Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Helen Cross Workshop: Spouting, Squealing and Spilling the Beans - Creating Expressive Characters for Fiction, 17 October 2015

I attended this workshop as part of Ilkley Literature Festival on Saturday 17 October 2015.

How do you make your characters walk the walk and talk the talk? Helen Cross will guide you in creating complex, memorable and story-supple characters for all kinds of stories from novels to radio and screenplays.  Next, she's show you ways of giving these believable voices.  By the end of the session you will create taut, subtle dialogue alive with subtext that can effectively reveal your characters and power your stories forward.

Helen started out writing novels (4) and has written radio drama for the BBC and screenplays, and feels it has a lot in common because they are visual mediums.  Your characters need interiority (in your characters head) for good crossover.  She has also written short stories and short films.  She is a writing fellow at the University of East Anglia and she addressed developing dialogue and character (watching TV/films help with plot but can have unbelievable dialogue as a consequence of not well rounded characters).

We then filled a flipchart page with our ideas of what we thought a character needs to be made up of: complex, characteristic, characters in relation to other characters/class/society, secrets, believable, P.O.V., voice, development/change, mystery, conflict/problem, physical appearance, attitude, beliefs, actions, history, relationship.

In books characters often don't change, that can be their flaw.  Doesn't have to be a big conflict and you can use physicality to reveal conflict (i.e. The Great Gatsby, what he appears to be in relation to what he actually is) and beliefs can be different to their actions.  It is always a good shock when the reader discovers the novels' secret.

We then undertook a writing exercise concentrating on detail of the first pair of shoes you ever remember buying.

Memory is where your most profound/meaningful writing can come from, Margaret Atwood talks about the now and then of fiction, conflict and flux. 

Helen then talked about abstract nouns (emotion) and how we act always trumps what we say.  We need to think about characters in relation to time and create dramatic tension, e.g. where are you looking at the characters from and the fallibility of what you believe or perceive.  Character is often a function of theme.  What does your character remember from their life (good/bad informs their nature).  She recommended getting rid of all abstract nouns to make your writing stronger - if you need them, make it a concrete noun, e.g. glamorous = always wears Channel No5.

We were then given another writing exercise where we had to write in present tense imagining our first dance we ever remember as if it is happening now.

Memory and imagination is a line that is paper thin.  Create details that illuminate what you want to say, to convince the reader that you remember, with non-abstract nouns and colours build a picture.  Intense active movement in the present tense forces you into this.  Structural writing (foreshadowing) is in the present tense so it is easier to keep your secrets.  Inhabit the moment, just be not always pushing forwards/looking back.  Nostalgia is the enemy of the story.  You can't reflect in present tense or foreshadow as things are unfolding in that moment.  Allow your readers to know your characters through these details.  Give details to create location, where is this happening and when?

Dialogue sometimes reveals character but mostly it conceals character to dramatic effect - age, period , history, relationships.  Dialogue is the best way to show your characters as there are no adjectives in dialogue you can give/conceal emotion.  Where the dialogue happens is very important.  Where would be the worst place to have this conversation?  Check it is in the right place.  Tone is also important so always use subtext.  Can move the plot forward, but can make it least satisfactory.

Helen recommended listening in to real dialogue, there are no answers to what you are listening to because the assumed knowledge is not there.  Dialogue needs to intrigue.  In real life people don't talk about their feelings very often.  She feels that Paula Fox is the master of dialogue and writing is a relationship between two people not a speech.

Relationship - dialogue - location can be the most dynamic.  Dialogue creates conflict which is often in the subtext.  Can be an argument, resentment, secrets/lies to protect.  How close does the secret bubble to the surface (the more they don't say how they feel the better).  Revelation of character through those dialogues.

We then undertook another writing exercise where we had to have a conversation with our best friend when we were a young teenager.  What kind of things did you talk about?  Subtext?  Location?  Historic?

Writing should be fun - people talking - make an effort to be light or funny as it is not always relentlessly gloomy.  People acting against type is always interesting and a good example of third person plural voice is Virgin Suicides.  Outsiders are great characters as they are set apart from the main and can see things that the others can't see, e.g. Odysseus (journey off) Iliad (come to town) and characters who disrupt are good.

Dialogue is working for change.  Saying the wrong thing and never being able to go back is a crisis point, think of this when you structure your story.  This creates drama and sustains the structure of your writing.  What can't be said and when it does, this can be when dialogue can blow the action alive.

Helen then set as 'homework' to think about the three most important things about writing good dialogue and characters:

Character x 2
Location (place) works better in fiction not film or TV
Problem (wants/needs, hidden or at the surface)

1) A mother and son in the kitchen of their home that is about to be repossessed (not mention this problem) but all this should become clear in the piece.
2) Husband and wife at a posh restaurant and problem is they are just about to be divorced (they know) .
3) Two teenage girls in a park who have just committed a very serious crime but you're not going to mention it.

Problem - subtext but location is clear and the characters' exact nature should too.  Sparseness/economy/accuracy of how you do this.

For more information on Helen Cross:

#ILF2015  @Ilkleylitfest

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