Inside the mind of a writer www.scskillman.co.uk

Posts tagged ‘characters’

Book Review: “How To Craft Superbad Villains: 13 Steps to Evil” by Sacha Black

I found this book an excellent resource for writers, especially for those of us who may be at the stage I was in at the time of reading – nearing the end of the first draft of my WIP, Director’s Cut – which I have now finished.How To Craft Superbad Villains by Sacha Black

Sacha Black equips the writer with plenty of tools to sharpen up and deepen their understanding of villainy. She writes with the knowledge and insight of one who is trained and qualified in Psychology. At times I found her handling of the subject almost too dense and over-analytical – especially in areas such as complexes, which has been the subjec tof one of my past blog posts , based on the writings of Carl Jung.

But then I realised that I could only benefit from Sacha Black’s close attention to this subject; what she writes here repays careful study, because it is so important for a fiction author to understand exactly what constitutes villainy. She is particularly good on the subject of mental health in fictional villains; as she rightly points out, it is no good giving one’s villain a mental health issue and then ascribing their villainy to that issue. She helps the reader focus on how complex the human psyche is and reminds us once again that as writers we must be faithful students of human nature. In addition, her own personal style is very lively, which makes the book more accessible, too, to a popular audience. I highly recommend Sacha’s book.

To see my own book on the writing craft, Perilous Path – a selection of articles containing tips, insights and reminders for writers, including a chapter on how to develop villainous characteristics in a fictional characer – click here

To read my own series of blog posts on how the theories of Carl Jung can help novelists, here are a few for you to dip into:

The collective unconscious

Complexes

Universal Archetypes

Synchronicity

What do the Secrets of the Australian Swagman Have to Say to Creative Writers?

“Ashes are much hotter than flames”.Picture of an Australian swagman by George Washington Lambert - Sheoak Sam, 1898This is an observation I heard online a few months ago, and you’d think, OK, what does that have to do with creative writers?  Well, let me take you to the Australian Outback to explain.

The ‘swagman’ of Waltzing Matilda fame traditionally goes walkabout through the Outback of Australia with only 3 basic foodstuffs in his tucker bag: onions, flour and golden syrup.  That’s so he can bake the essential carbs portion of his diet, damper, in the ashes of his fire, (to eat later with syrup) and also the onion, an indispensable companion to the ‘jumbuck’ that he’s poached from whichever sheep-station he happens to be passing through.

Here is the process of making damper, demonstrated by a honorary ‘bushman’ / exponent of bush-craft (alias a friend of my sister’s then living in a caravan in Stanthorpe, Queensland), a process which my daughter Abigail photographed while we were in Australia in 2007:

So what does this have to say to creative writers?

Simply this: writing a novel can be like making damper from scratch in the Australian bush. You gather together your basic requirements; wood for a fire, pot to make your damper in, flour and water, and off you go.  Your fire must be just right; no more flames, but nice hot ashes, ready for the cooking. The pan is placed on the ashes and heated up ready to take the mixture, and for the lid to go on. Then the pan is covered with hot ashes and left to cook. the hot ashes are later swept away with a sprig of greenery. Every stage of the process requires careful attendance and skill. And finally you have your delicious result, ready to be devoured. But first you make it more palatable by putting golden syrup on it.IMGP0807 eat and enjoy!

Just so do you gather your raw material for a novel in your mind, your life experiences and observations, your characters, their life-histories, your plot, your skill with words, and then you go about mixing them all together, through several drafts, each stage  carefully attended to, so that your end result is just golden brown, and not burnt nor soggy. And then even when it’s perfect, it may be it needs that extra touch, with the syrup on top ie. the final polish.

 

 

 

Staying Focused as a Writer: Learning From Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy, the author of the novel widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest, War and Peace,  not only crafted characters we love and  care about – Pierre, Natasha, Anna Karenina, and many others – but was also fond of sideways excursions into his theory of history during the course of a novel. war-and-peace-bookSo during War and Peace he gives us his theory of the rise of Napoleon on the world scene.

Some may read War and Peace and skip those passages but when I read the novel as a teenager not only did I love and identify with Pierre, and become emotionally engaged with his hopes and longings, his mistakes and wrong choices, but I eagerly devoured those passages of historical and philosophical theory.

In one of them Tolstoy, writing about Napoleon, states that the times produce the man. This observation, incidentally, is borne out by the situation  we find right now; the times have produced the man, Donald Trump, to lead the so-called ‘free world’ – as it is currently known, but may not be for much longer. Individuals may choose to be outraged that the American public has voted a man of Trump’s moral character to be their leader. But they are discounting the tide of history, and the spirit of the times. However my purpose here isn’t to discuss politics but to discuss Tolstoy’s impact on me as a writer and to show how this applies universally to writers.

Tolstoy takes as an example our inability to sense earth’s motion. He wrote that on learning of and accepting the laws that govern the movement of the planets in space,  we had to say, “True, we are not conscious of the movement of the earth but if we were to allow that it is stationary we should arrive at an absurdity, whereas if we admit the motion we arrive at laws.” Likewise in history we must say “True, we are not conscious of our dependence but if we were to allow that we are free we arrive at an absurdity, whereas by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time and on causality, we arrive at laws.”

Just as we have had to “surmount the sensation of an unreal immobility in space” and “recognise a motion we did not feel, …. so in history the obstacle in the way of recognizing the subjection of the individual to laws of space and time and causality lies in the difficulty of renouncing one’s personal impression of being independent of those laws.”

So with the tide of events in human affairs, and in our lives,  it is similarly necessary to “renounce a freedom that does not exist, and recognise a dependence of which we are not personally conscious.”

I first read those words as a teenager which was when I first read War and Peace, and they have stayed with me over the years, as words from a truly great writer do.

I think they apply specifically to the writing life and also to life in general. We may feel very isolated as writers, especially “indie” writers; and yet every so often we recognise that we are not alone, and instead are part of something much bigger. I believe individual freedom is a concept much abused and misunderstood; we are dependent on a tide of events in the world.  (I’ll come back to this subject in at least two later blog posts, when I’ll consider the concept of Small is Beautiful, and when I reflect upon the tide at Lindisfarne sweeping in to cover the causeway).

Meanwhile, may I encourage you to read War and Peace if you haven’t already, and not to skip the passages when Tolstoy reflects upon the tide of history.

The Gatiss/Moffatt Post-StoryTelling World of Sherlock

We’re familiar with the phrase postmodern and more recently with the notion of post-truth. benedict-cumberbatch-as-sherlockBut now I think, for writers, it is true that there is a post-storytelling phenomenon – which moves beyond and over-turns current rules. And it’s illustrated in the scripts that Steven Moffatt  and Mark Gatiss create for their TV drama series Sherlock.

It is now becoming more and more acceptable for audiences, on first viewing, to be confused by a story, but to stick with it for the sake of their love of the characters. This is certainly true of the most recently aired Sherlock episode: The Final Problem  which presented a great challenge to the brilliant acting skills of Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Mark Gatiss.  Clues as to what is or might be going on are planted in the current or the previous episodes, and because audiences can now view the episode many times, story-tellers are exploring new territory to take advantage of this.

Moving seamlessly between what’s in the mind and what’s actually happening in the physical world, Moffat and Gatiss break genre expectations (for which I here use the word rules – for so long as they can be deemed to exist) to involve their characters in events in the physical world whilst they remain free of the natural consequences, by some means which is not clear – other than through the clues I mention above. The popularity of the story of the modern Sherlock Holmes and John Watson itself seems to justify the transgression of the rules – or the pushing of these rules to their extremes – just like the characters themselves.

We saw Moffatt and Gatiss work brilliantly with a terrifying metaphor – a little girl the sole conscious person on board an aeroplane in mid-flight, needing to be talked into landing the craft. This was very archetypal and the stuff of nightmare, and a powerful metaphor for a small child under stress. But it’s not clear until the very end that this scenario is not happening in the physical world, but it is a metaphor, and in the mind.

However in one respect the story-telling remains strictly true to the original Conan Doyle stories – Sherlock’s ability to take things to an extreme pitch of personal danger to himself and to those closest to him, and then to emerge from it calm, self-possessed and in control. He does that in Conan Doyle’s original story The Adventure of the Dying Detective, where Watson is convinced Holmes is dying from a dreadful Asian disease, but when Holmes has secured the villain’s confession, and Inspector G. Lestrade has walked in, the “dying” Holmes suddenly transforms to his normal self and says, “All is in order, and this is your man.”

I remember well how I felt when I read that story – I was every bit as gripped by that as by watching the latest Sherlock episode on TV. So the Moffatt-Gatiss Sherlock is true to the original in this respect. Moffatt and Gatiss are replicating this factor using very impressionistic stylistic techniques made possible by today’s film/TV technology.

The very essence of Sherlock Holmes’ intellectual genius is his ability to make cool, measured calculations based on reason, whilst in a situation where the majority of people would be undermined by tumultous emotions. But right at the centre of The Final Problem, is Sherlock’s discovery not of his intellectual genius, but of his heart. The appearance of Lestrade at the end and John in the blanket is so reassuring and comforting – “order is restored, John’s in a blanket just as Sherlock was in the very first episode of all,  A Study in Pink…. and Sherlock has saved him through supreme reasoning powers allied to his loyalty – and he has told Molly he loves her (twice, and sounding genuine).” So Sherlock has a heart. If he had a choice to live without John’s friendship and loyalty, or to live without Mycroft’s power and intellect, he would choose the second; and when no words could be used to communicate with his profoundly damaged sister Eurus, he alone communicated with her – using his violin.

I read a very telling admission in an interview with the two writers: they say of their character Sherlock “everything he has worked towards, everything he has tried to get away from in himself and deny about himself, is what makes him strongest.”

All in all – on first viewing we are confused, but still electrified – and we love and care for the characters more than ever.

 

 

 

The Writing Process for Creating a Novel In Less Than a Month

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) begins today for 2016 and I will be once again taking this challenge – completing the first draft of my new novel “Director’s Cut”. nanowrimo-2016-participant Here is an article I wrote when I was 3 weeks into the 2011 challenge, in order to write the first draft of my second novel “A Passionate Spirit”. Everything I said then still applies now; and my extra challenge is to take my own advice! I hope some of you who are setting out on this challenge today will find it a source of inspiration.

The task is: write a novel of at least 50,000 words in a month; and by the word “novel” we must mean, of course, “the first draft of a novel.” For I have not yet ever created a novel in a month; but in nine days time I will have done that very thing; and therefore I consider myself qualified to write the article.

Here are three tips to have that completed first draft of a novel in a month:

1) Do your preparation work before the month begins. Ideas will have been hatching in your mind for the last couple of years, perhaps; and now you have a ground plan. You have created a one-sentence storyline, and expanded it to a blurb and a synopsis and perhaps you have drawn up a list of scenes for your novel. Not everybody needs to have done this before they begin writing the novel. Some like to plunge into the writing with two or three characters and a conflict in mind, and let the story emerge. But I had already been thinking about my characters for a year or so before beginning my novel. And I know from experience what it’s like to allow your characters to take over. Characters will do that anyway, even if you have a plan. But I now believe having a plan is a very good way to start, even if the plan is radically changed by the time you’ve finished your first draft.

2) Begin writing, and don’t go back to edit. Control your desire to look over previous chapters and assess or improve them. This needs great discipline. Just keep writing even if you suspect what you are writing is rubbish, because you are going to go back over your manuscript anyway after the month is up and use it as the basis for your second draft.

3) Don’t fall into the trap of slacking or subsiding or falling away because your novel feels as if it’s sinking in the middle. Introduce something crazy or bizarre that occurs to you; just follow that instinct, introduce it into your plot, set your characters the task of dealing with it and keep on writing.

Those who find their minds go blank at the prospect of producing a full-length work of the imagination should remember this one thing: creating a first draft of fiction requires only motivation and courage. It requires you to forget everything negative you ever believed of yourself, and to believe in whatever ideas come to you, believe in them enough to incorporate them in your first draft. When you read your manuscript through in a month’s time, you may be amazed at what you came up with apparently “out of nowhere.”

 

n.b. this article, first published online in 2011, forms part of my upcoming non-fiction book, Perilous Path: a writer’s journey

Research in Southwark for Setting for New Novel

Last Saturday I was in Southwark, London SE1, researching locations for my new novel.

To me, the setting for a novel must have a strong emotional connection. My first two novels were set in the Cotswolds, near where I now live. My next novels will be set in London, near where I was born and brought up.

What a  fascinating part of London Southwark is, rich in layers of history, the medieval squashed in with the 21st century, sparkling new towers, majestic cathedral, paupers graveyard and bustling market and Dickensian street names and eccentric pubs all crammed in together – and one of London’s most colourful and stimulating walks, along Bankside, from More London right through to the London Eye…..

But what I’m interested in isn’t just the tourist sites; it’s the atmosphere, the pubs, the unexpected small parks and gardens, the odd corners and street names. Here’s a selection from the many photos I took. And I’ll be back again, absorbing the feel of the place, and imagining my characters into it.

Did You Struggle With The Large Number of Characters in JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy? Here’s a Useful Crib-Sheet!

BBC 1 will be starting the first of a three-part mini series of JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy on Sunday at 9pm. I’m delighted that the BBC have chosen to adapt it as a drama, and will be watching eagerly. I have a high opinion of the book: see my book review here.

I was fascinated to learn that the screenwriter Sarah Phelps has, with JK Rowling’s agreement, changed the ending; she says “it needs some kind of redemptive moment at the end”. This tuned in with my own observations in my review, where I wrote:

However, although I enormously admire what JKR has done in this story, I still feel it lacks a strong enough spiritual message or act of redemption at the end; and the potential for that is very strongly present as the narrative progresses….  It’s only JK Rowling’s decision not to take the opportunity for a stronger redemptive message which prevents me from giving her book the highest possible rating.”

If you’ve read the book and struggled with the number of characters, here’s my own personal cribsheet of every named character in the novel. I created this list as I read the novel. Some of those named are not developed as characters at all, but are simply referred to. I hope you find this list helpful; though of course when you watch the mini-series you probably won’t have a problem keeping up with the characters, because the actors will make a big difference.

SC Skillman’s CRIB SHEET OF ALL THE CHARACTERS IN

A CASUAL VACANCY

by JK Rowling

 

Barry Fairbrother, “bearded little man”, Parish Counsellor, Bank Manager, who dies of an aneurysm at the beginning of the novel

His wife Mary, and their children Declan, Fergus, and twins Niamh and Siobhan

Miles Mollison, solicitor, in partnership with Gavin Hughes

Samantha, Miles’s wife

Their daughters Lexie and Libby who go to St Anne’s Independent School in Yarvil

Howard, Miles’s father, owner of delicatessan, Chair of Parish Council, 1st Citizen of Pagford

Shirley, Howard’s wife, Miles’s mother; she is a hospital volunteer, had hated Barry Fairbrother, and administers the Council’s website

Patricia, their daughter, Miles’s sister

Gavin Hughes, squash partner of Barry’s, solicitor in partnership with Miles

Kay Bawden, social worker, Gavin’s lover

Gaia, Kay’s daughter

Una, Alex and Mattie, Kay’s social services colleagues

Colin and Tessa Wall, friends of Mary and Barry. Colin is a Deputy Headteacher and Tessa is Head of Guidance.

Stuart their son, known as “Fatso”, who is best friends with Andrew Price, and has a sexual relationship with Krystal Weedon

Ruth Price, a nurse

Simon Price, Ruth’s husband, abusive and boorish to his family, runs a printworks, is particularly aggressive to his elder son Andrew

Their son Andrew who has a bad attitude to his father Simon, and who fancies Kay’s daughter Gaia

Andrew’s younger brother Paul

Maureen, Howard’s business partner in the Delicatessan, age 62, widow of Howard’s previous business partner Ken

Shona, Miles and Gavin’s legal secretary

Dr Parminder Jawanda, local GP, Parish Counsellor, had loved Barry Fairbrother

Vikram, her handsome husband, cardiac surgeon

Their three children: Jaswant, Sukhvinder and Rajpal

Mrs Shawcross, headmistress

Aubrey Fawley who purchased Sweetlove House in the 1950’s and had four children

Young Aubrey, his son, Pagford’s rep on the Yarvil Council, a merchant banker in London

Julia, Young Aubrey’s wife

Alison Jenkins, news reporter

 

PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN or are associated with people who live in “THE FIELDS”

 

Terri Weedon, a drug addict and dysfunctional mother

Krystal, her daughter, problem pupil

Robbie, Krystal’s little brother (Terri’s son), in danger of being removed by social services

Anne-Marie, their sister, (Terri’s other daughter) no longer living with them

Obbo, drug-pusher, who sells drugs to Terri

Nikki, Jemma and Leane, Krystal’s schoolfriends

Nana Cath, Krystal’s great-grandmother, and Terri’s grandmother

Rhiannon, another of Nana Cath’s granddaughters (Terri’s cousin?)

John and Sue, Nana Cath’s son and daughter

Cheryl and Danielle, Terri’s sisters

Dane Tully, dysfunctional teen, his father and two brothers are frequently in prison

 

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