Inspiration: Getting in the spirit

When the creative juices are running low, I often spend a little bit of time visiting some of the people, places and things which have inspired me to write over the years.  Obviously these are very personal to me, but they might help you think about some of your own.

Ballet ShoesI am adopted.  When I first discovered Noel Streatfeild‘s classic Ballet Shoes as a Tweener I became enthralled in the world of possibilities and creativity.  Of the three sisters I can most closely relate to Pauline, but there is also a little bit of Petrova and Posy in me.  Perhaps, if G.U.M. had brought home a fourth Fossil, she would have been called Philippa, and she would have been a writer!

This book still captivates me to this day.  Not only does it inspire me to “save the penny and walk” wherever I can, it also reminds me that our destiny is never defined by our past, and in the present the opportunities and possibilities are ours for the taking. There literally are no limits as to what I can do.

 

Deia MajorcaLucia Graves, daughter of the poet Robert Graves, and author in her own right, is a friend of the family. As a result we spent a number of summers in the delightful village of Deià, Majorca. Deià was a hotbed of creative people, and I remember being surrounded by actors, artists, dancers, writers and musicians, all of which have inspired me over the years to find my own creative voice and expression.

I get disheartened with the cult of celebrity these days, where someone becomes famous for being on a reality television show, and it’s newsworthy to report that a celebrity was seen wearing a bikini. To me it’s not about whether or not someone is famous, but rather whether or not they ooze creative energy and inspiration. When I am surrounded by such people I tend to ooze that same creative energy myself.  I shall always be thankful when it happens, and Deja is one such place.

Watford Palace TheatreAs a teenager I became a member of the youth section of Watford Palace Theatre. It was referred to as Theatreyard, and I spent many a happy Wednesday evening improvising, learning lines, and pretending to be someone else. My most memorable appearance was as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ll always remember going into my dressing room, which had previously been occupied by Jane Lapotaire, only to find a mouldy tea bag in a dirty pot!

Michael Attenborough was the Artistic Director during this time and he was a magnet for some incredible talent.  I saw plays with Jane Lapotaire, Roger Rees, Mel SmithGriff Rhys Jones, Rik Mayall, Simon Cadell, to name but a few.  As I sat in the dress circle, eyes wide with wonder at their impeccable timing and delivery, I didn’t wish I could be them, I wished I could write for them.  I never did show the leaders of Theatreyard any of my ideas. If I had I expect they would have supported and encouraged me. A missed opportunity perhaps, but also a very good reminder not to hide what I have written but to put it out there and see what happens.

J K RowlingI couldn’t possible write a blog about inspirational people, places and things without including J.K. Rowling. This is an early picture of her when she still wrote in a coffee shop. I like it because it reminds me where she came from, a place I can certainly relate to.

What she has taught me is that it is possible to write in the midst of adversity, to never give up trying, and that the only limits are the limits of our imagination. I have absolutely no desire to write like her, despite loving her work.  Instead I want to find my own voice, and help it to sing.  I equally have no desire to write about witches and wizards, despite being entertained for hours by the Harry Potter novels. Rather, I have felt inspired by her to dream up my own kind of world that I would like to live in, and hope that maybe, one day, some of my readers would like to join me there too.

Writing: It All Begins with a Slab of Marble

I absolutely love hopping on a Twitter two or three times a day to check in with all my #amwriting colleagues from across the globe.  They really motivate me with their anecdotes, quotes and out and out enthusiasm. Occasionally I even get to help someone in return.

This has happened a few times over the last week, and a similar theme seems to be emerging that others have found useful. I thought I’d blog about it and share it with you good people in the hopes it will help you too.

The message is simple. The Venus de Milo didn’t start out looking like this:

Michaelangelos Angel

In actual fact it started out looking something like this:

Marble slab

As Michelangelo is quoted as saying, “I saw the angel in the marble, and carved him until I set him free.”  I believe that some of the best literature has been carved out a whole pile of words that have been chipped away at in order to reveal the masterpiece underneath.

Keeping this in mind, there are some important lessons to be learned from this:

  • Writer’s Block – can be a thing of the past. It’s not that you can’t find words, any more than Michelangelo was unable to source marble, it’s that you are looking too hard for the right ones.  Just verbally throw up all over the page, even if you swear at it, and I promise you, eventually the ideas and the right words will come.
  • Editing – The single most important thing about being an author isn’t even the writing itself; it’s the editing.  It may sound tedious, but it really needn’t be.  It’s running your expert fingers along the curves and crevasses of your work, chipping off the unnecessary and polishing the dull until it shines. Good editing can be the difference between the Venus de Milo and something you bought at your local garden centre.

I have found that I cannot edit directly on the screen.  I print it out each time and comb through it with a red pen (I have quite a collection). I correct typos, cut the unnecessary, re-phrase the awkward, and juggle the order so it scans. Sometimes it can take as many as five drafts for me to be happy enough with it to move on, but it really is worth it. I get an enormous sense of satisfaction when it’s done.

So, let’s all start throwing down some marble slabs, and set free a whole host of angels from within!

 

Some advice from Mrs Ridgeley

In my last two years in junior school I was fortunate enough to have an amazing teacher.  Her name was Mrs Ridgeley, and if that sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because her son, Andrew, was in the 80’s pop group Wham! with George Michael.

As exciting as it was to listen to their records in the classroom, and to see the joy and pride on Mrs Ridgeley’s face, the lasting impression this wonderful lady had on me was one of creativity and hard work.

There was never a dull moment in her lessons.  She brought imagination and enthusiasm to each task.  I learned about the political bias between different newspapers, how to draw a daffodil, who the Normans were, and some basic words of French.  But I also learned about life.

One subject I particularly treasured was “Creative Writing”. As I was going through an old chest recently I came upon my creative writing books and Mrs Ridgeley’s words leapt out of the page at me.

 

“Some very good ideas here, Susanna, but you could have made it a “top-class” story by using a little more thought, imagination, and effort.  Read my notes – it will help you improve to become a really good writer – you could be, but you’ve got to work harder at it.!”

Sadly, Mrs Ridgeley is no longer with us, but these words from beyond the grave are teaching me even to this day.  I am a natural thinker, just like the Rodin statue, and yet I hardly ever give myself enough time to just think. When I do, good things happen.  It is good to be reminded of this.

Until recently I was afraid of where my imagination would take me.  I suffered from a lot of nightmares as a child, and still have them today.  If I give my mind free reign I am scared that I will end up in a very dark place.  Yet when I do play inside my head I find beautiful things, like the map of Freodholm I have shown to you before.  Mrs Ridgeley reminds me that my imagination is my trusted friend, who will take me to amazing places I’ve never been before.

Finally there’s the issue of effort.  Part of my problem is that I am a perfectionist, and want to be brilliant at something first time round.  One thing I have learned from my knitting group is that honing a craft can take years.  It’s only when I look back at the mistakes I have made that I realise how far I have come.  Writing is a journey, not a destination, and I just need to keep plodding along.

So thank you Mrs Ridgeley, for your creative thought, imagination, and hard work. Above all else, thank you for your unending patience. I write today because of you.

Writing Projects

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As part of the writing group I belong to, we take it in turns to set ourselves a project once a month. I must confess that I have found this a challenge. For starters we were simply given the words “In the name…” with which we had to begin our work. It could be an article, short story, poem, or even chapter in a novel, but it had to follow this opening.

I wasted valuable time trying to be too original. I was determined not to follow “In the name…” with “of the” which contours up religious or royal images for me and seemed too predictable. Eventually I stopped worrying about how original I was and just started writing. What resulted was the following poem entitled “Watling Chase”. I hope you enjoy it.

In the name of all that is good and true
I’m writing this letter to implore you
Please stop with your building, your filling of space.
Instead let us celebrate Watling Chase.

The orchard, the paths, the fields and the trees,
The rabbits, the horses, the lambs, all of these
Are precious and fragile and can’t be replaced
Let’s arrest brick and mortar with all due haste.

Come sit on my bench and admire the view
Tune in to the birdsong, tune in to you!
Each one of us is a part of the whole
Freedom to breathe should be our goal

Breathe in the fresh air, be still and stand
For all that brings life across our land.

Of course it’s hardly likely to make me a candidate for the next Poet Laureate, but it was, in the end, a really enjoyable exercise. It got me writing in a genre I haven’t attempted since I was a teenager, about a subject I am passionate about but would have overlooked in my business. It also means that I am going back to my novel with a fresh pair of eyes. I suppose it’s a bit like the mint ice cream between sumptuous courses in an extravagant dinner. It clears the palette and helps me enjoy what comes next. Ever thought of doing the same? If you have, what was it like for you?

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Writing Groups

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Although I’ve been seriously writing for a number of years, it is only recently that I have joined a writers group in my local community.  I now wish I had joined earlier.  The group I belong to is small, but covers a number of genres and interests.  One lady is using a series of diaries she acquired to write an historical work of non-fiction.  Another writes a lot of poetry, much of it very funny.  Others still are writing novels ranging from mysteries to literary fiction.  Gathered around the table, once a week, is a plethora of knowledge and experience.

I bring something to the table myself.  Besides a great deal of passion and enthusiasm, I have a background in Public Relations, am very involved with social media, and have a bit of knack for knowing what sells.

I’ve loved listening to others share their work.  I don’t want to copy anyone, but I have been inspired by them.  When I first shared my own work I was petrified.  These lovely people do not pull punches in offering constructive criticism.  It’s helping me to develop a thick skin, and to be able to decide for myself how much of what they have said I want to take on board.

Last week they helped me to realise that I was incorporating too much backstory and research into my opening chapters.  I resolved to jump right in with the most dramatic scene in the novel.  I also decided to switch to writing in the first person in order to help me maintain the correct viewpoint, and to give me greater ability to talk about my character’s thoughts and feelings.

Because there is an expectation that you will share something, it makes me much more disciplined about my writing and I have found thatI have got a lot more done.  I’m also stretched by a monthly assignment that we set for one another.  Where would you go if you were given the words “in the name…”?

At the end of the day, I only want to get better at writing, and these people are helping me to do so.  I highly recommend finding a local writers group for yourself, and if there isn’t one, why not think about starting one?  Check out Writers-Online for a list of groups. You’d be surprised how many other writers are lurking behind closed doors in your own neighbourhood that would love to connect with other scribblers.

Be Original

Charlotte BronteThe first time I ever read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte I was thirteen years old.  I devoured it whilst on holiday in Spain, and hardly saw the sun as a result.  The next time I picked it up was when studying for G.C.S.E. English Literature at sixteen.  My rebellious self had decided I wasn’t particularly enamoured with all of my teacher’s selections, so I obtained a copy of the syllabus, and was delighted to find Jane Eyre on the list.  This wayward streak in me didn’t seem to do me any harm. I got an A.

You would have thought that by now I would have tired of reading the immortal lines, “Reader, I married him.” At the beginning of the final chapter, but it seems it still had the power to make my heart soar.  We studied Jane Eyre once again as part of my B.A.  And then, to top it all, I decided to write my undergraduate dissertation on The Struggle Between Passion and Duty in the Life and Novels of Charlotte Bronte, a copy of which still resides at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire.

It is perhaps bizarre when wading through the countless articles, essays and books on this very same subject to think that back then no one had touched on this dichotomy in Charlotte’s life, but try as I might I had been unable at the time to find anything on the subject.  Naturally, as a research project, this made it both exciting and frustrating.  What I did instead was read what she wrote, read what was written about her, and devoured what she read, including a treasure of a book entitled The Doctrine of the Passions Explained and Improved to Which Is Added Evidences of the Christian Religion by Isaac Watts.

Suffice to say, as much as it was possible, and within my own limited academic capabilities, this was an original piece of work, and I have been chasing that same wave ever since.

Of course there is “nothing new under the sun”, and I doubt I was the absolute first person to come up with this idea back in 1994, but the important thing was that I wasn’t trying to copy anyone.  Now as I sit and write my debut novel I’m applying those same principals.  I admire other writers, and am hugely inspired by them, but I don’t write like them.  It has been hugely important to me to find my own voice and my own story.

Agatha ChristieI recently spoke to a lady who works in the publishing industry and she gave me some very useful advice.  She said that when I write my letter to agents and publishers I should never compare myself to someone else.  I am never going to be the next Charlotte Bronte, Agatha Christie, or J.K. Rowling, but I might just be the next Susanna MacLeod.

Equally it is vitally important to be a trend-setter, rather than a trend follower.  Agents and publishing companies were swamped with stories about magic after Harry Potterand vampires after The Vampire Diaries.  Equally right now everyone seems to be writing erotica, since the success of 50 Shades of Grey.  But these trends have already been set, at least for our generation.  What will come next I wonder?  What new voice and new worlds are inside you and me that have yet to emerge?  How are you unique and original?

Yes, it is possible to improve on something that someone else has already done, and do it better.  But it is much more likely that your own, unique ideas will bear fruit in your work.  Don’t be sheep and follow the crowd.  Be a trailblazer and see where those uncharted paths might take you.  I for one am enjoying the adventure!

 

Which Publishing Route Should I Take?

Weighing up the pros and cons of self-publishing v the traditional route.

As an aspiring novelist I find the debate over whether or not to self-publish my work slightly overwhelming. The chatter on this subject on Twitter is deafening. It is hard to know which way to turn. So I decided to approach two wonderful authors who have chosen different routes to getting their work out to their readers and see what they think.

New York Times best-selling author, Susan Elia MacNeal, went down the traditional route. Mumsnet Best author, Liza Hoeksma, made the decision to self-publish. Here is what they both had to say:

Morning ladies, what inspired you both to start writing, and what prompted you to do so?

Susan – Hmmm, well, I’ve always loved reading—I learned how to read at age three. And I’ve always loved writing, even school papers. So I ended up working in publishing (the “accidental profession” as some call it), and finally made the transition from editor to writer. It sounds easy, but it was actually rather torturous. In a nutshell, I turned losing my (beloved) editor job at Dance Magazine (the magazine moved from New York to San Francisco and I wanted to stay in New York) into an opportunity to go freelance. After more than ten years of struggle, I became an “overnight success.” (Yes, those are ironic quotation marks.)

Liza – I always had in the back of my mind that I’d love to write a book but it was when some friends encouraged to me stop talking about it and start doing it that I actually sat down and got in with it! That was about 12 years ago, and not long after I had the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy from my PR role and give the writing a proper shot.

Susan, how did you get your idea for your first novel, the Barry Award-winning MR. CHURCHILL’S SECRETARY?

Susan – Ha! I was in London with my husband and we went to a pub with English friends. And one of them hands me a Time Out London magazine and says, “You know, you might want to check out the Churchill War Rooms. Despite what you Yanks may think, World War II didn’t start with Pearl Harbor.” I took it as a challenge and went the next day — and the visit changed my life. Visiting the Churchill War Rooms, walking the same halls as the Prime Minister and his staff, was the catalyst to writing the Maggie Hope series.

What about you Liza, where did you get your inspiration for MORE THAN ENOUGH?

Liza – I started thinking about friendships that turn into affairs when I heard of some unlikely people straying from their marriages. As I got chatting to people I realised many had stories to tell of how something that started off in innocence, could easily have led to something more and it got me thinking about that line between friendship and an emotional affair.

When did you decide to self-publish / traditionally publish?

Susan – I’d worked in traditional publishing my entire professional life (intern at Random House, assistant editor at Viking Penguin, editor and staff writer at Dance Magazine) and so wanted my work to be published by a professional publishing house.

Liza – I tried to get an agent for a while and kept getting lovely responses about the work itself but was repeatedly told the market was too hard to break into for new authors. That’s obviously discouraging to hear when you’ve poured your heart and soul into a book but then a woman I used to work with told me how she’d successfully self-published and that she thought agents were less likely to take a punt on you if you couldn’t prove there was an audience for your work. It gave me the push I need it to get on and self-publish.

What are some of the positives for having chosen to publish in this way?

Susan – Some of the positives are working with an agent, working with an editor, having a team of people working for your book/series — editorial, copyediting, production, sales, marketing, publicity, design, foreign sales, film rights, etc. It’s a team effort. And the payoff has been awards, making the New York Times-bestseller list multiple times, and multiple book contracts.

Liza – It was hugely empowering to be able to get my novel out for people to read at long last and I don’t think there’s a better feeling in the world than when someone tells you they loved reading it! Especially when they say they couldn’t put it down and the characters became like real friends to them.

What are some of the negatives?

Susan – I don’t see any negatives, really! I’m very happy with my agent and publisher.

Liza – On the negative side I hate self-promotion but you can’t get people to read your book without telling them about it. I come from a PR and marketing background so had lots of ideas of how to promote the book but had to carry on with other writing projects to pay the bills so it’s tricky trying to be your own PR team with very little time to do it! I’m really glad that I’ve done it – not least of all to know that people who’ve never met me have enjoyed what I’ve written and that in itself encourages me to keep going.

Would you make the same decision if you had the chance to start again?

Susan – Yes, definitely.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors about publishing?

Susan – My advice to writers mirrors Winston Churchill’s — “Never, never, never give up!”

Liza – For anyone thinking about self-publishing I’d say that finding an agent would potentially be an easier way of launching yourself, especially if you don’t have much time for marketing your work, but if you go for it my top tip would be to pay to have your book edited before you publish. That made all the difference in the world to me; I wanted the very best version of my work to be what people read and I think that if you want people to pay you for your work you need to give them a polished and professional book. To me it was worth every penny and gave me a book that I am very proud of.

Thanks so much for your time ladies, and for your candid answers. They give us a lot to think about!

Readers: I highly recommend you check out Susan Elia MacNeal’s latest in the Maggie Hope series, MRS ROOSEVELT’S CONFIDANT. Utterly gripping page turner that saw me through an otherwise very boring trans-Atlantic flight. Do also have a read of Liza Hoeksma’s brilliant debut novel MORE THAN ENOUGH. As another reader said, the characters feel like your friends by the end.

Until next time… keep writing!

Character Viewpoints

When I began research on my debut novel, the second thing to come to me were the characters. After having drawn a map of my virtual world, characters started to pop up in my mind’s eye to fill that world. At first they were only shadows, vague sketches and impressions. Then they slowly started to take form and shape, until finally they were fully born. At this point they began to have a mind of their own, willpower, and the capacity to do the unpredicted.

I have since gone back and spent a great deal of time doing character outlines for each of them. I found a fantastic downloadable form online at epiguide.com. This is an incredibly detailed questionnaire about your character. I made the decision early on to use it for all my characters, no matter how important, as it would be helpful in understanding the smallest facial expression, and the mildest comment or appearance. Plus I intend for my book to be the first in a series, so this would be an invaluable reference for me later on.

Having created these outlines, as I write my novel, if my character does anything significant or reveals anything more about themselves, I add it to their outline. This helps me to stay consistent, and hopefully means my characters appear more authentic.

But creating the character outlines was only the beginning of my character work. The next thing I needed to do was figure out how important each character was. A friend of mine once gave a brilliant talk on the phenomenon of Facebook, and how we spread ourselves too thin by trying to have too many friends at too deep a level. He suggested that it was healthy to have no more than three close friends, twelve more casual friends, and 150 acquaintances at any one time.  I decided to adapt this slightly for my novel, and have no more than three main characters, twelve supporting characters, and no more than 60 extras (everything from a taxi driver to a lady walking her dog down the street).

This may sound like a lot, but I have picked up a few tips of what to do with those characters along the way that helps the reader follow the story:

  • Only reveal the thoughts of your main characters
  • Only follow a main character out of a room, never a support or extra
  • Don’t have more than three characters speaking at one time
  • Don’t tell the life story of every character you introduce
  • Back story is back story – it doesn’t always have to become THE story

These tips and tricks have really helped me keep my writing clean and easy to follow. I have found it easier to keep up with the plot as I write, and it’s helped me stay on course. Besides, I need to save some juicy bits for future books! Hope this inspires your characters to come to life, and helps you sort out the leading lady from the humble extra. Happy writing!

Overcoming Writers Block

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As an aspiring novelist, I am no stranger to the demon that is commonly referred to as ‘writer’s block’. Over the years, numerous experts have written books on how to overcome this problem.  Whilst no expert, I have discovered a few insights of my own to share with you today.

How much planning has gone into your work? You may be the kind of writer who has an idea, and simply wants to put pen to paper, and get it down as fast as possible.  This is fantastic, and I wish you well in your endeavours.  However, if you at some point along the way encounter writer’s block, it may be because you have not planned.  Planning doesn’t have to be a long and drawn out process, unless you enjoy this aspect of writing, but it is a good idea to have a vague notion of where your book is going as it does help you keep on track.  It’s a bit like carrying a map with you on a long walk, in unfamiliar territory.

Has your writing reached a dead end? This can come about through a lack of planning, or may simply be because you have gone off on a tangent, and deviated from your original path.  If you find that your characters have no place to go, and that they are boxed in, it can leave you feeling frustrated, irritated and wanting to jack it all in and give up.  This is a sure-fire way to succumb to writer’s block.  To rectify this, figure out where you went off course, and go on from there.

Are you working on a boring transition? This is one of the major causes of writer’s block for me.  When I first planned out my novel, “Finding Freodholm”, I used a number of Post-it notes to describe each scene.  This was really useful, as it meant I could move things around, add and delete scenes, until I had found the right order and number.  However, a number of them were what I call transition scenes.  This is a scene or a chapter in which I need to show the passing of time, and the gradual changes in a character or scene that go with that.  Probably the best visual example of that is in the movie Notting Hill, where Hugh Grant’s character is seen walking through the market as the seasons change, and the characters change with it.  There is even one lady who is pregnant and then later is pushing her baby in a pushchair.  Visually this is stunning, and the music helps too.  So how can we get this down on the page without boring ourselves and our readers in the process?

I try to add spice.  This doesn’t necessarily mean mass drama.  In the case of Notting Hill, the things I remember are the changing seasons, beautifully depicted, and the lady with her baby.  What are the points of interest in your transition chapters, and how can you spice them up a little? Get yourself interested in these parts of your work, and your readers will stay interested also.

Are you writing about a particularly challenging event? So many writers will tell you that they live the emotions of their characters as they write them.  If you are working on a particularly challenging or traumatic event for your character, then it is highly likely that you will be affected by the emotions they are feeling, and may shy away from them.  In order to reach any kind of redemption or hope at the end of a book, it is sometimes necessary to walk across some very hot coals.  Be gentle with yourself during these times.  Do things outside of your writing which nurture and care for you as a person.  But write all the same.  It may feel as painful as giving birth at times, but it is worth it in the end.

Do you have other claims on your time? Be realistic about how much time you have for your writing, and don’t beat yourself up when you get busy in the real world.  If you are trying to write when having a full time job, family commitments, or other distractions, don’t turn your writing into yet another chore by expecting too much of yourself.  Enjoy the time you have to write, and express yourself in any way you fancy.

Is the world hitting you where it hurts? I don’t know about you, but I am something of an emotional sponge when it comes to events that are going on around me.  For example, I was in Atlanta when September 11 happened, and in North Carolina when the 7/7 bombings happened in London.  I wasn’t there, and yet I felt deeply the loss, pain, and sorrow of others who had been affected by those terrible events.  The same goes for Paris.  In the aftermath of world events, and also personal sorrow, I find it almost impossible to write.  During those times, I put aside my novel, and write poetry to try and express my feelings that way.  Perhaps you could try and do the same?

Do you find yourself rushing to the destination? When I was studying for my Masters degree, a professor told me that I needed to learn to enjoy the journey, as well as the destination.  At the time, I found his advice frustrating.  Since then, I have started to understand what he means.  In the world of writing, we all want to be a published author.  We all want to ‘have’ written a novel.  But how many of us actually enjoy the journey that is writing one.

I often have occasion to fly back and forth to the States to see family.  When I do, I break down the flight into 45 minute segments.  This seems to be my average concentration span.  I eat, sleep, colour, write, read, play games, listen to music, and watch TV/films, all in 45 minute segments.  Because of this rotation, I never get bored, as I am always moving on to the next thing.

Writing a novel is a very long journey.  How can you break it up into bite-sized chunks, so that you will never get bored or lose stamina?  Perhaps you could write for half an hour, then read for half an hour, then plan for half an hour, then rinse and repeat? Figure out the rhythm that works best for you, and go with it.

There are plenty more insights into why people suffer from writer’s block. I’d love to hear your’s so maybe we can make this list more comprehensive. Feel free to leave comments below.  Happy writing!

Do We Like, Love, or Loath Our Characters?

Do you need to like the characters you create, no matter how reprehensible they may be?

This is a question I’ve asked myself many times.  Agatha Christie, for example, openly acknowledged that her little Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot “restricted her style”.  In a Radio Times interview with her grandson, Mr Prichard, he says of his grandmother that she wanted to “exorcise herself of him”.  Hercule Poirot was Agatha Christie’s most popular character, and yet he was also the one she most wanted to kill off.  This being said however, it didn’t stop her being able to write a prolific number of books about him.  She didn’t need to like her character to write good mystery fiction.

Liza HoeksmaMumsnet Best author of “More Than Enough” said, “I think it’s nicer if you like them because you spend so much time with them”.  Hoeksma is definitely hitting on something important here.  As a writer, we do spend an inordinate amount of time with our characters, sometimes more time than we do with our friends and family.  We choose how much time we spend with others based on how they make us feel, how much we have in common, how much we love them, out of a sense of loyalty etc.  Why would we spend so much time with a character we cannot abide?  For Agatha Christie it was simple, Hercule Poirot earned her the most amount of money.  Sometimes we have to work with people we do not like just to put food on the table!

Hoeksma went on to say, “all characters can’t be likeable, in which case I’d say I need to know why they are like they are, so I can at least understand their motivations.” This hits on an important point.  Regardless of how we feel about a character, no matter how reprehensible their actions might be, we do need to understand what makes them tick in order for them to be well-rounded, fleshed-out, and believable creations.  They may get under our skin sometimes, but unless we can also get under their’s then they will remain somewhat shallow and two dimensional.

Susan Elia MacNeal, author of of the brilliant “Maggie Hope” series of mysteries set during World War II, said this: “I try to find the humanity in all of them. but I wouldn’t want to sit down to dinner with some of them.”  This makes a lot of sense.  I wouldn’t want to sit down to dinner with Clara Hess for example.  Yet Hess is a character of immense depth and complexity, with a great deal of humanity about her.

It would seem that the important thing is to have some kind of emotional engagement with the characters we create.  Without that engagement, we cannot possibly expect our readers to do the same.  Whether we want them to succeed or fail, flourish or die, the important thing is that we, and hopefully our readers, become invested in the outcome.  As best-selling author Ken Follett says, “like them or hate them. But indifference is no good.”

As Agatha Christie has proven, we don’t have to like our characters in order to be successful writers.  But, as Liza Hoeksma reminds us, it does help if we do like them, as we spend so much time with them.  The important thing however seems to be for us to understand what makes them tick, or as Susan Elia MacNeal says, “find their humanity”.  Above all else we need to be invested in the characters we create.  As Ken Follett says, we are not left with the option to be be indifferent, and nor should our readers.