It took me a while to finish this week’s work. Partly because I had other things occupying my time, but also because I got stuck on the last assignment – but I’ll get to that.
So now that we’ve covered the work that leads to character creation, this week was all about practicing making those characters convincing and well-rounded, as well as the importance of conflict. Ultimately, a character (at least, one with a significant role) should be somebody that you can imagine encountering in real life, with all the complexities and flaws that make up the human mind – it is the flaws and differences, of course, that generate conflict. You wouldn’t have much of a story if everybody agreed on everything.
The task was given to take a previously created character and enrich them beyond stereotype – which got me going back to my old pal Harold, sitting at the bus stop with his Guardian. From what I had already written up, Harold could come off as a nerdy stereotype with his glasses and bad dress sense, so I started thinking about him some more. It was an interesting exercise: I found out that Harold has an English degree but isn’t really very bright, enjoys go-karting and country walks, is very close to his granddad, and takes a bit too much of his views on the world from the media.
We then had to take a potentially stereotypical character and write a scene about them going against expectations. My choice was the male hairdresser, often depicted as gay, prissy and effeminate:
Leonard snipped the final strand of hair and then held up the mirror behind Olivia’s head. “Alright, babe, how’s that look?”
“Fantastic!” cried Olivia appreciatively. “Good as ever, Leonard – cheers for that.”
“I do my best.” Leonard grinned and gave a thumbs up to Olivia as she got up and headed for the till, before turning to Sian. “Right, you OK if I get off then?”
“Go ahead,” said Sian. “See you tomorrow – have a nice evening.”
Zipping up his blue tracksuit top and donning his helmet, Leonard strolled out of the hairdresser’s and walked round the side of the building, where his silver road bike was safely locked up. A moment later, he was wheeling through the housing estate, watching for traffic or stray children, until finally he turned onto the cycle path.
This was where he could really let loose, pumping the pedals, flying down the unimpeded straight – one of Leonard’s favourite sounds in the world was the sound of bicycle tyres on smooth tarmac. It wasn’t a sound he had heard very often on the long journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats two years earlier; but then, he’d been focussed on other things, like keeping good time, the debilitating exhaustion in the latter stages, the exhilaration on the final day as he realised he was finally going to do it – and, of course, the lovely blonde who’d been slightly ahead of him most of the way.
Today, he and Sarah were still together and still happy, despite their little arguments on Soccer Saturdays – he’d never persuaded her to defect from Liverpool and start supporting Everton. Following one Merseyside Derby, when he saw her looking annoyed at his celebrations after Everton won, he had said, “Are you going to dump me now, then?”
“Nah,” Sarah had replied. “I like having my hair cut for free too much.”
Next, we discussed methods for making characters: either coming up with something entirely original, or using elements of yourself or people you’ve observed. I’ve spent a lot of time reading fanfiction over the years, so when I heard about authors “using themselves”, the first thing that sprang to mind was the concept of the Mary Sue, in which the author creates an idealised version of themselves as a kind of wish-fulfilment. But really, as discussed here, it’s more about enrichment and making the character real based on what you know about your own mind. Writing is about replicating the world around you in some way, and how you see the world is going to be biased based on your own mindset.
So then came the next assignment that other people were going to review: a character sketch, with a character created using a method we don’t tend to use. As the majority of my characters are based on people I observe to some degree, I went with the ‘ideal method’ of making one up from scratch (curiously, both of my reviewers thought I’d used the biographical method). It took me a lot of fiddling before I was finally happy with this sketch – which I think was partly due to the fact that I was facing criticism again, and the feedback from my last assignment hadn’t been great. But here’s what I came up with:
Elaine plonked herself down on her bed in the halls of residence, pleased to have gotten the hairdresser’s out of the way. The red highlights in her sleek hair had come out very nicely, framing her dark-skinned, round-cheeked face. She heard the pattering of rain against the window – thank God it had waited until she got inside. Elaine hated getting caught in the rain even when she hadn’t just had her hair done.
Now that she could turn her mind properly to her physics coursework, Elaine slipped off her sandals, pulled her knees up, rested her textbook against her jeans and began sifting through it. The law of conservation of energy…origins…
Her train of thought was broken as her mobile rang. Reaching over, Elaine looked at the name on the screen. Angie. Great. She didn’t want to answer, but then Angie would just ring back later. It was better to take control and give herself time to mentally prepare.
“Hi, Mum.” She chose the second word deliberately – Angie might get annoyed and prolong the conversation otherwise.
Angie’s chirrupy voice came down the line. “Elaine, honey, hi. How are you? Settling in OK?”
“Yeah, fine. Sorry, but this isn’t a great time right now. I’ve got work to do.”
“Oh? What’s it about?”
“Showing an understanding of conservation laws.”
“And do you understand them?”
“I reckon so.” If it had been her dad or step-mum on the phone, she would have gone into an explanation – not only because she actually liked speaking to them, but because they would probably be interested.
“Right clever clogs, aren’t you? Cleverer than me!”
Too right, thought Elaine.
“Anyway, I’ll let you carry on,” said Angie. “But can you call me back soon?”
“Yeah, about a couple of hours. Talk to you then. Bye.”
Hanging up the phone, Elaine tried to return to her notes, but found it difficult to concentrate. Hearing Angie’s voice always left a bad feeling in her stomach and made her head buzz. Maybe it was the memories of her shouting at Dad in those painful months before it all finally ended; Elaine was only four at the time and the recollections weren’t as clear as they could have been, but the traces that existed were still unpleasant. Maybe it was the reminder that no matter how much Elaine wished otherwise, she had another mother to think about besides Samantha. Samantha – whom she happily called Mum – might have been there since she was seven and been everything a mum should be; but nothing could change the fact that it was Angie’s rotten genes in Elaine’s DNA. Thank God her dad had gotten custody.
The comments I got were generally positive this time, although the main criticism was that the readers weren’t that interested in seeing where I went with Elaine. In my last assignment, I wasn’t clear enough with what was happening – here, I may have done the opposite and given too much detail.