Week 1: Allow Yourself to Write Badly
Week 2: Twisted Tales and Tilted Heads
Week 3: The Reader Becomes the Writer
Week 5: What Does Your Character Want?
What does your character want?
This blog by Phil Olsen was originally written for Bluecoat, May 25, 2016.
Phil Olsen is currently studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at The University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing. Phil will be guest blogging for Bluecoat throughout our Comma Press Short Story course.
Comma Press short story course – Workshop 5: ‘Character, Dialogue and Description’, 4 May 2016
And so to our penultimate session; if this blog series was itself a story, then this would probably be the point at which everything needed to start coming together and offering some sort of resolution. Luckily it’s not.
After spending the last few workshops exploring different types of short stories – from Epical tales with a twist to Artifice absurdity via Lyrical slices of life – this month Comma Press author Sarah Schofield had the group focusing on the fundamentals of character, dialogue and description.
A handy way to remember them is to think ‘the three Ds’ (but then you also have to remember to change the D in Dharacter to back to a C). Feel free to come up with your own, better, way of remembering these essential story ingredients.
These of course are important to get right for stories of any length, but with a short story there’s the additional task of being economical – of only selecting the words you really need. (< I could probably end this sentence at economical.)
Sarah began the workshop by projecting a slide of a wicker basket. Had we walked into the wrong class? Was this Willow Weaving 101? No, it was to make the point that character, dialogue and description are not things to be treated separately – they should all be interwoven.
So for example the dialogue should tell us something about character (do they have a dialect? Are they relaxed or uptight? Are they even listening to the person they’re talking to?), and in that way we don’t need to spend as long describing the character.
One of our writing exercises this month involved compiling 20 random questions that we would then have to pose to the characters we’d created.
“If you are struggling with writing a character, write 20 things that the reader will never know about your character. These will naturally bleed into your writing and provide a richness even though you don’t share the detail.”
We each wrote a question, folded it up and put it into a box. Sarah then pulled out the questions and read them out to the group. Without spending too long thinking about it, we then had to imagine what our character would do in each scenario, and scribble it down.
A few of the questions our characters had to answer included:
- What do you carry in your pockets or handbag?
- What would you do if you witnessed a homeless person pickpocketing someone in an expensive looking suit?
- What were you doing at the time of 9/11?
My protagonist’s answers to those questions were as follows:
- A stolen car radio
- Blackmail the homeless person for a share
- Operating the swan pedalos at a theme park that has long since closed down.
Immediately afterwards I felt like I knew so much more about my first story’s lead character. I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t a little disappointed by some of his behaviour, but hey, it was good of him to open up to me. The 9/11 question threw me especially – not because of the significance of the events of that day, but because it meant I had to picture what was going on in my character’s life a whole 15 years before my story took place.
When it comes to the dialogue, it’s more believable if both characters engaging in the conversation have their own agendas. One shouldn’t merely be there to facilitate the other by providing the occasional ‘Yeah?’ ‘Uh-huh’ or ‘Do tell me more’. Yeah?
Next month is the last of the six workshops and my final blog will look at the finer details of finishing, formatting and submitting work, and getting it out there into the world.