By Linda Acaster
We all write for ourselves, aiming to get in the zone, to experience the rush, to burn in the white heat of creativity when our fingers can’t fly fast enough over the keys. Yet what exactly is it that ends up on paper? Often it is merely a faded rendition of the movie we saw running in our heads.
English has an alphabet of 26 letters. Forget what your school teacher impressed upon you about spelling and grammar; for a writer of fiction those 26 letters are symbols to encrypt emotional content, the emotional content that engulfs us in the white heat of creativity. Readers don’t want to read, they want to experience.
Pacing, atmosphere, tone, description… these and others go into the mix, but each is little more than an inert statement. It is character that makes them live – or not. I’m hot on showing what I mean so let’s conjure a character: the sassy smart-mouth with the unruly hair.
Got her? I didn’t say it was a ‘her’ yet that’s what the majority of readers will have jumped to, probably fully-kitted out in coloring and clothes, and doubtless with an urban backdrop. A stereotype. A cliché. That’s what stereotypes and clichés are, fast pieces of code so that everyone is reading from the same page with the least effort. Is that what you want to gift your reader, least effort? Here’s news: if readers want to slob out with least effort they’ll hit Netflix, not invest a couple of days engaging with your novel.
Let’s try another character. How about an artist? Oh, you’re suspicious now, are you? You want to know whatsort of an artist? Okay, a painter, for ease a male watercolorist. Walk him to your local store and let him buy a few groceries.
How did he do? How did you do? If you’ve ever painted, no matter the medium, you’ll know that a tree is not green, that clouds are not grey, that tarmac isn’t black. If your character didn’t see subtle tones in the light and shade of objects enroute, if he didn’t see mass and contour in the vegetables on offer at the store, he won’t live and breathe as an artist on the page. Musicians hear street noises in terms of pitch and modulation; plumbers hear a gurgle in a pipe and know if the system isn’t working correctly; police officers see a lone bystander and assess that person’s life in the blink of an eye. More than anything that officer sees the lone bystander, while for me and you the person is amalgamated with the background.
Characters don’t just filter our stories to readers. They are the bridge between the white heat of our creativity and the language that encodes emotional content on the page. Think them through; build their foundations deep. Then step into their skins and write so as to allow readers to experience your fiction the way you intend.
Linda Acaster talks more about building characters in ‘Reading A Writer’s Mind: Exploring Short Fiction – First Thought to Finished Story’. Despite being a Brit, her bestselling novel is the Native American historical ‘Beneath The Shining Mountains’ – she used to be a re-enactor so understands the need for deep research. Currently she’s writing the second in a trilogy of paranormal thrillers with Celtic undertones, starting with ‘Torc ofMoonlight’. She loves travelling in
Mexico where she often goes under the guise of
Western writer Tyler Brentmore. Catch up with her at