Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Psychology of Characters

The writer’s relationship with their characters is a fundamental component of a successful story. The strength of those characters says a lot about the story and how they interact with other characters, but more importantly, it’s essential to focus on the motivations behind what they do, and why.
The psychology of characters isn’t about doing a character outline. A character outline is, in a nutshell, characterisation – the little things that make your character multidimensional, such as the colour of their hair, their eyes, skin, how tall they are, their fashion sense, their nationality, their beliefs, likes and dislikes, flaws and so on. Character traits make a character. It doesn’t tell us why they act the way they do.
The psychology of characters, therefore, goes much deeper than mere likes and dislikes etc. It’s about what truly drives the character and, consequently, the story. It’s all well and good having a character that has lots of recognisable character traits and so on, but it means nothing if the he or she lacks the essentials that drive that character to act in the first place.
There are certain elements that provide the building blocks to a character’s physiological make up, and from a simple story perspective, these are set out below:
Motivation – Every main character must have motivation. In other words, it means that there is ultimately a specific goal to achieve. Motivation is what drives the character.
When pushed, people are capable of many things; things that are sometimes ‘out of character’. We are motivated by many things - many influences, experiences or situations, and we act upon them.
Primary Goal – This is the very reason the story is created, to find out why the character sets about on his or her journey. The main character will have a primary goal, which he or she will need to achieve by the end of the story. That goal could be anything, but it must be reached, whatever happens, so the incentive is strong and palpable.
If there is no primary goal, there is no story. There may also be other goals – these would be considered secondary goals, and again, it’s important such goals are reached by the conclusion of the story, because if they are satisfactorily closed out, what would be the point of the story?
Through the course of trying to reach that goal, the character will undergo series of actions and reactions, mostly because of a combination of obstacles to overcome – deliberately placed in the way of the main character to stop him or her achieving the main goal - and the resulting conflict that it creates.
Actions and Reactions – the character’s actions as the story unfolds are an important indicator of his or her psychology. As mentioned above, actions and reactions normally happen through conflicts. In other words, the motivation, the need to reach that goal, the obstacles in the way that must be overcome all lead your main character to act and react, depending on the situation and the people.
If someone steals something from you, then it’s very likely you are going to react in a certain way, or if someone threatens or attacks you, then you will act or react in a certain way. How we act and react is down to our individual personalities. This is not dissimilar from cause and effect.
Another factor to consider is the past. What has happened in the past often drives us in the present. It serves as a foundation to behaviour traits, hence certain actions and reactions from characters.
So motivation, the primary goal and the actions taken by a character during the story play an integral role in understanding and developing the psychology of your main characters.
Personalities are one thing, but the psychology of any character always goes much deeper than that.

Next week: The primary causes of character conflict

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Is Backstory Necessary?

To answer that question, firstly we have to define what backstory is. There are plenty of variations on what it means, but in simple terms, backstory refers to your character’s background story, that which precedes the present events in a novel.
It’s about the things that have occurred in the past to shape the way your character behaves in the present. Every character has a back story, just as every person in real life has a history. What has happened to us in our lives – from early childhood to adulthood - has shaped how we behave, how we think and how we react to certain things. Some elements are very happy, some are sad, some are traumatic or problematic, some crazy.
Your main character will also have gone through childhood into adulthood and will have experienced various things that shape they way they think and influence the way the act and react in certain situations, but the crucial question is whether backstory is actually necessary.
The best way to answer that is to look at the fundamental reason your character goes about the story acting the way he or she does. This is down to motivation. What motivates your character to do something or react to something or someone? What motivates them to reach their goal? Often, but not always, the answer lies in the past. That’s when back story becomes a useful tool.
Back story should be pertinent only if you have to show the reader something from the main character’s past in order to explain certain behaviours happening in the present story, the kind of things that you wouldn’t be able to explain in a few paragraphs.
There is another valid reason for backstory. It helps to establish a connection between character and reader. It is true in life that the more you get to know someone, the more likely it is you will like that person. The same is true for fiction. By allowing the reader to gain a little more background knowledge about your main character, the better. Backstory helps with this kind of characterisation.
The good thing about backstory is that you don’t have to show lots of it. Either small amounts at a time or snippets sprinkled throughout the narrative are enough for the reader.
How is backstory shown?
There are various ways to do this without it making it look like obvious, stilted exposition or a huge info dump, since readers don’t like them and can be particularly put off by large chunks of boring information.
One way is to use flashback, either through a direct flashback scene or by the character reminiscing about a past event. This is where flashbacks prove useful. They don’t have to be long – flashbacks can be a few paragraphs – but the dip into the past provides insight into the present.
Another way is to slowly drip feed snippets into the narrative, slowly weaving them into the story, this avoiding both flashback and prologues. It also avoids unnecessarily swamping the narrative with too much information in one go.
This ‘weaving’ process is far more palatable for the reader and if done correctly, they will barely realise that the writer is showing backstory.
Another way is to use prologues, but these are now falling out of fashion simply because they are considered large ‘info dumps’ and can be more of a hindrance than a help. They are not the best way to get your story off to a good start, so the use of these would need careful consideration.
Another method for delivery of backstory is dialogue, where characters talk about past aspects (in order to explain the present situation or events or behaviours etc.).  But a word of warning here – many writers fall into the trap of ‘explanation exposition’. In other words, it sounds like two characters are simply discussing something to explain stuff that the writer wouldn’t be able to do without info dumping.
This occurs a lot in movies, when a character starts explaining all sorts of stuff to another character for no real reason other than to tell the audience, but in truth, the audience are not that stupid.
For example, would the bad guy really stop mid-way through killing his victim and explain why he was killing him or her, or how he came to this moment? Of course he wouldn’t.  Or what about the classic villain and hero cop stand off? The villain has to explain everything to the cop just before trying to kill him. That would not happen in real life. So don’t let fall into the same trap.
Let your backstory reveal itself naturally through dialogue; don’t force it.
Most novels will have a mix of flashback, the dialogue technique and snippets woven throughout the narrative to provide the most effective delivery of backstory, and if done correctly, a very effective way of letting the reader know the nature and motivation of the main character(s).
It’s not to be underestimated, but writers should think carefully about how they want to deliver backstory, but most important, why.
Next week: The Psychology of Characters

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Creating Lasting Images

Writers are always striving to ensure that their stories leave a lasting impact upon their readers because if they can do that, then there is every chance the reader will come back for more.
One of the ways that writers can leave the reader with the idea that they have read the most incredible novel, a story that, whatever the genre, leaves them believing the story and the characters, is to make use of lasting images.
Lasting images act as memory markers for readers. Think of some of the most memorable movies – certain scenes or images remain with us, because they are so strong or vivid or surreal, so we remember them. Literature works in the same way. By creating lasting images, the writer is creating instances that make it memorable and not easily forgotten. That’s how many of the great novels have remained in our subconscious.
We create the kind of lasting images that will stay with the reader, and that’s down to the strength of the description and characters. For example, some of the most well known books have created lasting images. Here's a few examples:
Jaws – One of the most memorable scenes that Peter Benchley created for Jaws involved a swimmer at the beginning of the story, unaware of the huge shark skulking just beneath the surface. Benchley uses fear and visceral description to create a lasting image that stays with the reader.
Carrie – Not many people can forget the scene at the Prom where Carrie is crowned prom queen, unaware of the joke about to befall her. The pig’s blood streaming down her face and body creates a lasting image, cleverly constructed to invoke disgust (the sight of the blood), sympathy (with Carrie’s treatment and torment) and a dislike for the perpetrators. It’s vivid and strong and uses colour and fear to make a lasting mental image.
Lord of the Flies – William Golding uses a wild pig’s head mounted on a wooden stake to symbolise the deterioration of group dynamics among the boys stranded on an island after an air crash.  Slowly the flesh rots and the flies gather to infest it. The image Golding creates is so evocative that one could almost smell that rotting, decaying flesh.  It provokes the reader, it creates emotions like horror and disgust, it creates fear within the characters and so it makes us remember the story – it has done its job.
2001 A Space Odyssey – The image of the mysterious monolith stays with the reader because Arthur C. Clark maximises our interest and mood with its power and mystery. Even though the object is static and doesn’t move, he created a lasting, tangible mental image for the reader.
Why create such images?
It’s our job, as writers, to make sure the reader not only enjoys the story we create, but also remembers it, or most elements of it. The story should leap from the pages of your book, such images should make the reader sit up and take notice.
Like movies, we tend to remember certain images, be them funny, shocking, emotional, intense or surreal. In fiction writing we do that by evoking reactions within the reader – the sensory, psychological and emotional reactions, because a mental image is a composite of all the various elements we can descriptively put together, encompassing senses like touch, taste or smell, but also mood and atmosphere, vivid or visceral description or heightened emotions and the use of colours.
Writers use all this to provoke a reaction within the reader. Such strong images contain certain motifs, symbols or metaphors. Think of Golding’s pig’s head – a symbol of the beast, or the colour of the blood that is poured over Carrie. The colour symbolises life and death. The monoliths in 2001 are a metaphor for intelligence and destruction.
By tapping into the reader’s subconscious, these examples proved to be memorable. So when you write certain key scenes, make them memorable, make them vivid, make them stand out, and create a lasting mental image that stays with the reader, so that ultimately they will keep coming back for more.

Next week: Is back story necessary?

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Trust Your Memories

Memories are an amazing resource for writers, if a little underused.
Writers don’t always feel confident enough with their memories, since not all of them are pleasant, yet such recollections can have a noticeable effect on the narrative in a number of ways.
Writers love to write about what they know, simply because the knowledge allows them to share that experience with the reader. A writer’s experiences not only underpin background information with a sense of realism, but it can also enhance the themes within the story.
Why use our memories?
Memories are a deep well of ideas and information. They provide information we would normally have no knowledge about, and of course, they are very individual. But memories can be called upon because of their varied nature - they can be good, bad, painful, fun, joyous, informative...and everything else in between. Most of all, they can provide any narrative with plenty of support that may not be possibly found in a library or via the internet.
Think of the main themes that run through most novels – pain, betrayal, deceit, loss, hatred, love...we all have a pool of emotions to help embellish a particular scene because most of us will have experienced pain in its various forms, betrayal of some kind, deceit in one form or another, hatred of something or someone or love of something or someone. We can relate to the emotions associated with these themes because we may have experienced them, therefore it’s much easier to help the reader relate to the story and the characters in much the same way.
Using memories also works well with the background to a story, too. If a writer has worked in a particular field or has experience of a certain profession, this can help provide solid detail, be it a medic, a journalist, a firefighter, a secretary or even a full time parent. Many writers are well travelled and can use their knowledge of places in their writing, which doesn’t have to be on a huge scale. It can be the smallest things that we remember that make a specific scene stand out, such as the distinct scent of the ocean, the sounds of a thunderstorm, the eeriness of a forest, or other stimuli such as colours or sounds.
The devil is in the detail, as they say. The little details count in fiction. It’s a great way of enhancing description of narrative or even dialogue.
Why Do Memories Work?
As writers, if we can think back to how we felt at a particular time, the emotions associated with it, and if we can translate those to the narrative, it helps bring the story closer to your reader, it makes it real for them.  If they feel the pain, the betrayal, or the deceit, or if they feel the emotion of loss, or hatred or love, then we have done our job – we have drawn them in and played their emotions. We have manipulated them, and writing is all about manipulation.
Using the vast bank of memories we possess can be a great tool. There will always be a scene that requires us to elicit empathy and feeling or that tangible strand that connects you to your reader. And that’s what we ultimately want – to be able to move the reader, and we do that by using emotion.
Emotion is the quickest, most direct route to a reader’s heart. Emotion is a universal sentiment – we all experience it. Emotions play an important part in the human psyche, so those strong, powerful sensations will always find common ground.
If you can use your memories, do so. Memories make for a much better story where emotions are concerned.
Relate to the reader – create immediacy and a connection to the reader through emotion, because they will have experienced the same things your main character are going through. Various emotions enhance the narrative in a powerful way, on many different levels. If you are an incredibly jealous person and one of your characters has this problem, then give them that added dimension and show the reader what that feels like.
Realism helps to inject a sense of authenticity into the narrative.
Enhance the narrative with the kind of information that readers wouldn’t necessarily know, using your own recollections of places and people and events. Details always matter, in small doses, the kind of details that you can call upon.
Background information is a useful backdrop and memories help provide a solid background.
Make the most of the varied associations from your memories. Trust them – they can help to provide your descriptions with an emotional punch.

Next week: Creating lasting images.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Reading Your MSS Out Loud

Have you ever read your MSS out loud?
This is probably one of the strangest snippets of advice out there for budding writers, but although it sounds rather crazy, it’s one of the best tried and tested methods that do actually work. It helps writers find out just how good their novel is.
What does it do?
At editing and redrafting stage writers read through their manuscripts dozens and dozens of times and it’s very easy for the writer to become too involved or blinded to spot what would be considered mundane errors. Not only that, there is a tendency for writers to rush through the reading after the second or third draft (since they know the story so well) and so subtle, almost invisible errors are missed.
Instead of just silently reading and making edits, reading aloud allows the writer to become involved with the story on a different level – immediately it slows the writer down because they are forced to read every single word, every line and every paragraph.
Reading aloud helps the writer to ‘listen’ to the narrative and the description.
Immediately it will become clear whether the narrative flows smoothly, whether the pace is varied, whether it stutters or whether some words work or not. It will become clear whether there is too much description or lack of it. Some sentences look great when writing them, but reading aloud shows up those overly long sentences, or the complicated sentences that just don’t make much sense.
Also, the writer gets to understand if the flow of dialogue is okay, whether the characters are talking sense, and that it moves the story along. If there is something not quite right with the sentences, then it’s likely the reader will trip over clunky sentence structures or the boring, stilted dialogue.
Not only that, but long sections of narrative or description have a habit of boring the reader, so this is something that reading aloud will show up with certain clarity.
Because reading out loud forces the writer to slow down, it’s possible for the writer to not only notice how well the story reads, that it makes sense, but that it shows up the silly mistakes which are easily glossed over without realising, things such as missing words in sentences, which render the sentences awkward, missing punctuation or incorrectly spelled words that fool the brain into thinking they are correct, such as ‘teh’ instead of ‘the’.
It will be also be easier to spot words that are incorrect, but look or sound similar to the one you had in mind during writing, such as  ‘too’ and ‘to’ or even ‘two’, or ‘plane’ and ‘plain’.
Why does it work?
Writing, but nature, is a silent task; silent in the sense that every word that passes through the writer’s mind and is translated to the screen is done in silence, so the entire story is never read in quite the same way a reader would. Even at editing stage, writers silently read to themselves. Not only that, but when a writer works on a novel, he or she becomes very close to both the story and the characters and it’s a universal truth that it’s very hard to separate objectively from the whole thing.
Reading aloud, however, allows the writer to move away from the persona of ‘writer’ and step into the shoes of the reader. It helps the writer develop their ability to ‘listen’ to the narrative. Reading it is one thing, but hearing it is another thing entirely. If a writer learns to listen to it, then he or she gains a better understanding of writing and they can therefore improve it.
Reading aloud is one of the best ways to properly read your book. It’s crazy at first, but it makes you think about how it truly sounds to a reader who simply wants to be swept away by your story. Moreover, it improves your authorial voice and ultimately helps you become a better writer.
Next week: Trust your memories – how they help your writing