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4 Tips on Managing Character

Well-crafted characters virtually write their own story.

Once your character is fleshed out, your story virtually writes itself. As we saw earlier, when you have done enough research, the story will leap off the page and demand to be written; here, a similar axiom comes into play: work done on characters, if consistent and “true to the character” will create individuals who demand that their story be told, regardless of what plot you might originally have had in mind. Interestingly, almost without exception, the story a well-crafted character insists on telling will be better than the one you thought up on your own.

1. During your day-to-day activities, ask yourself, "What would my character do in this situation?" For instance, how might he or she react while waiting in a shopping queue or when observing an argument between others? Would he or she be moved? Angry? Disinterested? The aim is to hold onto your readers through characters that are so real that they demand to be heard. Your characters are your “glue”. Target yourself towards the following ideal:

Write about your characters with such a superlative accuracy that your readers turn the pages of your novel or short story to find out what happens to them.

Staying true to the character you've developed becomes then a matter of listening to the character’s “voice” rather than having to consciously invent things about him or her. Even if the individual you’ve spawned is utterly revolting morally, a voice will become apparent to you -and quite often it’s the villain of the piece who most captivates the reader.

2. Even characters and ideas, though, no matter how convincing, have to be placed in situations which test them or reveal things about them. The best-crafted character in the world will not communicate emotion if he or she remains static and unexplored in the story. A truly suspenseful book, short story or other literary work is very like a piece of theatre, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats until the end; a suspense-filled epic should hold the reader until the final word. This is another reason for the partial dramatisation of reading your work aloud.

How do you maximise this tension or interest?

Sometimes, writers assume that the reader understands their fictional world completely. The writer has “lived” in that world for so long, its sights, sounds, smells and tastes, its “feel” and style, become, literally, a “second nature”. The concept of a Second Nature can help you to overcome this potential barrier: introduce your reader to your world in the same way that you would introduce someone to another planet, even if your fictional world is quite ordinary or “realistic”. Tolkien described this Second Nature as “sub-creation” and wrote about how sub-creation particularly applies to fantasy worlds, but the notion is equally applicable to any kind of created universe, fantastic or realistic. Describe more than what you or your characters can “see” -cover the whole range of senses as often and ingeniously as you can.

Your readers must be able to see your universe, taste its flavours, smell the odours, hear the sounds and feel the textures.

Without these wide-ranging descriptions, your readers cannot become involved enough in your work to truly enjoy it.

Imagine To Kill a Mockingbird without the sense of the heat or dustiness of the American Deep South; any Dickens novel without the wet, grimy London backdrop; Tess of the D’Urbervilles without the smells and sounds of the Wessex countryside. There’s more to this, but for now be assured that there are more senses than one or two at work when we read and readers want them all utilised to some degree.

3. So you have convincing “attention-gatherers” in your well-crafted characters, and now you have some idea of how to make their world seem real. The only way you can really go wrong now is to trip your reader up with some unforeseen obstacle or missing information. To avoid this, walk with your reader through the world to which you’ve introduced them:

Hold your reader’s hand throughout the action.

There must be some kind of logic to what happens. Your readers will be too distracted if the complicated plotline becomes so complex that they lose track of it. The brilliant novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell almost betrays the reader in this way -just as you think you’ve grasped how things are going to resolve, another new idea or tangential plotline is introduced. Luckily, author Susannah Clarke pulls it off and the finale is grand and gripping, but some writers don’t quite manage a successful ending because they have not walked us through at the right pace so that we can appreciate what is going on. If we’re on a bus-top tour of London, we don’t want the bus travelling so fast that we miss half of the sights; nor do we want it to wait for ages at a stop. Pace iUt at about walking speed, if you see what I mean.

It’s all to do, ultimately, with rhythm. You don't have to describe every movement; however, it's crucial to communicate the most important steps, or you’ll “miss a beat”.

Nothing spoils suspense for a reader like losing the sense of what’s happening.

4. Your job is to keep the reader connected to the story or events or the matter at hand, largely using rhythm and believable characters. Suspense is not just a matter of having someone suddenly leap out of a cupboard with a knife. It’s much more satisfying for the reader, and actually much more tense, if the writer has signalled to you in various rhythmic ways that something dramatic is going to happen at any moment. A sign of a great writer is for the suspense and tension to ebb and flow rhythmically, so that, perhaps just as the reader has been lulled into a quieter mood, something suddenly happens, or, at the peak of tension, there is a moment of humour skilfully handled so as not to disperse the suspense.

There are techniques for this. Foreshadowing is one such technique -the presentation of subtle “omens” or precursors to actual tragedies, like the narrator’s opening greeting in Charles Dickens’ classic ghost story “The Signalman”, an innocent greeting which later has a chilling significance.

There’s even “comedy foreshadowing” in which an incident or event is suddenly brought freshly to the reader’s mind long after it would have been assumed that it was forgotten, which gets a laugh at an appropriate moment.

You can probably think of dozens of examples, from early dialogue mentioning death in tragedies to initial jokes about marriage in comedies, all clues for thRe reader about what is to come, absorbed consciously or “super-consciously” and all part of the rhythm that the successful writer is beating out with every word, every sentence, every paragraph.

Some writing guides will tell you things like “Don't start your work with an emotionally intense scene” -maybe that’s good advice, but then Hamlet and several detective classics don’t fit that mould. Rather than not doing this or that, it’s a question of HOW and WHEN this or that is done -and how often. An emotionally intense scene is fine if it appears as part of a rhythm which is gradually building the reader up towards a satisfying climax; it’s not fine if it just appears as an opening and things get quieter from there right until the end.


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