the periods and from people I know. But in the new book times are changing. More cars and greater social mobility have begun to break down the very tight communities and more incomers are around from other areas of the country.

Names do seem to mean a lot round here. They can be a source of jokes and teasing, or shortened to nicknames that stick longer than the name you were born with, some complimentary, some not. Some names, if you’re very unlucky, are truly unfortunate and you wonder what the parents who chose them were thinking of. I taught a girl in school once whose family name was Dyck. To compound the difficulty, the poor girl was named Coral. And the boy from the Hunt family who was called Michael, shortened to Mike….. he had a terrible time.

Dickens has some stunning names, long, memorable and eccentric. I wish I had the courage to follow suit. Maybe what I could do is give one character a name that somehow defines how people treat him and how he responds, which in turn will show the reader something about him.

For names of places, I’m struggling with the same dilemma I’ve faced before, as does every writer of ‘localised’ fiction. Do I use the names of real towns and villages and risk mistakes in geography and history, or do like Hardy and Dorset, describing known places but giving them new names, thus avoiding any need to be absolutely accurate in both time and place? In ‘A Good Liar’ I anonymised one of the communities – where I live myself – but presented others exactly as they were, with their proper names. It was awkward in some respects: I’ve had to deny readers’ requests for a map, for example because the mix of fact and fiction would be too confusing. In other respects, however, getting away from naming real places is liberating. You no longer have to worry about potential insult to the place and its inhabitants, and the need for detailed research fades a little.

The added problem I’m facing now is that there are bad deeds done by some in the story. When nice people populate a named place, that’s fine, but when the people are vicious, identifying the community is less welcome to present-day readers from the same area.

Don’t have to make final decisions yet, and I have a meeting with my editor shortly to discuss the rapidly expanding outline and the pros and cons of the options ahead. In the meantime, I’m trying to be a little more creative with naming my characters, and take as much care with that as I do with their appearance, habits and approach to life. I want to make my characters real ‘characters’.

Talking about my books

Tomorrow evening I’ll be talking to the ‘Friends of Whitehaven Museum’ about the Jessie Whelan trilogy, which has the overall title ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’. It could be quite a large group, some of whom may have read all three books and others may not even know of their existence. My appearance is part of their regular programme of speakers, and I guess I’ve been invited not as a writer but as someone who has researched and recorded slices of local history in fictional form.

So, I’m thinking: what should I talk to them about? The one thing we all have in common is the setting, and the meeting will take place just across the harbour from the site of the major backdrop event in Book 2, ‘Forgiven’, the explosion in the William Pit in August 1947 that claimed the lives of 104 local men and boys. Think of the impact of that on the local community: all those funerals, day after day, and the thousands of people whose lives were affected, children left without fathers, wives without husbands. I’ll tell them how I tracked down the transcript of the NCB report on the accident, including the accounts from the three men who survived, and how I researched another facet of ‘Forgiven’, the lives of the Displaced Persons in their camps in Cumberland in the years after World War Two. Book 3, ‘Fallout’ was set at the time of the nuclear reactor fire at Windscale, just south of Whitehaven, in 1957, and in doing the research for this book I accumulated far more detail than I could possibly have used in the story, much of which was not clear at the time, even to those who were working at the plant. That too will probably be part of what I share with the group. People are usually interested in the past history of where they live, especially when that history is as rich as ours.

As a writer I should be discussing the triumvirate of character, plot and setting, but talking about setting alone would take us far longer than the limited time I’ll have, and I must find time to say something about the process of turning local history into fiction, which presents another set of challenges worthy of conversation. I’ll try to explain how the characters were born and developed as I wrote about their lives, and how I have tried to have both setting and character drive the plot. Looking back, the process of writing looks far more rational and ordered than it felt for me at the time. I’m now learning more about how to structure and plan a work of fiction, but – in the words of the metaphor – the stable door is banging in the wind and the horse has long gone. Maybe it’ll make for a better effort for the next book. In the meantime I’ll reflect on what I thought and did at the time and not pretend that I consciously followed rules that I was mostly unaware of. Considering that admission. the books turned out better than they might have been.

I’m doing many talks to various groups around Cumbria over the summer, and each one will be different, which sounds inefficient but it’s the only way to keep things fresh. If the people I’m with seem willing to talk I’ll ask them right at the start to help me frame our discussion through their questions and interests. Managing those unanticipated expectations, adding important bits of my own and doing it all within a short time frame is enjoyably risky. It’s like really good teaching and I love it.