I was really looking forward to this week’s lesson because it is all about character development and openings. From my writing endeavours I feel the least confident about character development and fleshing out characters in general. With some characters in my stories I know exactly who they are and every minute detail about them whereas with others – usually my female protagonists – tend to be a murky version of myself or who I think they should be in relation to the male protagonist. I worry that they will be a diluted form of an overused female trope or just outright boring. So if you have similar concerns when writing, or just want great tips in general, keep reading 🙂
This time I was ready for the 10 minute warm up writing session at the start of the class. Jen introduced us to the concept of ‘free write’ or ‘free writing’. You may or may not be familiar with this, but this is basically writing without any set goal in mind. It’s all about letting your writing flow or indulging in a bit of word vomit. Jen however provided some direction/a topic to start free writing from (otherwise I think we might have struggled to write anything remotely coherent): ‘I used to think, but now I know.’ I enjoyed this a lot and everything pretty much splurged straight out of my head onto paper. Jen said she does 10 minutes of free writing every morning/day. So if I can manage it, will be attempting to do this too 🙂
Writing Session – ‘I used to think, but now I know.’
I used to think I could have it all. I used to think that I would be destined for greatness. I used to think that all these things would be handed to me, that they would come to me without question. I used to think I could conquer all. I used to think that my character, my integrity, who I am, what I am capable of, would be apparent for everyone to see. I used to think I could have it all, give it all, take it all. I used to think I was great. I used to think my talents were the best. I used to think I was talented. I used to think love would conquer me. I thought I knew what I was doing. I used to think I knew where I was going. I used to think all things great would come my way. I used to think I could always have it my way. I used to think I was the best I could be. I used to think that no one could outshine me. I used to think my destiny was great. I used to think my future would hold the world.
Now I know the reality. Now I know the darkness. Now I know the pain. Now I know how it feels to be out of touch. Now I know how it feels to be alone. Now I know how it feels to be back at square one. Now I know how it feels to fail. Now I know how it feels to be at the bottom. Now I know how foolish greatness is. Now I know that I will have to settle for mediocrity. Now I know that happiness is impossible. Now I know that love will not conquer all. Now I know that people are an illusion. Now I know that my hopes and desires will amount to nothing. Now I know that I am a meaningless speck in the universe. Now I know what it means to struggle. Now I know what it means to never be satisfied. Now I know what it means to want nothing. Now I know what it means to desire everything. Now I know what it means to be nothing.
Openings – why are they important? They are important because it is pretty much the first opportunity you have to hook the reader. In an age when you are in competition with TV, mobile, tablets, computers – the INTERNET basically – for people’s attention, the first page of your story is rather critical. The fact that someone has even booked up a book or a piece of literature to read is rather miraculous to be honest. You don’t have a lot of time to convince the reader, so the opening first line / paragraph needs to hook them fast.
What is a good first line? Jumping into some kind of conflict, action or drama is usually a good start. You need to present enough intrigue via conflict to pique the reader’s interest. It doesn’t need to be a climactic first sentence (because if you present the climax of your story at the start it can only go down from there really…), and you don’t need to go overboard with it either. It should be active, tense and presenting some sort of conflict/insight into a potential conflict to hook the reader.
5 of the most famous openings in literature ❤
Jen presented us with the following as examples of great openings:
1) Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
This first sentence is provocative and has an element of universality to it. Most people can relate to something in this sentence. It alludes to the variable nature and complexity of familial relationship. There is also a slightly ominous tone and intrigue is sparked with end of the sentence in its reference to unhappiness.
2) A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
This is one of my favourite openings of all time. The contradiction or juxtaposition between dark and light / life and death immediately sucked me in and makes me feel as though the narrator/main character has the world’s problems on their shoulders. Again, it also has some sort of universality to it. As an opening sentence it really raises the stakes – the fact it is written absolutely beautifully also helps as well I’m sure 🙂 🙂 🙂
3) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
This is another one of my favourites! It is weird, intriguing and wonderful, but also ominous, presents something off about the character and provides a level of detail into the setting/time that you are immediately sucked into the period of the 1950s.
4) Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
I have yet to read this book (but it’s on my reading list and it’s very famous so I would assume most people know the plot line). According to Jen, this is a really great first line because it works twice. The first level on which it works is that it intrigues the reader. Who is Lo-lee-ta? And why is the name given so much dedication and attention? The second level on which it works is that it alludes to the narrator’s obsessive and somewhat creepy nature. It works on this second level because on completion of the novel, the extent of the narrator’s – Humbert’s – full-out obsession and lust-crazed desire for a 12 year-old is revealed. And so, because it goes full circle in many ways back to this first sentence and illuminates the greater depth of meaning it has to the rest of the story, this opening line works twice. And that’s why this is a very good first opening line indeed.
5) The Stranger by Albert Camus
“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”
This is a very strange opening and can reveal many aspects of the narrator/protagonist – are they in some state of grief or psychosis? Are they an unreliable narrator? How can one be unsure of when their mother died? Whatever the reason, it provides an element of intrigue to draw the reader in.
The No-Return Method
To get some saucy opening lines, Jen advises using the No-Return Method. This method involves creating rather high stakes from the onset so that the protagonist is placed into a tension/conflict scenario and is faced with a point of no return, and thus has no choice but to go forth. It needs to be tense enough that it provides intrigue for the reader, but not expose everything so the reader no longer needs to read on.
A lot of young writers make the mistake of explaining too much in the opening and this kills intrigue and momentum. In reality, readers need to know very little about a character’s background of the book this early on. You have the rest of the book to talk about the character and their story so you don’t need to put it all on the first page! Other mistakes young writers make include not starting in the action on the first page/chapter, starting with a huge climax (it is better to start with small hook and build up so you don’t burn out quickly) and getting ahead of the reader – the first line shouldn’t be confusing for the reader and should make sense on its own.
In summary, key points to remember when writing the first sentence of your story or working on your opening are:
- The opening should have a distinct voice, POV, rudimentary plot and some hint of characterisation. The first sentence should be active, tense and present the conflict. By the end of the first paragraph you should be telling us about the setting and conflict and building momentum – this doesn’t have to be a huge dramatic thing. There just needs to be enough tension and a slight in.
- It’s important to have good hook; this doesn’t have to be a huge bombastic thing – it can be something small that hints at what’s to come.
- Always remember that you’re working towards something. You don’t have to expose everything in the first line or paragraph.
- It’s also good to start with a little bit of mystery, especially if the main protagonist is confused. It makes the narrator and reader partner work together to understand the story and see it unfold.
Character: a person, animal or figure in literary work.
Some characters start out as highly developed and we know a lot about them, whereas other characters develop over the course of the story and we see another side of them through a chain of events. It is up to you, as the author, as to how much you want readers to interact with your character.
If your characters are feeling somewhat hazy, Jen presented some activities to do to get to know your character:
- Think about what would happen if you, the author, went out to lunch with your character.
- Put your character in various scenarios and see what they would do.
- You can also journal as a character/s to find out more about them. This helps you, the author, to know get to know your character/s very intimately.
Another sound piece of advice:
Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralysed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
This is a brilliant point. Characters NEED TO WANT SOMETHING. This moves the plot along – there should be obstacles to the thing they want which prompts them to go on a journey to get what they want.
Type of Character
- Major/central – character who is at the centre of the plot and the story unfolds around them
- Minor – complement the major character and help to move the plot along
- Dynamic – they change over time, usually as a result of conflict/major crisis and are part of the central cast of characters
- Static – do not change over the course of a story and serve as a prop or function
- Round – characters who have a complex personality and usually portrayed as contradictory or conflicted
- Flat – characters are opposite of Round characters; they are used as a literary device to represent one characteristic and are sometimes Stock characters
- Stock – these are archetypes/well-established tropes; they are instantly recognisable characters to readers because they are conventional and because of their repeated use e.g. mad scientist, femme-fatale (this type of character should be avoided using as the protagonist at all costs)
- Protagonist – this is the main character faced with the conflict that must be solved; they can be deeply/tragically flawed – they are just central to story
- Antagonist – represents the opposition to the protagonist; they are a good way to show what the protagonist doesn’t do and essentially serves as an obstacle to the protagonist
- Anti-hero – normally the main character (protagonist) and their struggle for values not deemed universally admirable
- FOIL – other central characters which provide a contrast to the protagonist – it is more realistic for a protagonist to be surrounded by characters that are not like them; it is unlikely for a protagonist to be surrounded be like minded people all the time and people find this juxtaposition interesting
- Symbolic – this is the use of character to embody symbolic values/idea/concept; they are less of a person/character and more of an idea, theme, social value, symbol e.g. Lord of the Flies – piggy represents modern colonisation and Jack symbolises violence etc.
Naturally these character types are not mutually exclusive and they do not all have to be in a story.
How the hell do we make an interesting character?
Below is a pretty thorough character sketch/framework that you can use to establish your character/s:
- Physical attributes/appearance/presentation
- Name and age – and provide context to this e.g. teenagers dating in 1950s would be very different to teenagers dating today, setting and environment are key influences
- Back story – e.g. friends, family, where they grew up, status, class/wealth etc. All this is going to affect who they are and how they behave. Who are the main character’s inner circle of friends? How is this going to inform their character? Think about what your character lacks – will this show up later in another character?
- Speech – not all people speak the same way or have the same gestures; some people speak very quietly or mutter; speech reflects where they grew up – if you know how you’re character talks will make the dialogue much stronger
- Character’s goals – sometimes this drives the whole story; what’s their motivation/drive/makes them feel worthwhile/what they want out of life/what they consider important; this is going to reflect/communicate how they behave
- Nemesis (their enemy) – most people have someone who they can’t stand; this might not be central to the plot but it is good to know who this is. What bugs the main character? What don’t they like?
- Position in the world – this informs their personality; what does your character do for a living? What is daily life like? What are they in relation to other people? What qualities do they have? This shows how they walk through the world and depicts the political and social origin of the story
- Skills and abilities – their strengths; what do they do well and how are they going to call on these throughout the plot? How did they get good at it? Typically characters are not born with it. How does it manifest in everyday life?
- Mannerisms – do they have mannerisms or quirks unique to them? Establish this early on and use well later in the story as a signifiere. a signal. You do this by attaching a mannerism to a feeling e.g. biting nails as a signifier of being nervous. Later on you would just have to use the biting nails part without having to state that the character was nervous, as the reader would already be aware of this.
- Vices – this could be anything from online shopping, gambling etc. everyone has one – this gives the character flaws and their depth comes from this
- Pet peeves – what behaviours/little things annoys your character?
- Daily schedule – it is important to have this as it establishes the character; it also helps to keep the author on track – it is important to feel that the character existed before your story – they have some kind of routine/schedule – you can’t carelessly throw them into any scene that you want – you need to establish their life before you can effectively disrupt it!
10 ways to reveal character
The two main avenues to reveal character are:
- Direct: author tells you e.g. Lindsey is shy
- Indirect: reader surmises what the character is like based on their actions
- By psychological description
- By physical description
- By probing what they think
- By what they say
- By how they say it
- By what they do
- By what others say about them
- By their environment
- By his/her reaction to others
- By reaction to him/herself
So we covered a lot of ground in this lesson. I hope you have found all the tips in this helpful because so far I’m finding this course immensely useful and have really started to feel that it has enabled me to improve my writing not only on paper, but in the way I structure things in my head and when I think about character and plot etc.
Prep for next week: WRITE THE FIRST CHAPTER OF THE NOVEL I AM WORKING ON EEEEKKKK. Lesson 4 is a workshop lesson. Jen will be reading out our submitted pieces anonymously to the class and discussing and then providing feedback 1:1. So my blog post next week will be slightly different but nonetheless informative I hope!