Five editing exercises for flabby drafts

A few years ago, when I was looking for an agent, a unique ‘Voice’ seemed to be the single most important thing they were looking for in debut writers. Maybe they still are. Yet when it came to editing with publishing houses, style seemed secondary to structure: the story was the thing.

I heard that sentiment echoed elsewhere in the industry, including from luminaries such as Barry Cunningham and Robert McKee. But I can’t think those agents were wrong; the trick, it seems, is to nail both.

Voice is a big topic, one I’m not comfortable holding forth about since it’s not a big thing my own writing. Rather, in The Goose Road and now in a World War 2 work-in-progress, I’m aiming at a coherent style – a sort of stepping stone to an identifiable Voice. Editing helped me achieve this no end.

So here are five editing exercises which I learnt while writing my debut novel. Not only did they help cut the flab from early drafts, they also pulled the manuscript together, purging a variety of styles that had crept in over the course of several years of writing.

  1. Read the text aloud.

This, I think, is almost universally accepted as a great thing to do. Reading aloud reveals clumsiness, repetitions, logical and stylistic inconsistencies, and complex sentence constructions that are bound to trip a reader.

One trick to speed up a spoken read through (and this advice, I think, comes from the marvellous Book Bound UK team) is to print out the manuscript – or at least sizeable chunks of it – and read it quickly, without interruption, marking in the margins every place where you stumble, and only going back afterwards to sort out the problems.

Personally, I can’t do a read through on-screen. It has to be a paper exercise. And worth every hour it takes!

  1. The Rule of ‘2+2’.

The rule? Never give ’em four!

My early drafts were littered with examples of me telling the reader the answers to an internal, rhetorical question or explaining a cliff-hanger, which left the reader nothing to figure out. Which is boring.

It may be that 2+2 isn’t actually a stylistic issue at all, and has more to do with the process of learning to trust the reader, which until I had a realistic expectation of having readers – as opposed to critique partners – felt way too abstract to worry about.

It was Stephen King’s fantastic On Writing that blew this misconception out of the water, and explained how the reader is integral to the story. As a writer, we must ask: what do I want the reader to know that my characters don’t know? How will they know it and when? For storytelling purposes, that takes precedence over details such as choosing active verbs and laying off the adjectives.

That epiphany, in turn, made me wonder whether other, purely stylistic issues can’t be left until the end as well. Can we, in effect, retro-fit Voice?

I know many writers (and some agents and editors) will say, ‘No. You can’t.’ For them, discovering the right Voice is key to unlocking the story itself. Maybe, then, it is a matter of degree. If Voice is all important, it’s not a question of style. Otherwise…

  1. Tidy up dialogue attribution.

The convention that ‘said’ is better than ‘expostulated’ or ‘remonstrated’ seems pretty well universally accepted these days. But don’t all those saids get boring!

I allow my characters to cry, shout, answer, mutter, spit, protest and a few others, too. I also love this formulation: ‘“That’s absurd!” She laughed.’ Where an action substitutes for attribution.

And if there are only two people in a conversation, I cut out attribution completely so long as it’s clear who is talking.

  1. Observe. Emote. Analyse. React.

Thus, ‘The bomb exploded. Her heart leapt into her mouth. The sound was terrifyingly close. She scrambled to hide herself under the desk, and waited for the ceiling to fall.’

Just as adjectives fit most comfortably into a particular order, and jar in any alternative sequence, so this progression somehow imparts the clearest sense of immediacy, allowing the reader to experience an event at the same time as the character.

However it works, THANK YOU, Em Lynas, who taught me about this order.

  1. The filter-ectomy.

It was the ever-brilliant Emma Darwin who opened my eyes to this fantastic editing tool.

Filtering (so named by John Gardner) is the process by which the writer shows the reader something via an observing ‘consciousness’ – usually through the eyes of a character – rather than describing the thing itself.

In her blog, This Itch of Writing, Dr Darwin quotes Janet Burroway saying, ‘Generally speaking – though no laws are absolute in fiction – vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as “she noticed” and “she saw” be suppressed in favour of direct presentation of the thing seen.’

Apparently, early in our careers, we all tend to write: ‘Turning, she noticed two soldiers’ bodies lying in the mud.’

After an edit, this becomes: ‘She turned. In the mud, lay two soldiers’ bodies.’

While homogenising every observation in this way would be dull and unoriginal, a thorough filter-ectomy works wonders for pace.

Emma Darwin’s blog is always a gold mine of good advice. Here’s the link to one about filtering:

http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2016/07/filtering.html

This blog first appeared on Awfully Big Blog Adventure on Aug 15th, 2018. This is a corrected version!                                                                                                     

Five Lessons To Combat Book Two Blues

The new work-in-progress isn’t progressing very quickly – which is hardly newsworthy. What Book Two ever went well?

In fact, in common with most debut friends of mine, this isn’t Book Two at all: rejected pitches litter my computer files, abandoned story ideas clog up my Creative Folder, and an entire 88K manuscript sits somewhere on an old hard drive.

Being fore-warned of the time it will take, the labour and love required, the commitment, the research, the inevitable disappointments, and (if I’m really, really lucky again) another long wait between completion and publication, isn’t the same thing as being fore-armed.

Frankly, part of me thinks it’s madness to start again.

Yet another part of me keeps whispering that what I now know about editing might (just might) make the whole business of producing another publishable manuscript less overwhelming second time around.

So what lessons has hindsight taught me?

First, write with passion and instinct initially. Over-plotting is a killer. But at the same time bear in mind that sooner or later we do have to answer the big questions: what is the heart of this story? What one scene/idea/moment would I save if I had to erase the rest? And what does that say about the story I think I’m trying to write.

A lot of writing gurus say the answer to that last question about the core of a story – its underlying meaning – only emerges at the end of a first full draft. I don’t know about that. I think I had a sense of what I was writing much earlier than that with The Goose Road. But it certainly did require time and distance from the first draft to look back with sufficient perspective to discover that a lot of what I thought I’d written wasn’t actually there.

How much time & distance? For me, it took a full six months, working pretty intensively on another story, one I murdered by over-plotting.

But I also believe it was the very act of over-plotting – of analysing “story” objectively – which brought into clear relief the formal structures that were missing from The Goose Road. Okay, I had an Inciting Incident (several, in fact!) but also great dollops of irrelevant junk, and no proper character arc. I rewrote Acts 1 and II almost completely over the course of the following six months.

So I guess Lesson One for me has been: write with passion, then somehow find the headspace to be ruthlessly objective, and the patience and self-belief to rip Draft One into pieces…

Continue reading on Awfully Big Blog Adventure where this first appeared on Feb 15, 2018 here

‘Place’ in stories: where reality and our characters collide

Years ago, I was lucky enough to interview David Almond for the SCBWI’s Words & Pictures online magazine, and asked him about the philosophical themes in his books. His answer gave me a great insight into the importance of the concrete realities of place.

He said, “The danger of talking about transcendence or spirituality is that they can’t exist without reality. The important thing about my work is the realism in it … The language that I use is very ordinary. It isn’t abstract. It’s very solid, I think. There are lots of nouns and verbs. You can’t write abstractions. You have to write reality. You have to write stories about dust and dirt.”

Dust and dirt: the stuff of place.

His words were a great relief to me as place is pretty much where I have to start a story. In the intervening years I’ve built up a body of notes as to why this might be so, the gist of which I’ll share with you here.

  • Realism (even in fantasy) makes characters believable;
  • Realistic characters exist in time and space;
  • Place therefore grounds characters.
  • Also, every scene needs a setting. Physical, sensory descriptions ease us into thinking about the most important story questions: why is my character here (motivation) and what is s/he going to do next (intent)?

Whatever the genre, place is never accidental. It is the unique setting that shapes how our characters experience the events of this story, and where they create its outcomes.

Place also establishes genre. If we’re on a space ship, we’re likely to be in SciFi territory, a battlefield denotes action, a wizard’s castle fantasy etc.

But place as a writing tool is more than a rounded description of the physical setting: the sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes etc. It includes the fluidity of things, their states of flux in time and space, foreshadowing or echoing the changes and conflicts of the story.

If our word choices create a particular tone and mood, then we’re talking about ‘voice’ as well, which instantly moulds reader expectations. No one who’s read Thomas Hardy’s opening description of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native could possibly expect a romantic comedy to follow.

When I began writing, I allowed place to dictate my stories. Travelling the world as a journalist, then on a gap year, I let places inspire me, and followed ideas wherever they led. I’d love to have the luxury of time (and money!) to travel in this way again, and write ‘found’ stories. Instead, I’ve consciously adopted a character-centred approach to place.

By this I mean that I try my hardest to forget that I’m telling a story. Once I’ve researched a place, I live it through my main character. It exists exclusively as their subjective experience of it. I see it only through their eyes and feel it through their skin. This approach helps no end when deciding what details a character would notice about this place at this particular point in time. They certainly won’t notice or describe anything familiar, for example.

It also forces me to decide early on how a character’s perceptions are coloured by their state of mind. Are they in some kind of emotion turmoil or struggling with inner conflicts, repressed or acknowledged? Are they grieving or in shock, guilt-ridden or in denial, facing a complex life decision or experiencing a sense of foreboding. How does their physical wellbeing or lack of it impact on the way they interact with this setting at this point in the story? A cocky young policeman won’t see a dark alleyway in the same way as the wily old criminal he’s chasing, or in the same way as a wealthy bond trader with cocaine in his pocket, or the terrified trafficked girl with a gang master hot on her heels – and the battery signal on her phone flashing empty.

Whatever the viewpoint character’s state of mind, if they react to a significant setting with apt and original language, the depth and realism of their stories will inevitably be enriched.

A year or so after that interview with David Almond, I discussed using place at the openings of stories with a local adult writing group I occasionally teach, using these contrasting examples:

Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies

“Falcons

Wiltshire, September 1535

His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air.”

Annie Enright’s The Gathering

“You cannot libel the dead, I think, you can only console them. So I offer Liam this picture: my two daughters running on the sandy rim of a stony beach, under a slow, turbulent sky, the shoulders of their coats shrugging behind them. Then I erase it.”

Lee Child’s The Affair

“The Pentagon is the world’s largest office building, six and a half million square feet, thirty thousand people, more than seventeen miles of corridors, but it was built with just three street doors, each one of them opening into a guarded pedestrian lobby. I chose the south east option, the main concourse entrance, the one nearest the metro and the bus station, because I wanted plenty of civilian workers around, preferably a whole long unending stream of them, for insurance purposes, mostly against getting shot on sight. Arrests go bad all the time, some accidentally, sometimes on purpose, so I wanted witnesses.”

Joanna Trollope’s A Village Affair

“On the day contracts were exchanged on the house, Alice Jordan put all three children in the car and went to visit it. Natasha made her usual seven-year-old fuss about her seat-belt, and James was crying because he had lost the toy man who rode his toy stunt motorbike, but the baby lay peaceably in his carrycot and was pleased to be joggling gently along while a fascinating pattern of bare branches flickered through the slanting back window of the car onto his round upturned face.”

 

Mantel’s is at once vividly English yet also deeply anti-religious, with the airiness and movement shot through with that visceral ‘blood-filled gaze’ of the falcons, who are also Cromwell’s dead children. With intense economy, Mantel creates an overwhelming mental landscape that is, at the same time, utterly in the moment and also symbolic and poignant. We are inside a mind transcending loss by a conscious act of will: he is freeing the souls of his dead women-folk, not just from human existence but from God. No purgatory for them; no judgement or guilt, just lightness and air and the hunt. And by freeing them, he frees himself. Perhaps.

Movement is also inherent in Enright’s running, turbulent sky. The ground is roughly textured (sandy, stony) but her narrator’s mental landscape is detached: this place is a picture offered to a dead man. ‘Then I erase it.’

Lee Child’s narrator, Jack Reacher, has purpose behind his words. He explains as well as observes. Here the movement – the “unending stream of witnesses” – is part of the plan; nothing will be left to chance. This is an analytical description of place by a dangerous man with a tactical point-of-view.

How different from Trollope’s mother, boxed in with her noisy children, with only the baby enviably free to experience the flickering images outside. The make and model of the car don’t matter to her, whereas Child’s Jack Reacher would have noted them both.

In each case the author has, by marrying the simple, observable realities of place – David Almond’s dust and dirt – with their character’s subjective perceptions and purposes, drawn the reader into that mysterious state where imagined stories are both believable and meaningful. For me, each opening ‘place’ is extraordinarily rich, beautifully setting the tone for the novel that follows.

Man Booker, BBC2 & Robert McKee: scene structure by the pros

This blog first appeared on November 15th, 2017, in An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society.

Last week, as I was explaining to a local writing group a selection of approaches to self-editing, I basically talked myself into a corner and reaffirmed (at least to myself) a truth about revision.

That is, after the big development overview, when you nail down that elusive concept of the “heart” or soul of the story, and decide, for example, whether you’ve got too many subplots or characters, the natural focus for re-writing is the scene.

Not voice, not sentences, not even structure as such. The scene.

From their expressions, I’m not sure I convinced my students, perhaps because the example I used of an ideal scene was old and rather lame (and taken from Robert McKee’s Story, which is brilliant in my opinion, but rather too rooted in black-and-white films to be self-evidently relevant to today’s novelist).

Then, later than week, cuddled up with our cat on the sofa, watching the BBC 2 drama, Effie Gray, written by Emma Thompson, “Bingo!”

From now on, whenever I need to define “the scene”, it will be the climax to that story, with Derek Jacobi standing on the doorstep of the odious John Ruskin (played superbly by Greg Wise), about to bring his entire world crashing down with one word.

Before looking at that one word, and how the scene built up to it, here’s some context from George Saunders, winner of this year’s Man Booker prize. He has been interviews all over the place, but these quotes come from this article in The Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write

In it he says, “We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully … An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art.”

His self-editing method is a binary process, which he describes as a meter in his forehead flicking from positive to negative as he imagines how each passage he’s written will be received by a first-time reader, and then editing his work “so as to move the needle into the [positive] zone.”

He describes this process as repetitive, obsessive and iterative: “watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose … through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments … Falsehoods get squeezed out of it, lazy assertions stand up, naked and blushing, and rush out of the room.”

Beautiful prose, isn’t it? I’m really glad he won this year’s Man Booker prize, and I look forward very much to reading Lincoln in the Bardo over Christmas.

However…

What if you don’t have time to steer your ocean liner through a thousand incremental adjustments? What if you have a full-time job and/or a family to raise, and no milk in the fridge and a deadline to meet, and… and… and..?

In other words, what if writing isn’t your whole life?

For me, in the trackless oceans of imagination, structural advice books are star charts, and the solid possibilities of a well-crafted scene as essential as a life-raft.

So, back to Effie Gray … via Robert McKee.

If I had to keep just one book from my library of writing advice guides, McKee’s Story would be it. Despite his focus on film, the understanding he’s given me about storytelling is unequalled.

In a nutshell, what he says about scenes is this: every scene should build, beat by beat, to a Story Event, by which he means a meaningful change from positive to negative or vice versa in a fundamental human value (or a Story Value as he terms it).

Examples of changes in a Story Value include: cowardice to bravery, hope to despair, fear of commitment to commitment, happiness to sadness etc.

For McKee, such switches should be achieved by pitting a protagonist with a clear objective against an equal or more powerful force of antagonism with a diametrically opposed goal. Via progressively escalating confrontations, the scene should culminate in an unexpected pivot point that alters this Story Value for a central character.

All of which the climax scene in Effie Gray does to perfection.

SPOILER ALERT: Do watch the film first if you want to experience the deliciousness of the denouement in full. It is available on iPlayer for the next few weeks. I’ve skipped over some elements of the plot for the sake of brevity, which does a disservice to the richness and complexity of the sub-text, but anyhow, here goes.

 

Events Structural beats
Effie Gray’s lawyer gets out of a carriage and opens his legal document case. Earlier scenes have established Effie’s desire to escape from her unconsummated marriage with abusive & sexually-repressed John Ruskin. The protagonist’s objective is established: to deliver a legal letter. In this scene, the lawyer is both Effie’s proxy and also a representative of Victorian social values & the law.
Inside the house, the interfering parents of self-satisfied grandee John Ruskin excessively admire a new portrait of him by an eminent pre-Raphaelite painter. The antagonists’ objective are established: the Ruskin family seek to enhance John’s social standing via the portrait.
Servant George enters with news of an unexpected caller for John. The inciting incident. An external force interrupts the domestic status quo.
Effie’s highly respectable male lawyer, kept waiting on the doorstep, announces he has a citation to court for John. John’s parents stand between John and the lawyer. The lawyer communicates his scene objective. The parents, by blocking the doorway, form a physical barrier between the lawyer & his objective.
John & his mother question the purpose of the citation; when the lawyer says it is a petition for divorce from Effie, the father snatches the letter. A force of antagonism strikes directly back at the lawyer.
The lawyer insists the letter must, by law, be delivered to “the defendant”. The father reluctantly relinquishes the letter to the lawyer, who gives it to John. While taking it, John remains composed, and questions Effie’s grounds for divorce. The protagonist’s proxy defeats the father’s desire to protect John by calling up the power of the law, i.e. society’s power over the family. Effie wins round one, although John’s disdainful pride & self-confidence remain apparently intact.
When the lawyer refuses to answer John’s questions, citing the delicacy of the matter, John presses him for an immediate explanation, culminating in his demand for an answer. In response to this demand, the lawyer states that her grounds for divorce is John’s impotency. This beat of questions and rebuttals builds to the pivot point of both the scene and the entire story.

The word “impotency”, delivered in Derek Jacobi’s magnificent voice, challenges John’s manhood. Effie is calling down on him not only the full weight of the law, but also Victorian society’s expectations of a man and his sole duty to his wife. With one word, she has countered all of John’s malicious threats to ruin her reputation through false allegations of wantonness.

The horror of the impending scandal slowly dawns on the mother, but more quickly on the faces of John and his father. As their expressions turn from shock to comprehension to shame, the father shuts the door in the lawyer’s face. John’s cold, imperious pride (his Story Value throughout the film) is quenched. Henceforth, he will be humiliated, while Effie’s Story Value switches from enslavement within their marriage to the freedom to live as she wishes and to love another. Well done, Effie! And well done to the film makers. A fantastic scene.

 

Eureka! Nailing epiphanies [BIG FIVE part 2]

I’d planned to start this blog by diving straight into the Big Five personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness & neuroticism (acronym: OCEAN) – and extoll their virtues as the best tools ever for crafting character arcs.

But during a FB discussion about the Big Five earlier this month for WriteOnCon (an online conference well worth catching next time, btw) I remembered why I’d found them so helpful when redrafting my debut novel:

OCEAN had nailed the problem of how to make an epiphany work.

The anatomy of epiphanies had been bugging me ever since James Scott Bell’s Writing Your Story From The Middle persuaded me that a Midpoint Epiphany was a great plotting device. John Yorke’s Into the Woods expands on them at length, but story structure alone didn’t seem enough by itself so I turned to psychology instead.

What are the Big Five?

After millennia of debate about how many aspects there are to human personality, current psychology has (broadly) settled on five categories: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness in fulfilling a task, the multiple facets of extraversion plus all the variations of agreeableness & neuroticism.

Taken together, they express the myriad permutations of personality.

These categories aren’t binary. People aren’t Open or Not Open. Each is a sliding scale from more to less, and encapsulates aspects of personality that tend to go together.

Being sociable, talkative & assertive are manifestations of extraversion, for example, while being systematically late, lax and indifferent indicate a low level of conscientiousness.

Under sufficient stress these traits are mutable, evolving in response to major life events – events so important they make us step up to the mark and decide what we’re prepared to do to achieve our greatest ambitions or defend that which is most dear to us.

Which seems to me a reasonable description of a character-based plot.

There’s loads of stuff about OCEAN on the web (and a bunch of online tests if you don’t mind some random organisation knowing who you are) but here’s a quick summary of each for ease of reference.

Definitions

Factors associated with openness include curiosity, original thinking, insight & creativity, openness to new & unusual ideas. Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas. Those high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests.

Examples of low-score behaviour Examples of high-score behaviour
Someone who prefers not to be exposed to alternative moral systems, has limited interests, down-to-earth attitudes, non-analytical, narrow-minded. Enjoy seeing people with new types of haircut, body piercing, curious, imaginative, non-traditional.

Factors associated with conscientiousness: organised, systematic, punctual, achievement-orientated, dependable. High levels of thoughtfulness, good impulse control, goal-driven. Tendency to be mindful of details.

Low score High score
Spur-of-the-minute decision-making,   unreliable, hedonistic, careless, lax Never late, hardworking, persevering, punctual, self-disciplined, dutiful.

Extraversion: outgoing, talkative, sociable, high energy, positive emotions, urgency, a tendency to seek stimulation and the company of others. Extraversion is the factor most strongly associated with leadership.

Low score High score
Prefers a quiet evening in, reading rather than parties, sober, aloof, unenthusiastic Life of the party, active, optimistic, taking charge,

Agreeableness: affable, tolerant, sensitive, trusting, kind & warm. A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic. Weakly related to leadership.

Low score High score
Quick to assert own rights with confidence; irritable, manipulative, uncooperative, rude. Agrees with other’s opinions, good-natured, forgiving, gullible, helpful

Neuroticism: tendency to be anxious, irritable, temperamental, moody, inclined to experience unpleasant emotions easily, including anger, depression or vulnerability. Sometimes called emotional instability. Tendency towards sadness.

Low score High score
Not getting irritated by small annoyances, calm, unemotional, hardy, secure, self-satisfied. Constantly worrying about little things, insecure, hypochondriac, feeling inadequate.

Constructing a basic profile incorporating these traits seems to me a more efficient way to create realistic, rounded characters than answering one of those long questionnaires about the colour of their favourite t-shirt & the TV shows they watch etc etc.

Better by far to know how open they are to new experiences or if they’re vulnerable and anxious. Not only will this signpost how they’re likely to react to unexpected events but also what actions they might plausibly initiate at each stage in their emotional/psychological journey. And once you know their deepest, repressed fears, you can merrily create the kind of obstacles that will test their underlying weaknesses to the utmost.

Think Snakes On A Plane. Who’d give the air marshal in that film a phobia about spiders?

Retrofitting character arcs

For me, OCEAN really came into its own when I had to rework a First World War coming-of-age script after receiving a development advance. The elements I needed were already in the backstory; I just hadn’t developed them enough.

I decided to take my protagonist step-by-step to a more mature place, one where she could – plausibly – reverse her deepest feelings about members of her family.

SPOILER ALERT: It became clear during the WriteOnCon discussion that people found a worked example helpful to see what on earth I was blethering about. This one is based on an Openness subplot. I hope it’s detailed enough to make sense without giving too much of the story away.

Act 1

 

   
1

 

Pre-story openness behaviour to be transformed Stubborn loathing of family member X, killed in action during the Battle of Verdun
2 Initial outlook Down-to-earth outlook on life, non-analytical, limited life experience, defensive about her opinions of her family

 

3 OCEAN traits permitting transformation Openness: a vivid imagination

Agreeableness: capacities for empathy & kindness

 

4 OCEAN traits preventing transformation Openness: refusal to accept alternative points of views about her brother

Neuroticism: an unconscious desire for a substitute father

 

Act 2

 

   
5 Transitional behaviour Aroused curiosity about the outside world as she starts her journey; fails first test by focusing narrowly on her quest rather than the suffering of others

 

6 Pre-epiphany behaviour Forced to consider profiteer’s point of view, forced to consider strikers’ PoV; forced to consider the selfishness of her motives.

 

7 (partial) MIDPOINT EPIPHANY Recognition of her narrow-mindedness, but still can’t bring herself to re-examine her feelings about X

 

8 Post-epiphany behaviour Observes the world more closely; dawning of true empathy for war-time suffering

 

 

Act 3

 

   
9 Completion of MIDPOINT EPIPHANY On eve of the ‘final battle’, makes her peace with X

 

10 Final Openness state In epilogue, evidence of new open attitude to disfigured & disabled soldiers

[This blog first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site for the Scattered Authors’ Society, on February 15th, 2017.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creating credible characters using the BIG FIVE personality traits

This blog was written for an online creative writing class I ran for WriteOnCon on Feb 4th, 2017. A second blog for Awfully Big Blog Adventure includes the worked example mentioned at the end.

Hi and welcome to this blog about the ‘Big Five’ personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (acronym: OCEAN) – and how they can help fiction writers to create credible character arcs.

Here’s the starting point: after millennia of debate about how many aspects there are to human personality, current psychology has (broadly) settled on five. There are, of course, different opinions, but this blog is about these Big Five.

Taken together, they are the factors that express the myriad permutations of personality.

More important (for fiction writers at least) is the fact that these traits are neither immutable nor binary. People aren’t Open or Not Open, end of story. Each OCEAN trait represents a sliding scale from more to less (or good to bad if we’re being judgmental) and are subject to change in response to MAJOR life events.

To put it another way, personality can evolve in response to profoundly important events which test our fundamental strengths and weaknesses, events so important that they force us to step up to the mark to achieve our most serious objectives – which I reckon is a reasonable definition of a character-based plot.

So, if you’re looking for change in your story (and all the great writing gurus tell us we must), with events that change your protagonist’s underlying personality (making them a better or worse person, more capable or crushed etc.) then OCEAN is a great starting place.

 

Definitions

Just to let you know, this introduction is based on an excellent little reference book called 30-Second Psychology, edited by Christian Jarret. Necessarily, both his book and this summary are sketches. You’ll find lots more about OCEAN on the web; when I was looking, Wikipedia was as good a place as any to begin.

Basically, each of the big five encapsulates aspects of personality that tend to go together. Being sociable, talkative & assertive are all manifestations of extraversion, for example.

So talkative & assertive behaviour by a character will show the reader they’re an extravert, without ever mentioning the word. And since extraversion is linked to leadership, deciding your character is an extravert might also suggest a credible role for them in a group situation.

Clearly, one cannot be slavish about this. Many factors influence personality – family, wealth, culture, belief systems etc. – but I have found that creating a grid of each major character’s OCEAN traits is hugely useful as a descriptive tool, and potentially a prescriptive one as well.

So here are the Big Five.

Openness

Factors associated with openness: Curious, original, intellectual, creative, open to new ideas. Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity and variety of experience. This trait features characteristics such as imagination and insight, and those high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests.

Character with low-score behaviour High score behaviour
Prefers not to be exposed to alternative moral systems, has narrow interests, down-to-earth attitudes, non-analytical, inartistic Enjoy seeing people with new types of haircut, body piercing, curious, imaginative, untraditional
MY PROTAGONIST IS …

Conscientiousness

Organised, systematic, punctual, achievement-orientated, dependable. High levels of thoughtfulness, good impulse control, goal-driven. Tendency to be mindful of details.

Low score High score:
Spur-of-the-minute decision-making, unreliable, hedonistic, careless, lax

 

Never late, organised, hardworking, persevering, punctual, self-disciplined, dutiful.
MY PROTAGONIST IS…

Extraversion

Outgoing, talkative, sociable, enjoying social situations. High energy, positive emotions, urgency, a tendency to seek stimulation and the company of others. Extraversion is the factor most strongly associated with effective leadership.

Low score High score:
Prefers a quiet evening in, reading rather than parties, sober, aloof, unenthusiastic Life of the party, active, optimistic, fun-loving, affectionate
MY PROTAGONIST IS…

Agreeableness

Being affable, tolerant, sensitive, trusting, kind & warm. A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic. Only weakly related to leadership.

Low score High score:
Quick to assert own rights with confidence; irritable, manipulative, uncooperative, rude. Agrees with other’s opinions, good-natured, forgiving, gullible, helpful
MY PROTAGONIST IS…

Neuroticism

Being anxious, irritable, temperamental, moody. A tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, including anger, anxiety, depression or vulnerability. Sometimes called emotional instability. Tendency towards sadness.

Low score High score:
Not getting irritated by small annoyances, calm, unemotional, hardy, secure, self-satisfied. Constantly worrying about little things, insecure, hypochondriacal, feeling inadequate.
MY PROTAGONIST IS…

Some practical tips

Plotting

By filling in a third row in each of the five tables, and considering what actions, thoughts & emotions are CONSISTENT WITH THIS BASIC PERSONALITY TRAIT, you’ll hopefully avoid that awful moment when a reader says, ‘But they wouldn’t do that!’

And by seeing what type of character you’ve got in mind, you’ll probably also see which trait would most likely change over time (i.e. during you story), helping you define the sort of events which would achieve that outcome in the most dramatic but also realistic way

An OCEAN-based profile can also act a guide to how a character is likely to react to each new story event, and what actions they would credibly initiate at each stage in their psychological journey.

Making sure these actions & reactions build in a logical progression will increase the authenticity of the overall character arc, grounding even fantastical plots in credible human experience.

Even if your protagonist is a static James Bond type, OCEAN can help identify strengths which can be turned into weaknesses purely for plot purposes. For example, Bond’s relentless determination to kill the baddie (high score on the conscientiousness scale) could land him in ever deeper water. If only he’d stopped to think compassionately for once (Bond’s lack of empathy = a low score for openness) he wouldn’t have accidentally killed the arch-villain’s daughter in a fire fight (job done; she’s just collateral damage) bringing down the wrath of her psychopath father onto MI6 HQ in central London

An editing tool

Let’s say your story is about a burns victim terrified by fire (high score on neuroticism) who must learn to become calmly capable to save his best friend from the flames.

Alternatively, students in a small-town school with little experience of the outside world (low score on openness) learn in their own different ways how to understand the new refugee kids who’ve been moved into their class.

In each case, the OCEAN trait to be explored, challenged and overcome is fairly self-evident.

If you purposively decide this OCEAN-based change IS the story, then you can better judge whether each scene in the central plot and subplot/s is focused on this core trait.

As long as each test/conflict/challenge relates to the chosen core trait, and digs deeper and deeper into it, then the changes wrought by your plot events should, intrinsically, lead to coherent character arcs, ones with authentic emotional progressions and satisfying depth.

Retrofitting an OCEAN character arc.

You don’t have to create an OCEAN table at the outset.

For my First World War debut novel (out with Walker in 2018) I’d already written a plot-based script when I got a development advance to extend the ‘quest’ element and deepen my heroine’s character arc.

The elements I needed were already there in her backstory; I just hadn’t developed them enough. So I looked at each OCEAN trait, and designed new scenes which would take her step-by-step to a more mature place, one where she could – credibly – reverse her deepest feelings about members of her family.

I’ve drawn up a table showing each stage of this progression, based on the Openness trait, including her transitional behaviour, the turning point, and pre- and-post Epiphany stages. I’ll share this on the live chat if people are interested in seeing the process at this level of detail.