Creating Life-like Stories For Novels, by Kate Forsyth
A writer must learn to watch, listen and learn from life, in order to create the illusion of life in their work.
Go out with your notebook and pen to explore and experience. Catch a bus or a train, sit in the park or in a café, wander the streets or go to an art gallery, a museum, a skateboard park or anywhere that catches your fancy. Watch. Listen. Jot snatches of dialogue. Write quick word sketches of people:
– how they sit
– how they eat
– how they dress
– how they behave when in company, and
– how they behave when alone.
Begin to develop stories around them. Wonder about their lives. Imagine motivations for their behaviour. Why do they talk, move, think and act as they do? Feel free to let your imagination run wild.
Quick character sketches like these can be a great way to amuse yourself while bored waiting in a doctor’s surgery or for a ferry.
Over time you’ll build up pages of them that you can use when actually writing a novel. Train yourself to be observant and notice nervous mannerisms or interesting tics – do they always wear red shoes? How do they like to eat their eggs?
Obviously a character sketch like this only reveals personality by externals, but it’s amazing how much we can infer just from those visual clues.
The great strength of a novel, of course, is that we have dialogue, action and interior monologue to help us delineate characters as well as their visual appearance.
The more you try and get inside people’s heads, and imagine what they think and feel, the easier it becomes.
I always begin a novel by thinking about my characters, and what role they play in the story. In general, most novels contain a cast of characters whose roles can be summarized as following:
– the hero (or protagonist)
– the villain (or antagonist)
– the romantic interest (or two – I do like a love triangle!)
– the companion or sidekick
– the mentor
– the circle of friends and allies
– henchmen (the villain’s circle of friends and allies)
– animal friends
– secret friends and hidden enemies
– the sacrifice
Of course, sometimes one character will take on more than one role. Often the buddy will also be the clown, for example, or he may act as the sacrifice. The animal friend can actually be a robot, a coconut with a face drawn on it or a rag doll. The romantic interest may prove to be a hidden enemy, or the villain may end up being a secret friend.
I assemble my cast of characters – I give them names and faces, and then I begin to daydream them into life. I wonder about:
– their motives
– their key character traits (impulsive and quick-tempered, or slow to anger but slow to forgive?)
– their great strengths
– their great weaknesses
– what sort of clothes do they wear
– what kind of food they like
– how do they move – are they quick and agile, or slow and clumsy?
– how they speak (dialogue is extremely important when delineating character).
Often strengths and weaknesses are different points on a spectrum of the same character trait, for example a generous-hearted person who thinks the best of everyone may sometimes not be a good judge of character.
Then I always begin to wonder about the two great driving forces of any personality:
– what do they FEAR most
– what do they DESIRE most?
I also consider:
– how will they grow and change throughout the story?
– what lessons do they need to learn?
The other thing that is also really important to remember is that the character’s outer journey must always be reflected by the inner journey They must learn something with each ordeal faced and each obstacle overcome. The true narrative arc of any story is the protagonist’s growth towards self-realisation and wisdom.
Kate Forsyth’s author website: www.kateforsyth.com.au
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