Sunday, 22 March 2015

The Narcissism of Us – Why Character is the Essential Ingredient of Story

Narcissus by Caravaggio 

Humans are narcissistic creatures, don’t you think?

We love to hear about ourselves: about our exploits, our loves and passions, our failures, our darkest fears and deepest desires. This holds true across history, cultures, generations and genders. And our narcissism finds perfect expression through story.

Every story ever told – in whatever form: rock art, song, dance, oral tales, visual or written – is about us. Even those stories that ostensibly are about other species that inhabit this planet, or other planets, or eras, realities, planes of existence etc. etc. are really about us; about what it means to be human. Yes, the longing of a robot; the dark lusts of a vampire; the heroism of a dog; the butchery of a ghoulish entity; the rage of an alien mother — all about US!

And it is for this reason I would suggest character is the most important element in any story.

The Living Heart of Story:

I've read a lot of stories by emerging writers over the years and, with the rare exception, my main comment to these writers about their work is ‘develop your characters’; show the reader more about who they are and what is motivating them. The reason for this suggestion is simple:

Characters are the story.

Plot events in a story are meaningless unless they are tied implicitly to a character and their experience of, or reaction to, those events. A setting is a one-dimensional backdrop until a character moves through, or engages with, a location or environment. Dialogue only makes sense in relation to character and, while we can discover theme in all elements of story, it is character that works hardest to convey the thematic preoccupations of a story to the reader.

Image by Paul Reynolds via Wikimedia Commons  

The centrality of character to story is not hard to work out. Aside from being narcissistic, we humans are also voyeurs – we love to watch and experience, vicariously, the myriad of situation offered by our world – and this, too, is not hard to understand: we want to empathise.

Empathy is what connects a reader to the story. The more a reader can empathise (positively or negatively) with a character, the more memorable that story will be, and it is for this reason that I suggest writers work hard on their characters.

I have a confession to make: I loathe the film Wolf of Wall Street. Not because of the acting (which was very good) but because the characters are so thoroughly despicable and morally corrupt that my empathetic reaction to them is loathing. I will never watch this film again, but I will also never forget the characters. At the other end of the spectrum are, well, dozens of characters whom I have loved and cherished, whom I have cheered for and cried for, or whom I have mourned like old friends lost. What all of these characters have in common is they are living, breathing, feeling people, who experience life and reflect something about the human condition.

A Recipe for Creating Empathetic Characters:


1 pinch of extraordinary
1 spoonful of balance
1 dash of consistency
2 tablespoons of knowledge


1. A long time ago, I read a snippet of advice from Stephen King, which went something like take an extraordinary event, people it with ordinary folk, and see how they react. Their reaction, of course, becomes the story. A good example of this advice at work occurs in House of Stairs by William Sleator, which is the story of five ordinary teenagers who wake to find themselves in a literal house of stairs. Their struggle to find out how they came to be there and what they need to do to escape transforms them from average people into extraordinary people.  A more contemporary example of this would be Suzanne Collin’s, The Hunger Games – Katniss Everdeen is an average girl (or is she?) who, through her participation in the Hunger Games, becomes extraordinary.

Ordinary people in ordinary circumstances are not interesting to a reader. As Sol Sein points out:
‘Readers don’t want to pay money in order to spend twelve hours in the company of someone who is just like their neighbour. They are attracted by differentness.’
 Stein, S. 1999, How to Grow a Novel, p. 67

This ‘differentness’ doesn't have to be extreme but it does need to be something more than what the reader may expect from their own experiences.

Note: ‘extra ordinariness’ extends to what you show the reader about the character’s physicality. Avoid the ordinary. Unless there is a specific and intentional reason to mention a character’s hair colour, eye colour, height, weight, age – don’t. These are the least interesting aspects of a character. Show the reader something extra-ordinary about them: the tattoo they’re hiding from everyone; the scars on their forearms; the way they wear their hair in a fifties beehive (and why); their gangsta strut… anything that will give the reader an insight into who they are. If the banal aspects of appearance must be used, do it for a reason – to emphasis the character’s low esteem, or narcissism, or to satirise (Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut Jr  is a great example of this). 

2. Human beings are complex and our characters need to reflect this complexity. No character should be all good, or all bad, because such characters feel ‘wrong’ to a reader. Following the principle of Yin and Yang, there must be a little dark in the light, and little light in the dark for our characters to feel human. This is what makes them rounded. Without this balance, characters are flat and tend to stymie empathy.

Flat characters:
  • Lack detail & are one dimensional.
  • Are stereotypical & predictable.
  • Tend not to change or surprise.
  • Tend to represent one quality or idea.

Round characters, on the other hand, are:
  •  Detailed & multi-layered.
  •  Have admirable qualities & flaws.
  • Represent a range of ideas.
  • Face challenges & adversity.
  • Are complex & unpredictable.
  • Show change & growth.

As E.M. Forster notes: 
‘The test of a round character is whether it surprises in a convincing way.  If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round.  [A round character] has the incalculability of life about it…’
‘Flat and Round Characters’, E.M. Forster, p. 41’

Round characters are the ones that readers love or loathe; they are the ones that stir our imaginations and stay with us long after we finish their story.

3. One of the best examples of character consistency I’ve read is Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl. In this tale, the main character, Mary Maloney, is a delightfully complex character who appears to be a dotting, placid, loving wife at the start of the story before making an apparent about-face to become a cold, conniving survivor of the circumstances thrust upon her. This change can come as quite a shock to the reader, until they look closely at Mary’s behaviour across the breadth of the story. Then we discover that Mary has always been a meticulous, passive-aggressive manipulator.

Mary’s underlying consistency is what makes her a successful character because she reflects the reality of human nature. This doesn’t mean our characters won’t do the unexpected – Mary certainly does – but that whatever characteristic we endow our characters with need to inform their behaviour during the course of their story, just as the characteristic we are endowed with during our lives define us and our response to the circumstances we encounter.

4. To avoid the ordinary and create round characters, who are interesting, surprising and yet consistent, we need to get to know them, personally.

One of the simplest ways to do this is to create a character biography (there are many templates for this on the Web). A bio could be a simple list of the attributes we associate with a character for a particular story. Or it could be an extravagant exploration of the character and their history, covering family, education, relationships, friendships, employment, religion, travels, health and so on. Or it could be somewhere in between these two. It depends on how much work you’re willing to put into your character.

Getting to know your characters deeply will assist in working out how they will respond in any given situation because, like us, characters are influenced by their experiences. And, like us, nothing that happens to them, happens in isolation. They have a timeline of events behind them. Knowing this timeline allows us to write authentically about our characters.  Of course, this knowledge is not something we would necessarily share with our reader, but they will certainly sense the depth in our characters and connect with them all the more for it.

Shake and Bake:

Working with character is one of the most satisfying aspects of writing. Astute writers, I believe, take the time to think about and get to know their characters so they can convey authentic experiences, which resonate and satisfy the narcissist, the voyeur, and the all too human empathetic reader.

Who are your favourite characters from fiction and what do you love - or loathe - about them? What about your own creations? Are there any that you're particularly proud of and why? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Happy Writing,


Thursday, 5 March 2015

A Gem Among the Stones

Entering writing competitions can be a great way of honing our writing skills. Often, they provide a focus for our writing and there’s nothing like a deadline to motivate. Then, there’s the boost of confidence that comes with winning, or even being shortlisted.

Of course, coming out on top of a competition is tough. There are a lot of writers out there, all vying for the same prize. So, how do we make our writing stand out?

Over recent weeks, Field of Words – a project that I run with my good friend and fellow writer, Eileen Goodall – has been receiving entries into our writing competition, which is for emerging Australian writers. After reading these stories, I spent some time reflecting on what we are looking for when assessing a piece of writing and what a writer can do to make their story a gem among the stones.

A Story of Substance:
If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it. ~ Anaïs Nin
The main element that attracts me as reader (and writer) is an engaging story. These stories deal with significant issues and themes, which illustrate something about what to means to be human. Such stories are born, it seems to me, from a writer’s natural curiosity about their world and the nature of humanity.

These kinds of writers have something to say and they invite the reader to consider their interpretation of, and thoughts about, a particular subject. Yet, there is no expectation that the reader will agree with them – they are not didactic or moralistic – but they trust in the reader’s intelligence and willingness to participate in the conversation they have begun with their story.

And this is what really grabs me – at the end of such a story, I want to talk about it. I want to continue the conversation, to discuss the thoughts that the story has generated in me, to unravel its nuances and test my own position against that of the writer. Stories that leave me thinking and talking about my world and my place within it are the stories I love best.

Characters of Substance:

It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does. ~ William Faulkner

Of equal importance to telling a story with substance is peopling that story with characters who are fully alive and authentically dealing with life as it befalls them. Characters are the heart, soul and backbone of a story. Other creative elements in a story can be somewhat weak – plot, setting, perhaps even theme – as long as the characters are rounded and animated. Having a brilliant plot with weak characters makes for a weak story, likewise with setting; there is no point in locating a story on glorious Santorini if the characters have as much depth as a fish bowl.

Characters are what grab a reader’s attention. It is the characters we fall in love, or loathing, with as we watch them deal with situations that we vicariously want, or hope never, to experience for ourselves. Characters are our connection: our bridge to empathy and to understanding ourselves and our fellow human beings (this is true even if the character is not human). 

First Lines:

Words — so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them. ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne
A writer’s job is to capture the reader’s attention, to lure them into a story, and hold them there until the final word is read. In short story, this capturing begins with the title. This is the first engagement the reader has with a piece of writing and it should be a clue, or a layer of meaning, that adds to the story. Sometimes the title can be a reference point, something the reader can rely on, like a beacon, as they navigate a story. Sometimes it can be an invitation to enticing to resist (The Bear Came over the Mountain by Alice Munro, or Theories of Relativity by Chris Womersley, or Conversations with Unicorns by Peter Carey). Whatever the title is, it requires thought and intention, like all other aspects of a story.

Once the reader’s attention is piqued, the next hook is the first line. The first line of a story is like a firm hand shake; it should be confident and convey a sense of control. It should say to the reader: ‘This is a writer who is sure of their craft.’ Here are a few of my favourite opening lines, in no particular order:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith (1948)

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley (1953)

"Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure." The Stranger, Albert Camus (1946)

"It was the day my grandmother exploded." The Crow Road, Iain Banks (1992)

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell: (1949)

‘I inherited Walter. Neither of us had much say in the matter.’ Another Man’s Treasure, Joanna Nell (2015).

It’s the Little Things too:

I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out. ~Oscar Wilde
Writing a great story is hard work and while we can pick out a few elements and say ‘focus on these’, the reality is all aspects of a story are important. Story is, after all, like a tapestry where every thread is meticulously woven to create the whole.

So let’s say you've been at your loom, weaving a story to capture your reader: a story of substance, with splendid characters, vivid settings, beautiful dialogue, events to set the heart racing, and a thematic resonance that will shake your reader to their core. Wonderful!

But you are not finished yet.

All of that mastery can be undone in an instant by slipping tenses, or by misplaced commas and absent full stops, or an overabundance of exclamation marks. Redundancies are the enemy of good writing, as is repetition and incorrect words usage or spelling; be aware of these in the story. And watch, too, for those vampiric adverbs and clichéd adjective, both of which will suck the life from your beautiful writing. Finally, learn to format as a creative writer – study published novels and short stories, check submission guidelines, and do some research on the topic. Here are two good places to start:

Formatting Short Story

Formatting Dialogue

A little aside: I don’t necessarily agree with, or practice, all of the suggestions on these blogs. As a writer, I have my own habits and quirks. For example, I never indent the first paragraph of a piece of writing and I always use single speech marks for dialogue. However, I am open to change a practice; not so long ago, I would double space after a full stop, now I’m a single space kinda gal. What I would suggest is being consistent and, as with every element of your writing, work with intention.

It might seem like pedantic advice but the basic things matter. They speak about a writer’s investment in their writing; how much they care about their craft. They speak about a writer’s skill and professionalism. Mostly, though, they speak about a writer’s respect for their reader, who should never have to struggle with a story at this basic level, unless it is by the stylistic intention of the author.

So there it is: a reflection on what a ‘judge’ is likely to be looking for in a story submitted to a writing competition. It’s been a useful exercise for me, this reflecting, not only because I will approach my own writing with this new insight, but because it reinforces for me that our best teachers are our fellow wordsmiths, both great and emergent.

Thanks for reading, and happy writing!