Tag Archives: Elli Writes

Getting Into Your Characters

Have you ever faced the age old issue of ‘what comes first?’

No, not the chicken or the egg … but the book and the film!

Now, obviously, in 99% of cases, the film will be based on a book.  But I’m not talking release dates.  I’m talking about which came first for YOU!  Did you watch the movie Twilight, and then decide to read the books, to then have Edward Cullen forever depicted as Robert Pattinson in your mind?  Or did you conjure your own wolves and vampires, only to be disappointed the moment you took your seat in the audience? It’s a particularly pertinent question for the YA world, with books like ‘The Hunger Games‘ and ‘City of Bones’ being made into films, and the actors portraying famous roles being announced months prior to the films, as if to ask ‘did we get it right?’.

As an author, characterisation, and how detailed the physical attributes you give a character can be a difficult tightrope to tread.

Personally, as a reader, I prefer to read the book before I see the film.  I LOVE to conjure characters in my mind.  To attribute the leading man with unmentioned details which I’m personally attracted, to see aspects of myself in the lead female, if she’s likeable, or perhaps characteristics of people I dislike, in her if she’s not!  My mind becomes a playground, the words on the page simply forming the framework for my games.  It’s my imagination which fills the gaps, populating a world which has been carefully crafted not just to suck me in, but to keep me there by allowing me to combine my own imagination with the authors.

If only we could take a snapshot into the mind of a reader.  A hundred readers.  To see what Hermione Granger, or Matilda, or Prince Caspian ever looked like before the characters appeared on the silver screen.

I say snapshot, because my memory is visual.  I read a book as a series of pictures, which flash through my mind as my eyes see the words.  But not every reader attributes a physical image to a person.  He or she might instead associate a smell, or a sound, or even just a sense.

And because of all that … because I know as a reader I like to colour in the lines, rather than be presented with a fully completed paint by numbers, I’ve noticed something in my writing.

I very seldom describe my characters in great detail!

The reason I’ve even touched upon this topic, is that last month I was very lucky to win Elli Writes’ June writing competition, and my prize is a portrait of one of my characters!  An amazing prize for an author whose artistic talents at school lay more in sketching still life drawings of apples, than bringing a vivid character to life.

But the prize begged the question – which character should I choose?

I’ve now completed three novels, and have the start of three other novels on the go.  That’s seven books worth of characters.  Seven books worth of people, who in my mind are as vivid as the day, and yet, who on paper, I have always been reticent to describe in too much detail.

But I’m not a lazy author.  I just want to give the reader a sense of the character.  A vague physical outline, which hopefully the emotions, and dialogue, and situations will allow the reader to colour with his or her own ideas.

Interestingly, if I squeeze my eyes shut and try to describe the snapshots in my head, I can see figures.  I can see scenes, and situations.  But the people in those scenes are fixed like mannequins, their faces indistinct.  And yet I feel like I know these characters inside out.  I mean, after all, I created them.  I understand their fears, their passions, their ideas.  They are my friends …. My favourite people.  Neat combinations of reality and fiction, some of them spliced together from people I know, others simply conjured out of necessity or situation.

And yet, for me, they’re all faceless!  As if, as an author this time, rather than a reader, I was hoping the readers themselves would fill in the gaps, and see the face of Ellody Rose, or Felicity Firestone for themselves.

So, how exactly do I choose a character for my prize?  How do I tell Liz, the editor of Elli Writes, how to draw a person who for me has no face, just a mass of emotions, decisions, and reactions?

The answer is, I didn’t.

Because in all of my books, it turns out there is always at least one character who has a face!  And these characters always tend to be male!!!

No, they’re not my ideal men, or physical embodiments of my ex boyfriends!  And no, they’re not film stars, or pin-ups  … (Though it is sometimes quite a cool game to play, coming up with who would play your lead men in the movie of your book!)

No, interestingly, the characters who I have the most clear visual impressions of, are the ones who are the most guarded.  The ones who share little with the reader, and likewise with me.  The ones I don’t understand, or don’t want to understand.  The two-timing lady player.  The emo/punk misunderstood Dream Navigator, who spends his days lashing out at those around him ….

(I won’t tell you too much more about those characters, as I don’t want to spoil it for any of you who have been reading the excerpts of Flicker and The Dream Navigator on the blog)

But what I will tell you, is that I’ve made a decision who I would love Liz to draw for me …

In The Dream Navigator there’s a character called Raye.  He’s dark, and perplexing, and only begins to open up towards the very end of the book.  But from Day One, I had the most vivid image of him.  A Korean Adam Lambert.  His hair blue black, his nails painted with black varnish, and his eyes ringed with kohl.

He fascinates me, because I don’t know or understand him, and so writing about him proved both frustrating, and really exciting.  In my head, he was the most visually distinct, and yet the hardest for me to understand!

And so now I will be handing over the gauntlet to Elli Writes 🙂 Will she understand him any better than me?  Will she be able to turn my words into a picture, and see the same boy I see in my mind every time I flick through my manuscript?

Or will she be waiting for the movie (God I really hope some day I write a movie!!!!), to see the actor who gets cast as Raye?

What do you see when you read a book?  Is it different when you’re writing?  Do your characters resemble real life people?  Do you prefer to watch a film before you read the book?  Or would you rather have your own character in your mind, and then shun the director’s presentation of that person?

As ever, please let me know what you think, either in the comments box below, or on Twitter.

C-C xxx

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Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes

I’ve been meaning to get around to this for some time now.  The theme for ‘Elli Writes’  June contest is ‘A New Pair of Boots’ – writing in someone else’s shoes, and whilst I know the idea of the challenge is to force you to write from someone else’s perspective, the contest has inspired me to write a blog post on the subject of characters and perspectives.

For a start, I’ve discovered I write far quicker in the first person.  Maybe that’s just because I’ve spent over half my life journalling.  Or maybe it’s because you dwell less on description in the first person than you do in the third person (or at least I do!).  The first person allows you to focus solely on one character’s thoughts and emotions, whilst the third person is obviously broader.  There’s more to consider,  both character-wise, and also from a lyrical standpoint.  The reason third person writing takes longer, is because sentences written in the third person can normally include more elevated, creative description, and as such, every sentence requires careful thought.  For me, first person writing often becomes a stream of thought.  I don’t know if that means I write better in the first person, or that my writing is lazier in the first person, but that simple initial choice of perspective can completely and utterly change a book.

At the moment I’m writing a novel called ‘Mercury’s Child’, which I’ve now mentioned a couple of times.  It’s my first stab at science fiction, and initially started as a far ‘younger’ project, as compared to my other novels.  The two other ‘children’s’ works I’ve written are teenage fantasy novels.  Teenagers with superpowers.  However, because of the nature of the worlds, the timings of the characters lives, and the necessary naivete of the protagonist, Mercury’s Child is a book about an eleven year-old, and as such I decided to target the book at a younger audience – maybe 11-15 year-olds, as opposed to the 14-19 year-old bracket my other books has been designed primarily for.

Initially I decided to write the book in the first person.  Because I find it easier, quicker … and possibly the lazy option 😉  However, the problem with writing about an 11 year-old in the first person, is that you then need to think like I’m an 11 year-old.  Now, I like to think of myself as a bit of a big kid at heart, and I don’t think I have problems empathizing with teenagers, in fact, in a number of ways I probably still lead a rather teenage life.  I live with my (friend’s) parents, drive someone else’s car, and a mortgage and marriage are both things which are still a long way off!  For those reasons I enjoy writing teenage fiction, because in a lot of ways I simply write how I think.

And whilst I was obviously 11 years old at some point, if I’m honest, I don’t really remember it all too well!  I definitely don’t think like an eleven year-old.  And for that reason, I eventually decided to write the book in the third person.  Because, whilst this perspective might require more careful crafting, and doesn’t allow for stream of thought writing, it also doesn’t require a detailed insight into the mind of your protagonist.  It requires some, but not total empathy.

So, I began writing a book for 11 to 15 year-olds in the third person.  And within a few chapters I noticed something else.  I write way too old for that age-group!  As an author, I genuinely think it’s hard to hide your own voice.  Some might argue that’s all part of the craft, and obviously it is to some degree.  You don’t want to write an autobiography, you want to write fiction.  But fiction, as I’ve said before, is also writing about what you know.  Writing about what you understand.  And as Mercury’s Child took shape in the third person, I realised I wasn’t writing a book for 11 to 15 year-olds.  I was writing about an eleven year old girl and her family, for readers in their late teens and adulthood.  And whilst that might seem like a failure for some, for me, I think it just means I know my target audience.  I know where my talents lie.  And rather than try to force a story into a form I think it ought to take, I’d prefer to leave it in its natural form, and see if it works that way.

Because this is the thing I’ve found about walking in someone else’s shoes … it only really works within certain parameters.  The shoes don’t necessarily have to be your own, but they have to be a reasonably good fit!  Whether you’re writing in the third person, or even more specifically in the first person, you need to know your character.  You need to understand your character.  And you need to understand your reader.  And whilst no one wants to read an autobiography where the names have simply been changed to call it fiction  (apart from maybe The Devil Reads Prada!) that doesnt mean people want to read something completely foreign to a writer.  Good writing comes from the heart.  Your heart.  Not someone else’s.  And so you need to understand your own story.  You need to live your own story.

That’s why Mercury’s Child, in my opinion, works best pitched at older children and adults, and in the third person.  Because, whilst I understand my characters and the worlds I’ve created, I best represent those characters and those worlds in the voice of a teenager/adult.  In a voice rather similar to my own.  That isn’t to say adults can’t write for younger children – as is obvious from almost all children’s literature! – I just know where my voice is strongest.

Following on from this idea of knowledge and understanding, I really struggle with the idea, as a female writer, of writing about a male protagonist.  Ok, from a distanced third person perspective, I might be able to do it.  (It’s something J.K. Rowling obviously nailed!).  But it’s not something I would choose, because I understand girls.  I know them, because I am one!  I don’t think I would ever excel at writing from a male first person standpoint, because, quite simply I don’t know how men think!  Men and women are really different creatures, and I don’t think I could ever be confident enough to establish a credible enough male voice.  Even in the third person, I’ve struggled to write male dialogue, and had male friends criticise the realism of my male-on-male conversations, because quite simply, I don’t know how men converse with one another when they’re on their own.

And so for that reason, whilst obviously, as fiction writers, we are always walking in someone else’s shoes, I think those shoes have to be a reasonable fit.  For me, I’d say my current literary fit is a woman’s shoe, aged 15 to 35 years-old in the first person protagonist.  Where the third person is concerned, those requirements are a little bit looser.

What do you guys think?  Can male writers write in a convincing female voice, and vice-versa?  How big are the writing shoes you feel confident filling?  Or am I being too conservative with my writing?  Should I step into less comfortable shoes?

C-C xxx

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Feature on Elli Writes

Thanks to journalist, author, and fellow blogger Liz Carlton for this lovely feature on her blog ‘Elli Writes‘.

And wow! – only just saw the front page of her blog, and I’m everywhere … thank you so much Liz, I feel very honoured!!

C-C xx

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Exercising Your Pen

For some time now I’ve been planning a post on how to keep yourself inspired and on exercised as an author.  A kind of word gym, or mental pick-me-up for writers.

One of the best examples of these I’ve come across in my first few months of blogging are the writing exercises posted on blogs by other authors.   A number of bloggers regularly suggest themes or situations for other budding writers to expand upon.

One such writer/blogger is Elizabeth Carlton, of Elli Writes, someone I like to count as a regular reader and commenter of my blog, and in order to reciprocate with my support, I’m about to write a blogpost on ‘Rebirth’  – the topic of her April Writing Contest.

More to come on ‘keeping on the ball’ soon ….

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