Newcastle Writers Festival 2013: Creating Character

Finally the adventures continue! I attended the inaugural Newcastle Writers Festival at the beginning of the month and it was absolutely wonderful. The first session I attended of the day was titled Getting to Know You: Creating Character, hosted by Ed Wright with Courtney Collins, Ryan O’Neill, and Patrick Cullen on the panel.

Aside from Ed Wright I had not heard of any of these authors, though I had been eying off their books moments earlier in the bookstore. Courtney Collins is a debut author who was discussing her book The Burial; Patrick Cullen talked a bit about his book of stories What Came Between, while short story author and new favourite Scotsman turned Novocastrian, Ryan O’Neill introduced his book of short stories The Weight of a Human Heart? Each of these authors managed to provide insightful and useful advice about how you come up with and develop characters, whether they are based on real people like Courtney’s, or whether you are trying to start fresh like Patrick and Ryan.

Everyone was a very good speaker; they handled Ed’s questions well. I do not know whether these authors could do this before the writing process, or whether once you write a book the ability to talk about it is easier. They all sounded so confident and fluid in their ability to discuss things on a panel. I can’t say I would be able to find half the intelligence and meaningful things they said if I was up there. I have to say though I do find it easier to discuss my work when I have worked on it a lot and become proud of it. The same most certainly applies here, even more so.

The hour long talk focused on the concept of creating character, and how and what characters become in the writing process. Courtney told us she used nature and the placing of a scene in order to reveal more about a character, this is a very interesting technique. She said that her characters were formed through their relationship with the landscape and their actions around it; characters can discover themselves through the landscape, as well as the readers discovering the character. I can’t say I had ever thought of it consciously, or really noticed it, but we all know about the notion we must show and not tell, but to show through the setting rather than action or consequence was enlightening.

For Patrick, his said he liked to represent and develop characters by their psychology rather than their physical characteristics. In a world where stories are prone to having the “description paragraph”, or odd references such as “flicking my long brown hair” jutting out of sentences, it was wonderful to see this continuing to be challenged. Patrick said something that I thought was rather wonderful; he said there’s reality in the representation of characters through psychology over appearance. Of course, in real life you must find out who a person actually is by discovering who they are as a person, not just about their green eyes and height, why is it it not the same for characters?

Ryan’s approach is that the story comes first. He told us that if you have an interesting storyline, then that can create interesting characters. Quirks and obsessions, whether their lives are going to be miserable or happy can develop through how the story is going to treat them. Ryan also notes it is easier, or at least more fun, to write stories with miserable characters rather than happy ones. I agree with this idea, there is a lot more you can work with as well when life is not going that well. 

The talk naturally drifted to where characters come from, as well as how they are represented and Ed asked where inspiration comes from. The responses where very interesting: Patrick helps create his characters using his own experience, with an added twist, while Ryan draws his characters from his plot. Patrick said that his character interactions can actually define the plot, and this I understand completely. How characters interact with one another can shape your plot in ways you hadn’t thought, these expeditions of discovery are great.

Patrick, Ryan, Cassandra, and Ed

Patrick, Ryan, Courtney, and Ed

What is always wonderful about talks and seminars like this is that you are always exposed to a range of techniques and styles. Whatever ideas and systems you had in place for your own writing, hearing about other authors makes you realise that there are many directions and you do not need to be stuck with one way of writing if you do not want to. I certainly don’t think you could then set out to essentially adapt another writer’s character voice and style as your own, but you can examine the angle they have approached for this character’s story, what their lives were and their history, how has it shaped the voice they are showing in the story. By studying how someone has managed to find their writer’s voice, and the voice and manner of their character, you too can try and start placing the right voice with the right character.

Ryan said that you should not expect to have found a voice in your first draft, and voice has the ability to create itself in a way that is needed for the kind of story you are writing, changing and developing as the story continues to grow. He agrees with Patrick that complicated is more interesting than simple, but naturally most things are.

Ryan also talked about his short stories and how a writer needs to know about balance. There is not a lot of room to develop complete characters in short stories and writers need to know the balance between the right amount and making the story too long, running the risk of boring your reader who wanted the story to end three pages earlier.

I have always been an admirer of people who write short stories, I have tried a few over the years, but when I read authors like Neil Gaiman or Angela Carter, or now Ryan O’Neill, I wonder how they manage to say so much, with such intensity, such humour, in such limited space. This is one of the key reasons why having good characters and story can tell the narrative for you, without the need for complex and long descriptions and character back stories. I am now inspired to go find more to read, also to start writing my own again. Too many Nano’s and ideas for novels has neglected the art of the short story in my life I think.

What I love about listening to authors talk is I get to sit there gaining ideas and inspiration, but also I get a small confirmation that I am not alone. Not to get all existential and wondrous about humanity at this time, but knowing other people do the things you do, and think the things you do is a very comforting thought. I am not all for creating duplicates for us all, we need people who try and tell stories with graphs, and we need people who will bring history alive in fictional reality, but when you are beginning and unsure about whether any one will ever read anything you write, seeing someone successful have even the smallest similarity to you is a big boost and encourager.

So as I sat and listened to these authors discuss where they find their characters and what they like to do with them I was reflecting back on the hundreds of people and ideas I have created and journeyed with in my stories. I have written about a girl who wanted to own a lion cub in the African savannah, I have had a man who tried to encapsulate the writing process for a bet, twisted fairy tale characters of the past, I have created young romance and torn apart a family, explored torment and the delusion of obsession, and I have made mafia dwarfs. All of these characters have come from somewhere, where? I had never sat down and thought about it exactly.

I know a few stories in the early years of my life were pretty much my young primary school self, putting all her hopes and desires on a page, tea parties with Eeyore and Winnie the Pooh, finding a lion cub to raise as my own, winning the lottery and buying a mansion to fill with all the dogs I wanted, even the approach I took as I grew older of putting my own opinions and values through certain characters. This I now see as slightly impractical and it doesn’t give you a chance to expand your sights and see things from another person’s point of view. I understand what Patrick was saying though, you are the writer, of course there is inevitably going to be some elements of yourself in these characters, no matter how much you may feel they are your opposite or someone who you never would be. This should not stop you from trying, the greatest joy is embodying these people who are nothing like you, giving you a chance to be someone else and feel what it is like to see things through their eyes, the same as reading about various people and lives. Even now as I write I still occasionally slip in parts of myself through a character or a memory turned to plot, but I have learnt in the years following those early stories, that the ability to alter what you already know is a greater challenge than just plucking something from thin air, or simply dictating who you are onto a page.

Ryan offered some interesting advice on this; he said you should write about your experiences, but you should also put yourselves in other people’s shoes. Don’t limit yourself to what you want to or can write about. Courtney agreed that you should go out and live your life and then give some of that life to your story. This is a beautiful notion but I think though Patrick put an end to this conflict once and for all when he said he owed it to himself to write about what he wants to write about. I may have to add that to my collection of writing inspiration quotes.

By the time the hour was over I felt like I had gained a whole wealth of knowledge and I still had two more sessions to go. I didn’t think this day was going to be about collecting new authors to fall in love with but it happened. It is one thing to know and love a book but when you are moved and inspired by the author, then that is an open invitation to love their works from the beginning. I look forward to exploring their novels and stories in the future.