Monday, 14 March 2016

HLF2016 Character and Characterisation with Simon Crump workshop review

On Saturday 5 March, I attended the Huddersfield Literature Festival's Character and Characterisation with Simon Crump workshop 11am - 1pm.

"The power to create and develop character is at the heart of all fiction writing." Malcolm Bradbury

This workshop session focussed on developing characters - where to find them, how to write them and their role in fiction.

Simon Crump lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield.  His stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies and he is the author of My Elvis Blackout, Monkey's Birthday, Twilight Time and Neverland.

Simon started the workshop by explaining that he writes short stories that sometimes turn into novels (composite novels, e.g. like The Dubliners or Cloud Atlas).  He recommended the Creative Writing Coursebook but told us that there are no rules as such, just guidelines.

"Without characters, there is no story.  The reason we read is not just what the story is about but who the story is about." Julia Bell

The best characters become part of our shared cultures and good characters always have internal conflict, for example, people pretending to be what they're not.  Characters evolve through being tested by events in the story, e.g. acting out of character, and he suggests exploiting real people as you've spent years getting to know them!

"The secret of good characterisation lies in deep human sympathy." George Elliott

Simon suggests empathy as well as sympathy but suggests that there is a piece of ice in the heart of every writer.

Finding your character:

1) Autobiographical method

In this method you use yourself in the creation of character.  Whether you want to write characters similar to you or not, don't underestimate yourself as a source.  Everything that you understand or imagine about other people begins with your own experience.  Your own consciousness is the only one you have direct access to.  You can create a multitude of characters from it.

Strengths:                                                       Weaknesses:

Visual (sensory)                                             Wordy (cut, cut, cut)
enjambment, strength                                     over-written
ending                     all over the place            preach                                       
dove of peace                                                 control of line
                                                                       language techniques

2) Biographical method

The other main one, to understand people is through observation and intimate knowledge of others.  In this method you base characters on people you know or have researched.

Strengths:                                                        Weaknesses

Economical with lexis                                     Dull
neat (visually)                                                  lexically flat 
formally structured                                          hate ending (Salt)
become...                                                         cliché

3) Inventing characters from scratch

You might start with a setting and imagine who would inhabit that place or own those objects.  You might build characters from astrological signs or particular professions.  Using the 'What if?' as a prompt, you can start to build details, e.g. what if a lawyer became one only to please her mother?  What if she looks like her mother and accentuates it with similar clothes or hairstyle?  What does she look like?  Start getting the picture.

4) Combination method

This is the final method, the one use most.  You mix aspects of known people with totally invented details, for example, take your own red hair and spendthrift habits, borrow someone else's low carb diet and family feud, and donate the lot to a shop assistant nagged by stifled ambition.  Or take you r best friend's deadpan wit, make him handsome but with bad teeth and turn him into a hopeless romantic who falls in love easily and often.

Primary role of a novelist is to evoke emotion in the reader.

Stock characters

Try to avoid using stereotypes or 'stock' characters even in your secondary characters, e.g. boring accountant, inarticulate footballer, vain film star, world-weary detective or old-fashioned elderly person.

Credibility and complexity: Can you think of 10 adjectives to describe your main character (MC)?  What is your MC's paradox?  What is your MC's fear?  Does your character change?

Lyrical and ep/ethical change of your character:

lyrical story = something happens and changes characters head
ep/ethical = Titanic 2, Bruce Willis goes back and blows up the iceberg

There are 5 main methods of portraying characters:

Interpretation (how others see them/empathy)

and Simon would add Name to this list too, but be careful when naming in terms of extra-literary reality - it links you to the outside world.

The first 2 methods rely on evaluation or description of characters.  The final 3 are used to 'stage' characters, to show them directly through their behaviour.  What do they wear, indicative of character.  'Run the film in your head' when you are writing and read your work out loud as you will spot when it is clunky.  Get a picture and give the person character details.

Character paradox
Defining actions

We were then given 10 minutes to write a character that had to portray the 5 main methods (+ the name) in it.

Here is mine:

Roger stood at the entrance and took a deep breath.  He could smell the shepherds pie so knew she'd made his favourite, or what she thought was his favourite.  He didn't know if he was ready, but it had to be done.  He was running out of time and no matter how long he'd spent planning this, he knew there was no right way to do it. 

If this was an ordinary day he would be constrained by a tie, a suit itchy with cheap wool and a persona to match.  But now, emboldened by his decision, he felt the denim, it's hard lines a different type of box; safety.  It was time.  Without knocking, he walked in and as he did so, the cold air moved up his miniskirt and it spurred him on.

The group then shared some of their writing and discussed character, e.g. the consummate liar may turn out to be telling the truth (his friend and he checked).  Simon then asked us to put two of the pictures he had shared together, in an extension of the piece already written.

This was mine:

Mabel was adding more butter to the peas and Roger watched as it melted into the green, each pea glistening with new promise.  Her apron was tied at the waist and he recognised it as the one he had made at school all those years ago.  Amazed she still had it, he almost wavered, could have turned around and run before she saw him, but the time was now and he could see this as a sign; she loved him not matter who or what he was.

Mabel patted her apron down and checked it for splashes, there were none, there was a slight kink in the apron tie at the left though, so she reached behind to untie it and fastened it once more, sure that this time it was straight.

She felt the air stir and knew he was here and turned to great him, her warm smile reaching her eyes.

Simon finished the workshop by suggesting breaking a big task down into little tasks, i.e. the composite novel, each chapter is a small task.

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