Sunday, July 6, 2014

Whose Line is it Anyway?

Last month I was invited to take party in several events in libraries around the UK in celebration of National Crime Reading Month. It always fascinates me, when I do these, the kind of questions that come up at the end. This time round it seemed to be one particular comment that sparked people’s curiosity.

I’d said, in a joky kind of way, that although one would expect that the author had absolute control over the world they create, in my experience that usually isn’t the case. Yes, I invent the framework, the location and the situation, but once I’ve put my characters down into those events, all bets are off. They have a tendency to take their own route and ignore whatever plans I might have had for them at the outset. And the more I try to force them into a preconceived course of action, the more uncooperative the character becomes — as anyone would if forced to do something they really didn’t want to do.

It’s normal, at this point, for me to see frowns among the audience, and it’s a tough one to explain. The only way I can do so is to liken it to sitting on a bus or a train and watching the other passengers. This is no hardship as people-watching tends to be a hobby for most writers, I think. If someone gets onto the bus/train and sits down near you, you instantly form an impression from their clothes, their manner, the way they move. There is a tendency among people asked to write a description of a character to attach hair and eye colour first, but unless someone has very startling or unusual eyes, I rarely notice that feature right away or even at all. Likewise, I’m more inclined to notice the cut rather than the colour of their hair, body type, and whether their shoes are polished.

But until they strike up a conversation, you only have a partial idea of who they are. I no longer try to write huge great character biographies for new characters, because I find that until they sit down next to me and utter that first sentence, we haven’t really been properly introduced.

This goes, too, for their backstory. Not only does it come out in their attitude, what they say, and how they say it, but also in what they share with you right from the off. If someone’s opening gambit is to tell you half the story of their life, you tend to edge away from them—make an excuse to get off at the next stop or take a trip to the buffet car and find a different seat on your return. Yet if they start slowly and make interesting conversation then you’re intrigued and that encourages you to find out more about them.

Of course, there are times when a character is not being forthcoming and then it’s handy to have some kind of mechanism for persuading them to talk. I came across this one recently, which is very useful. It involves the writer asking several questions of him or herself:

  • What does your character do to show their personality?
  • What does your character say to show their personality?
  • What does your character look like on the outside, and how does this show their personality?
  • How does the character change or what lessons do they learn?

Given a choice I would also add to this:

  • What does your character want in the context of this story/scene and what’s preventing them from getting it?
  • How do they set about getting it?
  • How do they react to victory or defeat?

I’m still not sure if I managed to get this across to my audiences, but at least they waited politely until the end of the talk before they made their excuses and left. And many more stayed to ask further questions, which is always a good sign … I think. Either that or it shows I failed to explain myself to any degree whatsoever.

Now, where’s the buffet car …?

This week’s Word of the Week is proclitic, meaning a word pronounced with so little emphasis it becomes part of the following word, such as t’was, where the first word — it — has been swallowed up by the second. This originated in the mid 19th century, from modern Latin procliticus (from Greek proklinein 'lean forward'). Likewise, enclitic, meaning a word that follows on so closely it’s become part of the preceding word, such as not in can’t.


  1. Knowing the way your characters can carry on I thought from the title this was about a cocaine bust.

    All I have to say about this week's word is, "Aha! So that's what proclitic means."

    1. Hey, and you promised you'd give me that alibi, Jeff ...

  2. I'm going to venture WAY out on a limb (about 6" from the trunk) and say that you're a pantser and not a plotter, Zoë.

    And all this time I thought proclitic had to do with attitudes about women's sexuality. Damn, that's the SECOND time I've been wrong this year.

    1. Ah, well, actually I'm a bit of both, Everett. I like to plot the structure, but leave the reactions of the characters to unfold in a more organic way.

      And no, organic has nothing to do with ... ah well, never mind ... :)

  3. Here's my ha'penny worth....(proclitic or what!!) I think that writer's block is when writers try and force characters to do things that are... well..not in character...

    1. I'd agree, Caro. If I have to herd my characters onward with a whip and a chair, I know I'm probably trying to send them in the wrong direction.