Writing a Novel
Session 3: Character
Discussion points from the session:
Think about your main protagonist (or pick one if there are several).
1. Do you feel you know this character well? What do you know and what do you want to find out? What needs to be developed?
2. What techniques and strategies are you using in your novel to reveal and develop character?
Are there techniques you could be using more?
Look at the exercises below and pick out the ones you think will be useful for you. What are the particular challenges of each one and how can they help you develop and add layers to the characters you create?
1. Write a scene in which your character arrives home on an entirely normal or typical day and follows a familiar routine.
2. Write a scene in which your character is daydreaming while something else is going on.
3. Write a conversation between your character and someone he or she trusts, sharing a confidence or a funny story. Use plenty of dialogue.
4. What would someone who has reason to dislike or be critical of your character say about him/her? Write a scene (without your character) to show this.
5. Write the scene of a vivid (but not obviously consequential) childhood memory.
6. Write an encounter between your character and someone with whom she or he has a slightly distanced, polite or formal relationship. Allow something to happen or be revealed through the conversation.
7. Write a conversation between you and your character. Where are you? Set the scene and get to know each other. What do you both want out of this novel?
8. Think about your character's voice and the way he/she speaks. Let them speak, listen in and write what you hear. You could begin mid-sentence as though they were already talking before you started to listen in. What does your character tell you? Is there urgency in it?
Some more ideas:
Try inventing your own exercises to find out more about your characters. What parts of their lives would you like to know more about and how can you find out? Pick an aspect of life – food, hobby, political views, friends, habits – and write to find out more, or try doing this in the form of a questionnaire or interrogation. How can you include this information in your narrative? Look for spaces and pockets where you can tell us more.
Try spying on your character as he or she moves through the day. Observe private moments that aren't necessarily part of your planned story.
Keep a scrapbook of images, information and ideas to help you build a picture of your character.
Session 2: Mapping the novel, place.
Exercises from the session:
1. Map your novel. Take the main events or stages of your novel and connect them to the psychological/emotional shifts of your main character(s). Connect these to the locations where they take place (or experiment with different ones, if you're not sure yet). Try doing this in the form of a diagram. It could take any shape or order, whatever works for you. The idea is to be able to step back and look at it, to see what you've got and where you need to find out more.
2. Taking one of those places where you need to find out more – or you have a specific question that needs to be answered – go in and write the scene. All the time, remember that your characters are in a physical landscape or place and their experience of that space is unique, subjective.
To take these ideas further:
1. Write up your draft from above.
2. Play with events and places. Try taking an event or an encounter that you've set in one location and see what happens when you set it in another. How do you characters react when you take them out of a familiar environment and put them somewhere different? How can you use these differences in your novel?
3. Take a favourite novel and try mapping it out in the same way as you did for your own novel in the exercise above.
4. In your notebook, note down places, rooms, scenery you encounter through the week and the details that strike you. How do you feel moving into or out of one of these spaces? Would your character notice the same details and feel the way you do or would they have an entirely different relationship with the place?
Suggested reading: ON WRITING (Harper Collins) by Eudora Welty has a nice chapter on place in fiction.
SIX WALKS IN THE FICTIONAL WOODS (Charles Eliot Norton Lectures) is a collection of lectures by Umberto Eco. Possible Woods might be of interest. It seems to be out of print but is available on Kindle or you might be able to find it second hand/
Something to try.
Allow a couple of characters to meet in one of these scenes. What do they say to each other? What happens?
Session 1: Getting started.
Exercises from the session:
1. Imagining a scene in your fictional world, creating a sense of atmosphere and possibility and putting in a character to find out what happens.
2. Finding a moment in the scene from exercise 1 and using it as a trigger or springboard into another scene, for example a memory.
Suggested further work:
1. Write up the scenes above to see how they might work in your novel.
2. See if you can add more layers to the scene by repeating the exercise using a
different moment as your springboard.
3. Use the exercise to jump from one scene into another and from there into another and so on. Make a game of it and see what comes up and what connections you can make.
You're welcome to read a short piece out next week for feedback.
Writer's notebook: keep a notebook for your novel and carry it around so that you can add ideas or observations at any time. You might add rough plans, overheard dialogue, pictures, things that strike you as interesting or puzzling but you're not sure yet what to do with, things that inspire you, details about your characters' lives.
Something to try:
Pick one of these items of clothing, or something you think might be in your character's wardrobe, and sketch a scene around it. Perhaps it could relate to or appear in your scene from the exercise above or perhaps it will be part of a chapter you haven't come to yet...