Sunday, 14 January 2018

Writing for Beginners (38)

Giving your characters their head.

I used to think, back in my early writing days, that when it came to portraying action and dialogue in a story, the approach had to be as rigorously controlled, say, as when describing scenery. And that these two more malleable elements of fiction writing had to be kept in check or, like unruly cats, they'd go off and do something else when you didn't want them to.

Unfortunately, as I quickly discovered, controlling what happens on the page – especially in longer projects - needs planning and forethought. Without both, you can soon find yourself wandering off-track like a drunk after a Saturday night shindig. The consequences are, your hero or heroine might follow suit and do or say something you hadn’t planned, thereby ruining your whole idea.

Call me weak, but I gradually began to find myself relaxing my guard. Before I knew it, one of my characters had flown off at a tangent and begun to act in what building contractors refer to as ‘off-plan’, and typing dialogue or action seemed to be controlled less by me than by the story unfolding on my screen, with events occurring in a way which bore no relation to my original plans.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean I began communicating with the ghost of Raymond Chandler, or that Elvis started dropping by in the wee small hours to tell me he’d been a frustrated novelist all along. (I might get a little intense when deadlines loom near, but every one of the voices in my head is my own – I promise).

The nearest I can come to describing this is like skiing off-piste, which I’ve only ever done by accident. It’s interesting, if a little unsettling, because, like writing, if you veer off-course instead of following the flagged routes, you can never be certain where you’ll end up.

At first, discipline (or a carefully prepared plot layout) will probably ensure that you haul your errant ideas back on course. This usually avoids considerable re-writing and the frustration of feeling you’ve just wasted a lot of time and effort.

But if you think about it, while a structured approach can be beneficial, especially if you have a deadline to meet, it doesn’t have to apply every time. Why not let your writing become organic once in a while, allowing the direction of the words or action to be dictated by the subconscious?

I don’t mean chuck all your planning out of the window and abandon yourself to undisciplined scribbling – that would be a little too free-form, especially if you hope to earn money from your writing efforts. But if you try it when not too pressed for time, you might find that when you read over some of your unintended diversions, you discover that they aren’t necessarily bad, and have actually flowed effortlessly onto the page.

One explanation for this organic growth in the story may be down to the characters becoming fleshed out in your mind, and developing naturally into the sort of people you meant them to be, rather than simply following a clinical plan.

Nowadays, perhaps because I have learned not to be too straight-jacketed in my approach, while I generally have a vague idea of the direction I want to go in, I have a far looser hand on the controls when it comes to writing action and dialogue.

This came out most strongly in a one story, when my lead character, faced with the situation of rescuing a particularly evil individual from death, simply walked away and left him to it. Nasty ending, perhaps, but take my word for it, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.

I hadn’t planned it; in fact, my original idea had been to have the villain done away with in a twist-in-the-tail scene by one of his equally vile colleagues. Yet when faced with the scene on the page, I found myself thinking that, given the kind of person the hero was, and what he knew of the villain, would he really risk life and limb to save him – or worse, chance him escaping the law and continuing his wicked deeds elsewhere?

The wonderful thing is, within the bounds of believability, you can have your heroes and villains do whatever you choose. They're your characters, after all, inhabiting your scenes and therefore subject to whatever you choose to throw at them. They don’t have to act, speak or emote in a conventional manner, and if you think they should behave a little off-the-wall, well, why not?

A bit God-like? Maybe. I prefer to think of it as part of the creative toolbox, where you elect to use a variety of means to achieve the finished product. It may not work every time, and occasionally the tried and tested methods may prove more practical. But every now and then, why not cut loose and give your characters their head? Let them speak or act in a way you hadn’t planned, to see where it takes you.

Live dangerously (on paper, anyway). You never know, it could prove liberating in all sorts of ways.


·       Be prepared to let a character dictate the action and see where it leads.
·       Don’t be too inflexible in how they speak, act or react.
·       Review your cast of characters and see if any of them could take a more central role.
·       If you find yourself automatically allowing a character their head, go with it.
·       They’re your characters – do with them what you like.
This article was taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Beginners article and New Author profile

February's issue of Writing Magazine contains my usual monthly 'Beginners' slot and my New Author profile of debut novelist, Lloyd Otis.

Beginners - 'See Through The Fog', is a driving analogy all writers can identify with quite easily. It's that state of mind where you can't see a way forward, and navel gazing becomes the norm. In short, instead of letting it overcome you, review what you've written so far, look for plot holes and potential links forward, and before long you'll see things more clearly.

The basic idea is, keep going. Your own storyline is more often than not the best guide to inspiration.


The New Author this month is crime writer Lloyd Otis, whose novel 'Dead Lands' was published in October by Urbane Publications.

A 1970s-set crime thriller stretching from London, via Cardiff, Yorkshire to New Jersey, it follows the path of murder suspect Alexander Troy, who has a genuine alibi to prove his innocence... but can't use it and is forced to go on the run from the police.

Among Lloyd's tips for success is 'Polish off your final draft and get it out there.'

The best advice always. If no-one can see it, no-one can judge it.

And, as he also says, 'Stay Lucky!'