Dec 11

Characters first?

Characters First?

Title first? Action first? Characters first?

There is no ‘one way’ but some ways of approaching a story work better than others for different people.

You may have ‘favourite’ books that you recall loving while you were reading them but about which you remember clearly very little but the title. Was it because the title was particularly catchy? Was it because how the title fitted the story came as a surprise revelation somewhere within the plot? Some well known titles have become catch phrases and/or well known even to people who have never read the books, ‘Much Ado about Nothing’, ‘Catch 22’, ‘Lolita’….

Action stories, which include chases, rescues, monsters and supernatural heroes; quests of various types usually transfer well to the film world. The action is often dramatic and very graphic. Young people in particular often recall the ‘fight scenes’ and the skills of the heroes well but are frequently unable to give a coherent description of the plot. It is ‘always better’ to read the book if you want to savour the story but it may be a deliberate ploy on the part of the film industry to capture the audience, entice them to become adrenalin junkies and keep them wanting more!

Characters can become such favourites that readers cannot get enough of them; Miss Marple, Harry Potter, Jack Reacher, Bridget Jones, and they sprout a whole series of books, usually very formulaic but devoured by their fans. Characters are also sometimes well known even to people who have never read their stories, by reputation or even just by name; Romeo and Juliet, Oliver Twist, Don Quixote (reputably the best-selling book of all time!), Bilbo Baggins, Mary Poppins….

It is good to experiment and try different starting points as you practice writing skills and writing exercises. You may have a favourite, you may discover that some work better for you than others but also sometimes one works better for a certain type of story or just when you are in a different mood.

If you find a ‘formula’ that you are comfortable with and that works for you, that’s fine but it can be a mistake to stick rigidly to one way of writing or style when, if you write different things, another style or approach might work better. Try different approaches, different starting points and different style at least in your writing exercises.

A friend recently self published a book that had a good story-line but could have been so much better. I think it would have worked better in first person and with the story revealed more intriguingly, using flashbacks or a dual narrative perhaps. She chose a chronological unfolding, in third person but writing very much as she speaks rather than adopting a more impersonal, omnipotent narrator style. Her choice of course, but when I suggested what I thought, having been asked, she said ‘Oh well, that’s my style and I had spent so long on it I had reached a point when I just wanted to send it off.’

As we say so often, however long the first draft takes it really is only the raw material and the work starts after that: improving, editing, crafting, proof reading, correcting…..

A completely different style or changing the whole book from third to first person, or vice versa is a daunting task and it is better to be flexible and aware, perhaps with the aid of readers, much earlier in the process if it is not working well. It does not necessarily mean it is not good, just maybe not the best for that particular project. Be your own harshest critic and be honest as well as listening to others. Yours is the final decision on everything you write (at least before a professional editor gets their hands on it!).


Sue Almond

November 2017

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