It’s one of the oldest pieces of writing advice that to write good characters you must know them well. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? But it can sometimes be a lot harder than it sounds. If we start with the basics of learning about our characters, we can Google whole lists of questions that we should be asking:
When I published Intention, how Gillian (my protagonist) made her tea was one of the hot topics – aside from her being a psychopath, that is. So, these fine details do count for something.
In asking questions of our characters we build them into something authentic. But this doesn’t just mean giving them the good bits or the quirky bits of humanity; sometimes it means giving them the rotten elements, too, which is where developing character comes in.
While you shouldn’t have a whole book of characters who are severely unhinged (I mean, sure, it would be interesting, but where’s your hook?), you also shouldn’t construct a cast of angels either. For me, after I’ve dealt with all the basics I like to move on to the existential:
And, perhaps the most important of them all…
Character motivation is essential to so much in a story: plot arcs, pacing, satellite characters – the list could go on! Working out what your character wants and what that motivation can bring to your work is hugely beneficial, not least because it pads out your protagonist/antagonist. In the bid to develop our characters better we need to know them from the inside out; which is to say, we need to know them as well as we know ourselves (on a good day). You can also yourself:
All of us – humans, not characters – have something that drives us and, likewise, all of us have things or people that bring out the worst in us. While it might take some time to develop your character with all of these things, it will surely be worth it when someone reads a chapter of your someday novel and says, “Wow, I do that too…”
Intention was my first novel - not only with Bloodhound Books, but ever. It also formed the basis of my Doctoral research, which was to investigate the misrepresentations of female violence in contemporary crime fiction. In short, I wanted a real female psychopath; not a candy-cane version, which was all I'd encountered in my reading and research up to that point.
So Gillian, my narrator, is as authentic as I could think to make her. Hailing from an abusive household, leaning towards animal cruelty (consider that a content warning), and looking for a space to cut her teeth in the summer months home from university, Intention is a look into the mind of a killer coming of age - and you can meet Gillian in the snippet below.
You want to know what it’s like. I can understand that; I wanted to know as well, I suppose. Ultimately, it’s like anything else that any one person does despite knowing that they shouldn’t. But they do it all the same, because they’re too familiar with the feeling that they’ll experience afterwards.
Life is so heavy most of the time. You’re struggling under the surface with a weight on you and what do you do? How do you find a way to breathe again? We’re all dying to know the answer – and don’t think that I haven’t noticed the wonderful irony there – but, lacking any feasible explanations for life’s largest dilemmas and questions, instead we simply guess. We assume things that will improve our little existence. And these assumptions, they then become our unashamed justifications for whatever condemnable behaviours we throw ourselves into. ‘It makes life a little better,’ we say, excusing our tendencies to cheat on our partners, overeat unhealthy foods, smoke. It makes life a little better, and for the majority of us that is reason enough for anything.
Does any of this sound familiar? There must be something – one mostly harmless little thing – that you allow yourself. That one cigarette at the end of the day; that eye contact with a colleague you hold for a beat too long?
‘No human beings were harmed in the making of this bad habit,’ we remind ourselves; a disclaimer to our misdemeanours. It’s only a problem, you see, when people become aware of it, when people are hurt by it. That’s when the masses will frown and judge – as though that has become the benchmark for human depravity. You’ve hurt another human being? Well, that’s a line! But it’s a line that we love to see crossed, don’t you think? There’s nothing better than finding someone more evil than ourselves because those people really put things into perspective.
If you'd like to know more about Gillian - and what she gets up to - you can download Intention on Amazon Kindle now for just £1.99 right here.
During an editing consultation with someone this morning, we decided between us that editing (as part of the creative writing process) gets a hard time – not to be confused with editing is a hard time. Of course, sometimes it is. But is it any more difficult than staring into the abyss of a blank screen for upwards of an hour waiting for “that great idea” to come out?
The fact of the matter is editing is a process through which we make our work better. So, for many of us, we grin and grit through it because we’re aware of the finish line – and the potential rewards for reaching such a line. However, I wonder whether there’s space to enjoy editing more as a creative practice, which could make the whole editing-mare easier overall.
This summer I’ve edited a fair amount of work by other authors, and I’ve sincerely enjoyed it. At the moment I’m editing accessibility documents written by other authors and, again, there’s a fair bit of enjoyment to be gained from it. I feel a sense of, ‘Ha! That showed that misplaced comma!’ on getting things into a better state than they were in when I found them.
Off the back of that, then, I wonder whether it isn’t editing that’s the problem so much as editing our work that causes issue. So, what about if we break-up with our manuscripts before we edit them? Okay, maybe not a break-up, but at the very least we should say, ‘I think we need a break from us…’
My point being that editing, as a creative practice, has grounds that we can enjoy running through. It might not be as joyous as the initial spark of creativity, I’ll admit. That said, sometimes my initial spark of creativity is a hot mess by the time I’ve finished typing, which makes editing the saving grace.
Either way, a perspective shift on editing might not be the worst thing in the world for us as writers. There’s a way to enjoy it more – insofar as a recrafting of our initial craft – and that enjoyment might make the dreaded “Please see attached edits” email not quite as bad as it used to. If editing is a necessary evil – which, I can assure you, it absolutely is – it makes sense to go easily into the dark side than to always be fighting back to the crisp white light of a fresh document. Everything will need the red pen sooner or later…
Disclaimer: If there are any typographical errors contained here assume that they’re deliberate and merely an editing exercise for you, reader, from me, the writer. If there aren’t any, please ignore.
In November 2018, I started panic-writing Copycat. Little did I know then that the book would be the beginning of a long-term relationship with my central characters: DI Melanie Watton, DS Edd Carter, and DC Chris Burton. These three were the central figures of the story, and they naturally became the central figures of Play, too, which came out earlier this year. Not one to let go of my loves easily, I also went ahead and wrote a third book. Untitled (it definitely hasn’t a title, but I don’t know whether I’m allowed to tell you) was accepted by Bloodhound Books just last week; the contract was signed, and the date was sort of set.
But that will be the last of my DI Melanie Watton novels. For the time being, at least.
My publisher – my kind, open and honest publisher – suggested that I try a psychological thriller next. It would be my first since Intention, which came out in January 2019. That book is a story and a half, given that the novel itself was actually my doctoral thesis, and I can’t tally the days, weeks and months that went into that book because of that. That might also be the reason why I’d steered away from another first-person thriller. Gillian, my protagonist, was a hard woman to love, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that kind of commitment again.
Flash-forward to now.
I am writing a new first-person psychological thriller. I know, I know! I absolutely caved based on my publisher’s advice, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t good advice. My new novel is a first-person narrative of an unnamed narrator, and I am utterly obsessed with it. In the first week of writing I got down 20,000 words, a writing rate that I’ve never managed before – and, realistically, will likely not manage again. We’re into week two now and the writing has slowed, but the obsession definitely hasn’t.
It’s the first book I’ve written in a series of parts. While writing part one, I was busy planning part two – using a spreadsheet no less, but we’ll talk about that another time. While rolling through my chapters – all of which were planned with the above spreadsheet – I was also quietly thinking about chapters for the next section. Then, quite out of nowhere on Sunday morning, I decided the final parts of the book, including the ending. Now, if you’re a writer, you’ll know what a freakin’ hallelujah moment that is. If you’re a reader, let me tell you, you’re in for a treat if this book gets to print because I’ve done pretty well with this (that sentence is the literary equivalent of “felt cute, might delete later” if ever there was one).
What I love most about this new book is my enthusiasm for it. I am constantly thinking about it; how I can make this more obscure or that more tense. Of course, I’ve loved every second spent working on the Watton novels (and I still love the characters completely), but a change of pace in terms of character and (sub)genre has encouraged just that – a change of pace. In my thinking and my writing alike, I’m moving a little differently because my character calls for it.
It wasn’t until I thought, “Wow, this has never happened before,” that I realised, actually, it has – when I started writing Copycat! It’s no coincidence, then, that Copycat was the first detective novel I’d ever written, making it a huge change of pace from everything I’d worked on up to that point. Both then and now, there has been a shift in my writing that has – I don’t know – loosened something in my brain, my inhibitions, maybe even both.
The whole experience of working on this new book, if nothing else, has been a welcome kick to try something new – or rather, something old, considering that psychological thrillers were where I started. Either way, it turns out that sometimes a change really is as good as a rest – at least when it comes to writing.