Dear Writer Girl Episode #3
Dear Writer Girl is Late Writer Girl this week - apologies, life sometimes gets in the way! This week, people seem to be asking allll about the characterisation, so I have brought a few different letters together.
As usual, if you'd like to ask a question, tweet @leoneross and hashtag #dearwritergirl or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you'd like to remain anonymous, just say so....
It all ends September 30, which means we have about four episodes to go. So do get involved. I may not respond that week, but I will get to you.
PS. Don't write and ask me how to publish. I don't know, and I will ignore you.
PPS. Questions may be slightly edited for clarity or brevity.
I hope something resonates with you this week!
Dearest Writer Girl,
How do you write about death from the point of view [POV] of the dying person?
What a particular question!
First, let me hold up my hand to the fact that I hate this narrative choice - if you mean what I think you mean, There are several ways to go with death and dying in a story.
I offer a three-part response, while gnashing my teeth:
 If what you're trying to write is a scenario where someone is being killed in the present moment -- like hanging off a cliff, or being pummelled into the afterworld by a serial killer or being chased by a rabid bull who is clearly going to kick their ass -- and is telling us their story of death as it happens in the first person or 'I' voice, know that I hate this particular narrative approach like I hate black liquorice (clue: a lot). Why? Because if you're DYING right now, or even just about to die, I don't think you'd be doing anything more than going 'argghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!' inside your head. The idea that this set of circumstances could support a coherent narrative to the Dear and Attentive Reader is maddening. Who the hell are they talking to, exactly? It feels old-fashioned, as well. The problem here is that a character narrating their own death seriously challenges the reader's willing suspension of disbelief. We can't relax because we're so aware the writer is doing this terribly unconvincing, tremendously self-conscious, annoying-as-hell reportage. And because of that, we are now hyper-conscious of reading a book, rather than simply being lost in the world of the narrative. I have a suspicion, Dear Reader, that people who try to write this way need to read more and better books/stories. Dance on in to the 21st century, if you please.
So yeah, if this is what you mean, I am begging you not to do it.
 Maybe I'm wrong and you're not attempting the death-in-the moment narrative but are doing something even more exquisitely annoying -- not black-liquorice annoying, but snotty-steamed-okra annoying: the posthumous narration trick. This is where the story is being told by someone already dead. I hate this approach because once again, I am distracted from immersed reading, this time by too many questions: how is the dead narrator actually doing this? Are they some kind of self-aware ghost? And if so, why are they doing this? Why don't they get on with the infinitely more interesting business of ghostiness? Is the after-life so boring that they have to bang on about what's gone before? I have always objected, even as a small child, to the idea that a ghost had to be bound to the earth by Bad Things As Yet Uncovered. Chill, ghost. Go boogie amongst the stars. Surely there are better things to do. And yes, Alice Sebold's Lovely Bones was a bestseller (too saccharine for my taste, sorry) but even she was actually spending more time considering the effect on the family and friends that the dead protagonist leaves behind.
The worst version of posthumous narration is the gimmick where we find out the narrator is dead at the end: ta-da! I don't care how much money M. Night Shyamalan made from that bullshit in The Sixth Sense [I worked it out in like, scene six...]. McDonalds makes lots of money too: a thing doesn't have to be good to be profitable. It's not reason for the cliche of all cliches. Or maybe it is. Send Dear Writer Girl some of your dirty cash, if you make it. But I digress.
There are modern books around that do this [see, I did some research for you, click here for some recent novels narrated by dead people...and they have taken some pretty interesting approaches to get past the cliche...].
Again, I beg you, back away from the big reveal: it's NOT CLEVER.
 OK, here's the Some Ideas On How To Do It bit. Let me accept that you want to write about death from the dying character's POV, Sharon. I hope you are taking on the most interesting kind of 'death-writing', where it happens over a period of time, rather than mid-bovine homicide - and allows for depth and reflection.
First, ask yourself WHY you want to write about death. Maybe it fascinates you, frightens you a little bit, intrigues you. All excellent reasons to do a thing. If I was attempting this, I'd ask myself some questions. How is the person dying? Is it a painful illness? Is it old age? What is the state of his body and mind? What are his other circumstances? Why am I choosing to use this stage of life to express my ideas - death is a commentary on life, so what are my wider themes? What am I using death to say? How is the physical and mental experience of dying affecting the character's language? Will I use first or third person? Third person might give me a little objective space, and I could do some interesting things with description and structure; first person will, of course, be highly focussed and subjective - so which do I want? What are the other people doing, around the dying person? Death might be happening, but there are other stories going on too - what are they and how do they connect to or contrast with this death? (Be aware, this multiple-level consideration is better and easier for longer pieces of writing).
If you INSIST on writing the death in the now, as it happens, over a shorter period of time or with less words, it seems to me that the protagonist is going be either physically hyper-aware [of what is going on in the body, the breath, any pain etc] or so gone past-caring, that they become existentially hyper-aware [who am I and what is next and what is existence and what will I become?]. Do you agree? Do you think anything else might pre-occupy the dying? How do you want to use these considerations?
Or I guess you could just have massive fun and write it all in one glorious, silly stream of consciousness, including necessary swear words at the bull/serial killer/cliff from whence they cling...
PS. I'd love it if you wrote back and let us know which approach - if any! - you're working with :-)
Dear Writer Girl,
What are the factors which cause the reader to have an emotional connection with the writer's character? Is it more than the writer giving info/backstory about the character? I have written a piece where a reader has said they did not connect with my character and read novels where I have not connected. I am wondering why?
Dear Writer Girl,
How do you write varied, nuanced characters? My characters tend to feel like either a thinly veiled version of myself or a cariacature; how do you find that middle ground and empathise with characters that are totally unlike you?
Dear Jacqueline & Amy,
I don't necessarily agree with your premises. Jacky: no one has to emotionally connect with your writing, and some people just won't. Maybe they're not interested in your themes, or they don't fancy the sound of your voice on the page. Men, for example, tend to like to read about other men, or to read male authors. [Sorry, I couldn't resist popping in that factoid]. So just because someone has not connected with what makes you passionate, doesn't mean you're doing something wrong. Amy: you can write about yourself, in an gloriously unapologetic Let's-Have-A-Parade kind of way, if you want. After all, VS Naipaul and Terri Macmillan and Stephen King obviously do/did it. So, be kind to yourself if you have this autobiographical tendency - many perfectly successful writers take this approach and write all the more vividly for it.
But you have asked some specific questions, which I'll try to answer:
How do you write varied, nuanced characters? How do you avoid caricature?
Specificity - one of the biggest mistakes writers make is to create generic, cookie-cutter, one dimensional characters. That is often because you don't know them very well. You don't know them because you don't realise that you should, or you don't know how to know them, or you're too lazy to do the work. Personally, I think you should know a character better than you know yourself - especially if we're talking about a whole novel's worth of them. After all, you made them, and shouldn't have any blind spots about them. To make the characters vivid and breathing, try this two-part exercise I do with my students:
(1) Fill in a sheet of details about your character. You can choose any you like, but they could include: full name, age, occupation, details of romantic life, how they dress, their political/spiritual opinions and why they hold them, what their best friend is like, what weather they prefer, what they eat, what music they like, whether they use tampons or pads, what birth control they use, what illness they've had, what they profoundly believe to be true, what their living room looks like etc etc etc
(2) After spending some time on this, get a friend involved. Give your pal the list of details and have them go through it, item by item. For each one, your friend should ask the most powerful question for characterisation: WHY? The simplest details can be the most powerful when interrogated.
Why does this character have this name?
Why do they wear only red earrings?
Why do they do a facial scrub on Sundays?
Why do they believe that God is love?
Your friend should insist on an answer from you, even if you're just theorising or musing. Not only should the pal be asking WHY and insisting on an answer, but they should also be helping you to avoid the WORST two words you could use: JUST BECAUSE.
As in: 'WHY does Doris Brown work in retail?
'Oh, JUST BECAUSE she needs money.'
This is lazy characterisation. You must become fascinated with your characters. You want to know everything there is to know. You want to be tremendously specific about everything they are, do, feel, want, fear, love. So you can say 'wow, I don't know the answer' but you can't say 'ah well, that's just because his dad's name was Smith.' Nah. WHY, though, fam?
Something about chatting this way about a made-up person makes them feel very real, indeed.
Establish a strong psychological core - this is an approach I stole from Writer's Digest about 2,000 years ago. I am afraid I can't remember exactly when and where. But it is an approach to characterisation that's pretty common, from Shakespeare to Toni Morrison. You need to identify three things about the core of this character's personality:
(1) What they want, most of all - their Basic Need. This is stuff based in childhood or adolescence and it is the motor of a person, what runs their behaviour. It is usually a 'universal' want - by that I mean anyone can relate to these wants - a single father in Mongolia working with dump trucks, a woman doctor in Jamaica, a drag queen walking through a rain storm.
Examples: to have friends; to be loved; to be seen; to be understood; to be at peace; to let go; to be free.
Basic needs give birth to all kinds of personality traits and attendant behaviours. That makes sense - if the core of me really wants to be loved, then I am going to act like that and feel that and live that and develop a personality based on this core, trembling need. What you need to do is decide on at least two core personality traits for your characters:
(2) The Fatal Flaw - the personality trait, anchored in their basic need that could mess their lives up, if allowed to run amuck. If I really want to be loved, I could become needy. When things aren't going right in my (conscious and unconscious) need to make that intimate connection, my neediness could cause both behaviours and states of mind that could cause major problems in my life: choosing an abusive partner, deciding a partner is perfect before I get to know them, etc
(3) The Greatest Strength - the personality trait, anchored in their basic need, that could save them from their fatal flaw. So this isn't just a good personality trait. It's the thing that saves them from themselves. If I'm always fighting my neediness, what am I fighting it with? Maybe I'm pretty smart. I know that dropping to my knees and begging for love is unattractive. So I temper my neediness with intelligence. What you're doing is setting up a good old angel/devil-on-the-shoulder dynamic, where the character's core is a fight between different sides of themselves.
Why do we need this?
Stories, in some ways, are simply about taking people, with basic needs and flaws and strengths and throwing shit at them. Then seeing what happens. Take Dave, 32, a budding architect with spotted socks, a moustache he's proud of, and a Catholic background, who really needs to be loved. Dave's needy on the bad days, but manages to be intelligent enough to control himself. Have Dave meet a person who he thinks could be the absolute love of his life, but make them unavailable: married, the 'wrong' gender, too old, 'wrong' race, just about to leave the country...
It is the relationship between all these elements that creates the heart of the PERSON you are writing about. Knowing this can anchor your character, and helps to keep them consistent and believable and real. Because you keep coming back to it. It's the core. There may be many more things to know about the character's personality, but this is what it all grows out of.
In some ways, characterisation is repetition, a riff on the heart of a person. You know those fancy Michelin restaurants with texture dishes? You know the type. Textures of tomato. Textures of rhubarb. Textures of mango: mango tart, freeze-dried mango, rotten mango supreme, mango dusted in peppercorns. Characterisation can be like that, too. Textures of addiction. Textures of love. Textures of fear. That's what we mean as editors, when we ask: what's the story about?
What are the factors which cause the reader to have an emotional connection with the writer's character? Is it more than the writer giving info/backstory about the character?
See above. Specificity and psychological core.
A problem to be solved.
I don't know why, but readers tend to make connection with people in stories when those people WANT something. They want the girl, they want to dance the fandango with a giraffe, they want to stop feeling so lousy every Tuesday morning, they want to have plastic surgery to be more beautifully juicy, they want to ban plastic surgery and makeup and celebrate all bodies at all sizes. Whatever. When we see people wanting stuff, and see them make off in the direction of that something they want, we tend to get emotionally involved. Especially if we can relate to that desire, or we just think it's interesting. We turn pages to see if they get what they want.
Back story is great, but you don't actually need to get bogged down in telling us all the stuff you know about your character's yesterdays - especially if you just dump it on the page in a big splodge. That can be a REAL problem in fiction. Look at how needy Dave is, you insist. His mum died when he was three. His giraffe died when he was seven. You bang on about this for 14 pages, summarising everything you know. Yes, I told you to make a list, but that was to get to know the character. A list is not the same thing as an effective piece of fiction.
All you have to do is get to know a specific human being, give them a problem to be solved and if your reader fancies that idea, they'll stick with you to see what happens. Let's return to our Dave, 32, architect, excellent moustache and all. White supremacist, mind you, though one in need of love. Lets have Dave meet a married black woman, and vow to steal her from her husband. Give him all kinds of ideas about how to do it ('cause he's intelligent, don'tcha know). Don't tell me about his mamma and why he's prejudiced as hell. Get him amongst the action, trying to deal with this situation that challenges him on so many levels. That's a story. And yes, yes, I know you want to hate Dave, which brings me to my final point...
How do you empathise with characters totally unlike you?
Dave would be a hard one for me. Cos you know: being a black woman and all that. But if I decide to write Dave, I have to take him through his paces like every other character. I have to make him specific, and human. I'd still have to get a pal to interview me (or interview myself). Because he seems so unlike me, I'd have to understand his core. In knowing him, I'd probably come to feel compassionate about him. Thing is, Dave might be a butt-reaming racist, but I'd know why. I'd work out what made him. I'd know who he could have been. I'd get intrigued about him.
I know I joke around, but I truly believe this is why literature - and character - is so important. It gets at the best of you. It requires you to feel and to empathise and to forgive and in so doing, it helps you to grow. It's one of the many reasons we should always teach story-telling in school.
You may also want to have a look at part of my meme series, 'The Art of the Sentence', with more general tips for characterisation in Parts 11-14. It's a process I call 'Shrink, Sadist, Parent, God.'
You can find it on Instagram, beginning here: