Week 5 – Character Sketch

Way behind now in this course but will hopefully get to the finish. 🙂

We were asked to sketch a character using an unfamiliar method:

  • Imagine a character very like you but give them a dramatic external alteration. You might make the character the opposite sex, for example, or make them significantly older or younger. You choose.
  • Imagine a character very like someone you have observed – but give them a dramatic external alteration. You might make the character the opposite sex, for example, or make them significantly older or younger. You choose.
  • Create a character purely on the basis of your imagination or intellectual conception (as described by Novakovich as the ‘ideal method’). Remember, don’t be misled by the term ‘ideal’ – this character won’t necessarily be morally good or well behaved.
  • Create a character using any of the above methods in combination, as in what Novakovich calls the ‘mixed method’.

I wrote a somewhat rushed piece using primarily the ideal method – I don’t think there is much of me or anyone I know here (maybe a little – is it possible to be totally unique?):

Jane looked and felt like a new woman, and why shouldn’t she?  Her old life was gone, washed away by the tears of her old life and consigned to the dustbin of ‘no regrets’.  She was reborn, bright and shiny, and by god she was going to have fun.

She looked at herself in the hall mirror, marvelling at the face that stared back at her.  Gone were the features she had hated through her childhood, the pointy nose, the thin lips, the mono-brow resting above plastic glasses, the thin and mousy brown hair – god, she thought, how had she summoned the strength to even go out and why had she waited so long?  Instead the face she found staring back at her was, she felt, classically beautiful with thick blond hair framing the soft features of her blemishless face, her freshly lasered eyes shining brightly, no longer obscured behind glasses. 

In many ways, ironically, it was her husband that she had to thank for her new life, if only by virtue of the fact that he had killed off the old one when he had departed early one morning for parts anew with personages unknown.  After the inevitable few months of despair, Jane was forced to take a long hard look at her life and accept the undeniable fact that she was a mess and resolve that she would sort out her life and move on.

She had started exercising and completely changed her diet and within three months she had lost 14kilo and had run her first 5k. As someone that had never been sporty at school she now found that she could not go a day without her 2 hour exercise session.  Finding Dr Richards was a piece of good fortune and three operations later her nose, lips and breasts had been reduced, plumped and enhanced. 

So here she was, almost a year to the day since that morning when she had woken up to find her old life gone.  She may be 33 but Jane felt certain that the future that she was about to embark on was something to be embraced and enjoyed.

Critically I did feel the piece was a little rushed.  I do try not to make descriptions feel forced and to let them flow and I did feel that I failed in a couple of places above – did not like the backstory in paragraph 4 – felt rushed and probably was.

 

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Week 5 – Challenging Expectations

We were set the task of writing a stereotype in a more complicated fashion.

Write a brief scene, around 300–500 words, in your notebook, in which you portray a character in a complex way, going against the usual expectations for such a character.

I chose to challenge the normal stereotype of a driving instructor….

Mr Button stood on the kerb by the open driver’s door a deep frown embedded on his face, he looked like this was the last place in the world he wanted to be.  Although it was almost lunchtime it was evident that he’d just woken up, and not after a good night’s sleep either.  His hair was a mess, god did he even own a brush Vanessa wondered….or a razor she thought, noticing the two or three days growth on his face.  It was a shame she pondered as with a little more care he could be quite presentable, indeed his blue eyes, although sad, were rather handsome, if you could ignore the streaks of red and the dark shadows under them.  He wore the same tired jeans and loose fitting jacket that had almost become his uniform.

Vanessa greeted him with that false warmth reserved for people we would rather not be spending time with “Hi Mr Button, beautiful day.” A slight nod of his head was the only acknowledgement.

She half expected to see someone else in the back but it seemed that she was his first today; the prospect of having Mr Button to herself, even for an extra 10 minutes, was not something she was relishing.   She climbed in and adjusted her seat, mirror and seatbelt as Mr Button passed in front of the car, opened the passenger door and climbed in.

“Ok” he said pulling on his own seatbelt, “you can start the car”.

She caught the aroma of strong mints and found herself wondering who he thought he was fooling. If his appearance was not proof enough then the contents of the door side pocket were damning – at least two empty bottles, and another well on the way.  At least the mints helped to cover the more unpleasant odours emanating from his side of the car.

“Alright” he continued “you can pull out in your own time and head off”, there was a definite slur to his voice.

Grief, Vanessa thought to herself, this was embarrassing, but she needed the practice and Mr Button was the cheapest instructor in the area.   This was going to be a long hour.

Thinking about this a little I do find myself wondering if a driving instructor is stereotypical enough to do this exercise on – but I am kind of hoping that there are not too many out there that are alcoholics 🙂

 

 

 

Week 5 – Character and Conflict

We were introduced to the concept of:

Character + Conflict = Plot

It was suggested that character should be developed and plot would then evolve out of this character, normally as a result of some character flaw and a conflict of some kind.

Generally I am not completely happy with developing a character without any concept of plot and would like to have an idea of what the story is that I am trying to tell, or at least the situation I am setting it in.  Of course I agree that character needs to be developed before determining back-story and plot lines but I do feel that story needs to be decided first.  I used as an example the pointlessness of building the character of an Icelandic Fisherman and then deciding that the story that suggested itself was at odds to the Teen Dystopian fiction that you wanted to write.   Now I know that you would not build this sort of character if that was your target but I guess I am just saying that you need to have an idea of the journey you want to make before you go and start selecting traveling companions.

As a first exercise we were asked to consider a possible conflict for a character already developed.

I chose the character I developed from week 1 – to recap:

He was sitting in the bus shelter wearing a blue puffer jacket, its collar pulled up against the morning chill, a long red scarf hanging loosely to below his seated knees. But what made him stand out most was his hat, a black trilby, perched comfortably and confidently on his head. I could just see his face although I doubt he had spotted me as he was intently staring at a copy of the Guardian through his non-descript glasses. He was a man that took pride in his appearance, clean shaved and hair neatly trimmed around his ears, although the look of middle age had settled on his face and the beginning of a double chin and paunch clearly evident. I watched him for around 10 minutes but other than an occasional glance up to check for his bus and an occasional shake of his arms to keep the pages straight, he barely moved, no doubt intent on the latest from the arts section. Finally he spotted his bus and with well practiced precision closed and folded the broad-sheet and stood up to make his way to the open doors of the number 22 waiting at the kerb.

I decided that my rather shy and retiring bachelor would have to deal with a relatively small but to him disastrous  conflict when he is forced to defend his simple world against rich Russians who move next door to his one bedroom flat and start excavating a basement.

The possibilities for this are actually quite considerable and although not exactly in the genre I would normally be attracted to it does present itself as quite an attractive proposition.  Indeed it could be head in many directions – crime, comedy, courtroom drama 🙂

Could have a lot of fun with this.

 

Week 4 – Developing Character

We were asked to choose a character and develop it by considering some of the other things we had learnt.

  • imagining more detail
  • making sure you’ve done any necessary research
  • asking some ‘What if?’ questions
  • imagining some of the reasons surrounding the character’s dress, behaviour, speech or actions.

In the previous exercise I had briefly toyed with a plot line for a story entitled – Rail Crossing.  This was to be about a German Jew escaping Nazi Germany into Switzerland by rail in 1943 with a considerable amount of research required into German Railways of the period.

One character that I had considered for this story was that of a German railway guard that suspects the main protagonist but ultimately ends up assisting him.  This would require an understanding of the character and the reasons behind his conflicts – German railway guards during WW2 would, I suspect, normally be very trusted individuals and not likely to help out ‘enemies of the state’.  In short I needed someone who was both very German of the era but also sympathetic – in some ways he was going to be ‘saved’ to0.

I needed him to have a hard appearance – he is a guard after all and initially someone to be feared – I want the reader to see him immediately as a threat.  A scar seemed a likely stereotypical possibility – probably received during the Great War.  He would need in his appearance, initially, to have a clear authority in his speech and appearance.  His name was important and because it would not be known initially I wanted it to suggest a softer side when eventually revealed – researching common names for the era I settled on Walter – which I felt was softer that many other such as Hans or Heinz or Gerhard.

I needed a backstory of a model German – member of the Nazi party yes because it was the patriotic thing to do, and he is patriotic.  Someone  that because of his military training obeyed without question and supported Hitler through his rise to power with a fervour that was not uncommon to the time.  A job on the railway would be a suitable job for a man in his position.

I needed him old enough to be passed over for active service, but not too old as I needed him to be a physical threat – I settled on 53.  His rejection for service gave me a first opportunity to sow some seeds of doubt into his loyalty – this is a loyal man who wanted to fight but was rejected.  His loyalty was being further tested by three long years of wars and a stalemate on the Eastern Front.  His position on the railway, in addition to being instrumental in the plot, was also an ideal way to hear rumours coming out of camps in Poland.

The ‘what if’ would be the main turning point – what would there be about this traveller that would allow his doubts to become something more.  What if Walters childhood sweetheart had been Jewish?  What if he had met her again in the thirties but had turned his back on her – fearful of the consequences.  What if he did not know what had happened to her but this stranger offered an opportunity to appease himself of the guilt he felt….

What if the plot offered a situation where a snap decision was required to save a life or give it up…

Undoubtedly there is far more that could be developed here – his rise through the ranks of the railway – plenty of research to be done here, his family – maybe a son on the Eastern Front (dead? captured?).  Maybe someone in authority that has been making trouble for him.

Anyway this is a character that, although not anticipated to play a large part, would be playing an important role and therefore the reader would need to feel that his behaviour was not without cause.  I also want him to be a personification of the many Germans that were patriotic but became increasingly disillusioned by aspects of Nazism.

 

 

 

 

Week 3 – Something New

We were asked to prepare the beginning of a story using the techniques we have been introduced to.  This would then be reviewed.

I wrote a piece entitled Ice Road – The first draft was around 500 words and needed editing but is included first for reference:

Verne opened his eyes and blinked twice, bright morning sunlight streamed through the small side window of the van.  His back ached.

“It’s not the age…” his wife used to say “…it’s the mileage”, and she knew all about that, she rode Verne with his personal accelerator flat on the floor for 25 years.  In that time they had moved home four times…”We need more space” she would insist, although ‘what for’ remained an unasked question.  While Verne put in the hours running the business, or doing what he really loved and driving the streets of Leicester dishing out frozen confectionary – he disliked the term ice cream – Denise put in equally long hours in the Spa and hair boutique, or just meeting up with friends.  Although an eyebrow or two was raised by some at her behaviour the fact was that Verne loved her and just wanted her to be doing what she enjoyed.  It came as a surprise to nobody, except of course Verne, when he came home one evening to the note on the kitchen counter.

Verne did a lot of crying and a fair bit of drinking but mostly he just sat and thought and wondered where it had all gone wrong and, eventually, whether she had ever loved him in the first place.  His waistline shrank almost as quickly as his hair greyed and that sparkle that had lit up his bright green eyes almost disappeared.  The law, being the ass that it is, took no account of her 2 year affair and by the time matters had run their natural course he had lost the only other thing in his life that mattered as he was forced into selling his business.

His salvation, or at least the beginning of it, came through two separate pieces of advice from friends…

“You need to throw yourself into your work” one had said, seemingly unaware that he had no work to throw himself into.

“Do a bit of travelling”, advised another “See the world”.

The advice led to an idea, and the idea led to a plan, and the plan led to this moment in time.

Verne reached down, opened the door and stepped outside.  His fully customised ice cream van sat on the lay-by overlooking the small bay, the Mediterranean sparkling in the light of the June morning, a solitary sail boat sat at anchor surrounded by the vertical cliffs.  Another car approached and, as it slowed and pulled level, he was somewhat surprised to notice that, like his own, it was a right hand drive.  It parked just in front of him and after a burst of activity a rather tall and thin lady emerged wearing a bright flowery dress.  Tiny heads appeared through the rear window and while attempting calming gestures with her hand she walked in Verne’s direction.

“I know it’s really early” she said in a clearly Yorkshire accent, “but you wouldn’t have two cones and a choc-ice would you?”

 Verne beamed and suddenly looked 10 years younger than his 58 years. “Do you want flakes, and sprinkles?” He loved this job.

This was somewhat edited down to 350 words.  I took out 50-70 words without much problem but the last 100 were a little brutal and although I took out things that did not add anything to the story they did help it flow better and made the meaning clearer.  Anyway included below – this was the submission. 

“It’s not the age…” his wife used to say “…it’s the mileage”, and she knew all about that, she rode Verne with her foot to the floor of his personal accelerator for 25 years.  While Verne put in the hours running the business, Denise put in equally long hours in the Spa or shopping, but Verne loved her and was happiest when she was happy.  Nobody was surprised, except of course Verne, when he came home one evening to the note on the kitchen counter.

Verne did a lot of crying, and a fair bit of drinking, but mostly he just sat and thought and wondered where it had all gone wrong.  His waistline shrank almost as quickly as his hair greyed and that sparkle that had lit up his bright green eyes almost disappeared.  The predictable divorce left him bereft of both his dignity and also his business and at 58 he found himself both alone and without purpose.

His salvation came through two separate pieces of advice…

“You need to throw yourself into your work” one had said, seemingly unaware that he had no work to throw himself into.

“Do a bit of travelling”, advised another “See the world”.

Verne opened the door and stepped outside.  His fully customised ice cream van sat in the lay-by overlooking the small bay, the Mediterranean sparkling in the light of the June morning, a solitary sail boat sat at anchor surrounded by the vertical cliffs.  Another car approached and he was somewhat surprised to notice that, like his own, it was a right hand drive.  It parked just in front of him and after a burst of activity a rather tall and thin lady emerged wearing a bright flowery dress.  Tiny heads appeared through the rear window and while attempting calming gestures with her hand she walked in Verne’s direction.

“I know it’s really early” she said in a clearly Yorkshire accent, “but you wouldn’t have two cones and a choc-ice would you?”

 Verne beamed and suddenly looked 10 years younger than his 58 years. “Do you want flakes, and sprinkles?”

 Edit: Just noticed that I mentioned he was 58 twice.  I thought I had when I wrote the second but at the time could not see the first mention.  Incidentally I would remove the first one as the second one is more bedded in.

 

Week 3 – Editing

We were asked to consider the issue of editing.

Initially as practice we were asked to edit a passage into two lines:

The heavy black and blue winter sky groaned awfully with rain clouds that at any moment were really about to fall crashing heavily down upon the street where, because it was rush hour, so many people, wearing all manner of different clothes, hats, shoes, boots, some of them carrying bags, suitcases, briefcases, scampered and strolled about the place as though oblivious to what was just about to happen over their very heads. One of these people was called Hilary and concealed inside her voluminous coat she carried the loaded, snub-nosed gun, and she also seemed to be the only one looking upwards into the tempestuous thundery heavens.

Specifically to consider:

  • What really matters about this scene?
  • What ‘adds’ something to the scene?
  • What merely adds confusion, detracting from the main point?

I went for a complete rewrite – trying to keep the main elements – approaching storm, rush hour crowds, Hilary and her gun. What the people were wearing seemed unimportant – couldn’t decide whether ‘winter’ was important but kept it out. Hilary looking up suggested an anxiousness and an urgency, so I made it clearer. The fact that it was not raining but that rain was imminent seemed important – maybe Hilary was keen to keep her hair dry 🙂

 

Hillary pushed herself urgently through the rush hour masses, glancing up anxiously at the threatening storm clouds.  She tucked her pistol further inside her coat and drove herself on.

I looked at some of the other rewrites.  Some had done rewrites and recomposed the description completely – while others seemed to have just taken out elements from the provided text.  Some kept certain words in that I felt were not important:

voluminous – Did not seem important description of her coat – she’s carrying a snub-nosed gun so unless there was anything else in there does it matter?

tempestuous – Nice word but to my mind ‘threatening storm’ seemed to do and tempestuous seemed OTT

The next exercise was linked to this and suggested the following as a possible edit:

The winter sky was heavy with rain. It was rush hour. Hilary concealed the loaded gun inside her coat.

We were asked to consider what had been removed and think about the effect of either leaving that element in or taking it out. Think about why we might have cut out some of the elements, and consider how much stronger the short version is

My feeling is that it does what it needs to do and as part of a longer story would seem to work.  However it is bland and does not, I feel, express the sense of urgency in the original. Short sharp sentences can be punchy in the right situation but not sure they work here. Also the sky being heavy with rain does not make it clear that it is not raining yet or that Hilary seems interested in the approaching storm – at least more so than those around her.

In summary of editing we were reminded to never be afraid to edit and throw away things – even elements that are good!!

To consider whether we have said what we want to say in the best way possible – realistic both in terms of story and character.  But equally important is that you are writing something engaging that gets across the important elements in the tone that you intend.

Week 3 – Reviewing the Story

We were asked to review the story from week 2.

Can you see ways in which you could bring the character (or characters) more to life? Rewrite the story incorporating your new ideas.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do the characters come across vividly?
  • Is any of your word usage surprising? Does it help the reader to ‘see’ the characters?
  • Now that you look at it again do you think any of the descriptions are predictable and dull?
  • Are any of the words and phrases you have used too familiar?

I am playing catch-up a little bit here and felt an entire rewrite was not required – but I did tidy up some of the aspects I disliked – e.g. the physical description, and tried to improved flow.  I am somewhat happier now..

When Helen was ten she told her parents she didn’t want to eat meat.  Although concerned they were as supportive as always and agreed to let her try, convinced that the novelty would soon wear off.  At twelve she came home from school one afternoon and told them she’d made up her mind never to eat fish again, somewhat of a novelty in Cape Porpoise, where most people earned their living from the sea.  Finally at thirteen she declared herself a vegan and swore off anything that in her words ‘denigrated animals in any way’.  This made her a bit of a novelty in the small Maine town, where being different but unnoticed was not an option, and by the time Helen hit 9th grade pretty much the whole town knew her by name.

Now starting High School is not the best time to be different, 11th and 12th graders circle like vultures ready to swoop on the odd or anything they don’t understand.  However Helen was blossoming and already attracting a number of male admirers at Kennebunkport High.  Her faces delicate features, accentuated by eyes as blue as the sea and framed by a long blond hair, harkened to her Scandinavian heritage.  The long single pony-tail, she more often than not wore, gave her an almost Heidi-esque appearance.  She had also developed a distinctive dress style and would often turn up in school sporting outfits which were so perfectly balanced they won over the girls as fast as her looks turned the eyes of the boys. Although committed to her own lifestyle she never lectured others on theirs although unsurprisingly enough of the students tinkered with their diet to earn her the occasional accusing look from the local butcher.  As popular as she was, it was not something she strived for, it was simply her way, everyone loved her and she loved her world.

In her senior year at KH, the school paper ran a story on her along with some of the other seniors along the lines of ‘Most Likely to…’, Helen was the ‘Most Likely to change the world’.  The story was picked up by the local CBS affiliate in Portland looking for a human interest story and before she knew it Helen was getting facebook friend requests from kids all over the state – she was becoming somewhat of a hero.

Onwards