On characters

Greetings! It’s now only a few weeks until the official release (10th November) of Human Resources on ebook, in paperback and in hardback! Please favour me and pre-order a copy. I happen to think it’s not half bad and would do a very nice job as a wonky-table prop or as a coaster.

To celebrate the release I’m going to do a series of blog-posts about different aspects of the novel; first off, here’s a little ramble about Character. In the weeks that follow I’ll write about things like plot, setting and POV – and maybe even more, depending on whether I can think of anything else. If you want me to look at anything in particular, please comment or hunt me down on Twitter (@robintriggs – not so hard, really) and I’ll see what I can do.

Big thanks to Fiona Glass – a lovely person and top class author – for the inspiration for these posts.

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Let’s get one thing straight straight off. Human Resources is the sequel to Night Shift and, as such, features some of the same characters. Primary amongst these is our point-of-view character, Anders Nordvelt.

I don’t want to go into great detail about him as you’ll all know him from the first novel. Suffice to say that there’s a lot of me in him; socially awkward, with unresolved mental health issues, an observer as much as a participant, he’s an unusual protagonist and it’s all my fault.

I never realised this at the time of writing, of course. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I never knew what I was doing.

The supporting cast of Night Shift – those that survived – make their reappearances in Human Resources. They are, however, joined by a new cast of characters that all bring their own neuroses, obsessions and paranoias.

The story revolves around the growth of the isolated mining base from the first novel into a city and the problems that brings. Thus we have an Executive Committee that have their own motives; a new security service – headed by Anders – that are trying to work out how to enforce laws never tested in the field; and a population of immigrant labourers, not all of whom want to be in Antarctica in the first place.

How do I come up with my characters? In a variety of different ways. Some, like the executive committee, came in the initial worldbuilding prep – I knew I needed a ‘ruling class’ and thus there had to be people to occupy these roles. Others, like my own personal favourite, Sergeant Bartelli, came more spur-of-the-moment: I needed a policeman and he arrived more-or-less fully-formed in my head just in time to fill the role I’d created.

Then there’s the in-between characters like Shakil Mithu, unwilling immigrant and rebel leader. He’s a big personality and prime suspect in the murder of… but I don’t want to give too much away. For now let me just say that he’s an example of a character that I had to come up with before setting pen to paper; he’s a plot-character, integral to the story. But he didn’t really come alive until I reached him in the story and had circumstances and other characters for him to play off.

Most characters arrived before or during the first draft, and stayed fairly constant. Others were created – or at least significantly retooled – in the editing. Sergeant Nascimento was a late arrival, whilst Engineer Prashad and Professor Holloway both underwent significant revision in later drafts.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have no set way of creating characters for a novel. I don’t sit down and draft in-depth character sheets for everyone; I don’t have everyone set before I put pen to paper for the first time. Some key figures I have pre-prepped but it’s often the ones who take me by surprise, who come from somewhere deep in the subconscious, that I end up falling furthest for. Yet others take work and require multiple drafts before they ‘fit’ properly.

Human Resources is a combination of all of these and it took time for me to get it right. For me the genius is in the editing, not in the first-drafting.

I’m always more interested in the Everyman rather than superheroes, the sidekick more than the main event. I like the underdog and favour the dogged rather than the inspired and the influence of film noir over me has far exceeded the amount I’ve actually seen.

Valentin Demchenko

That gives me free rein to create a cast of flawed and – hopefully – realistic characters.

Next week – Plot!              

Kill your darlings

Pigeon bus

I need to kill my darlings.

I’m not talking about that hackneyed ‘get rid of your good writing’ thing that may or may not be good advice (Spoiler: it’s good advice if it’s qualified enough to make it entirely different advice). I’m talking about rather more literal darlings. I’m talking about characters.

In 1998 or thereabouts I came up with a character for a roleplaying game. His name is Andrew Cairns, and he’s Australian. G’day.

A little later, in 2003ish, I came up with another. His name’s Paul Hazel and he was originally a wrestler.

I’ve been carrying these guys with me in my head for nearly two decades. I’ve been on many imaginary adventures with them. Gradually they’ve been moulded and grown far beyond the source material. They now inhabit their own fully-developed worlds.

So when I fancied writing a new novel it seemed natural to turn them into protagonists. I tinkered and shaped in my mind to worldbuild them a framework; to strip them out of their source material and create a universe that’d be worth exploring. I gave them an antagonist and a mission. And I set them loose.

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I’m quite pleased with the result. I’ve created a story with a plausible ‘world’ and a villain who’s a real star. The newly-created characters are fun to write and, I think, read well too.

The characters that hold the story back are, as you’ve probably guessed, Paul Hazel and Andrew Cairns.

The reason for this, I think, is that these two characters are overwritten. I’ve spent too long with them. They’re fully rounded, matured: I’ve not left any room for them to grow.

I listened to a podcast recently which said that the best characters are brought to the world without baggage. Certainly all my favourite characters in my own writing are the last-minute spur-of-the-moment creations.

From the policemen hastily conjured to fill gaps in my first never-to-be-shared novel The Ballad of Lady Grace, to the haunted, sleep-deprived Saira in Oneiromancer, the characters who sing for me are the ones I’d never met before setting finger to keyboard.

Hazel and Cairns came to the novel fully grown. All the interesting things about them had already happened. I left no room for them to grow into, no space for change. They’ve become immutable, ossified.

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They might be well-written, they might be realistic, they might be nuanced and have hidden depths – and let’s not forget the whole novel is built around them – but they’re sucking the life from the story.

All those guides for creating characters (like this, for example; there are hundreds out there) are just guides for carving blocks of wood. If they have any use it’s in helping remember the ideas you come up with on the fly. Otherwise just forget them. Bin them. Burn them.

Write. Let your characters surprise you. Run your plot into a place where you need a person, then click your fingers and bring alive the first thing that comes into your mind.

They’ll be a whole lot more realistic than the person you spent days creating a whole back-story for.

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This blog has been brought to you by a critique by @orcsandelves and a particular podcast from a source that, after going on about relentlessly for the last few months, I am sworn not to name.

 

Back to the egg

michaelangelo

A metaphor. By Michaelangelo, so you can tell it’s quality

The journey matters. That’s what a story is: the account of an ‘adventure’, be it a romp through demon-infested caverns or the tale of an old woman’s last days in splendid isolation. And, at its heart, the journey is not a physical voyage but a state of mind. A satisfying story will be one where the characters finish up as different people to those who set out.

This is what I’m getting wrong.

It’s been a gradual feeling creeping over me over the course of several drafts. I have a large cast. Some of the characters I’ve worked with were created on the spur of the moment, designed to fill a need and who have then grown. Others I’ve had in my head for years and I’m finally getting round to setting in an actual story.

Guess which ones I’ve done badly.

Yup, that’s right: it’s the ones I’ve held longest. They don’t grow. They don’t have the arcs. What I’m gradually coming to realise is that I’ve started their tales in the wrong place. They are too complete, too mature: they’ve fought their battles already and have found peace. Great for them but no good for my readers.

When we first see a character in a novel they need to be flawed. They might have incredible powers; they might be geniuses, they might have colossal strength but they don’t have a personality without a flaw. They must have a weakness – either physical or emotional or social – that we must see them conquer.

Which is why the next draft of Oneiromancer must de-age some of my characters. I possibly mean that literally – just take my characters back in time a little – but the crucial thing is that they start at an earlier stage of their development. I’ve skipped the introduction and rushed straight to the climax. No-one likes a Mary-Sue: I must take them back to when they were apprentices, not masters.

This is difficult. I’ve lived with these people for a long time – for too long. They’re fixed in my brain. Hell, they’re wish-fulfilment – the sort of people I want to be. Before I can get it right I need to let go. I need to redefine them in my mind, to divorce them; to sever the emotional bond I’ve built up over a decade or more.

This is a challenge. And I hate hard work.

A letter to beta-readers everywhere

Dear Reader

So. Here we are again. How many times do we have to go through this, huh? I thought that the last time was…. Well, the last time. But no. Once again you let me down and we have to go through this whole pathetic rigmarole once more.

What’s that you say? It’s my fault? That they were my errors and you were doing me a favour anyway? Nonsense. No-one writes magic on the first pass. It’s down to you to let me know what’s working and what isn’t. If you’d have given me what I wanted initially we might both have been spared this abomination. So I’ve come up with a list of things I actually want you to evaluate as you read through my novel once again. If a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing properly and all that.

So, no slacking, no excuses. Here’s what I want you to think about.

The basics:

  • Typos, spelling, grammar – you know this. But please do draw any errors to my attention
  • Unspecified ‘bad writing’. If I could make something clearer/be sharper, or if something just could be better-written please do let me know
  • Punctuation matters. Tell me if I’ve got it wrong!
  • Under no circumstances allow me to dangle my modifiers

Plot:

  • Do you understand the plot? Is it rational/fair? Is it sufficiently complex but not over-complicated?
  • Are any threads left tangling? Any subplots left unresolved?
  • Does it sustain your interest?
  • Any McGuffins left hanging? Are there any Chekov’s Gun’s carelessly lying around?

Style:

  • Are there too many rhetorical questions?
  • Does the novel ‘flow’ right? Is it well paced, and were there any sections that dragged?
  • Does the mood change across scenes, but not too abruptly within them?
  • Are any bits of information repeated?
  • Is anything underexplained?

Character/dialogue:

  • Did you get a clear impression of the characters?
  • Were they consistent? Did they ever do anything that seemed awry to you?
  • Were there any sections of dialogue that seemed stiff or unnatural?

Other:

  • Were there any ideas that seemed hackneyed or old-hat?
  • Any clichés?

Remember, I don’t just want to know about things that are ‘bad’; I also want to know if I can do anything better. I realise that might mean the whole damn thing, but I’m a terrible judge of my own writing. I’m also lazy and, given the chance, would happily hop-and-skip straight across a passage if it’s not scribbled over in red pen with a big note saying ‘rewrite; you could do this better’.

So, let’s get down to it. Are you ready? Maybe, if you do your job properly this time, we’ll crack it this time.

Yours, with begrudging thanks

The Author