Finding characters

Like life on earth, characters are found – not created. Even in cases where you’re going into deep sci-fi or fantasy and you’ve got characters that aren’t remotely human of appearance, you still need them to reflect human traits back at anyone who explores them in your writing. We’ll get back to that.

Writers, like all storytellers, have one major thing in common – we’re observant. We take in everything around us. We might forget someone’s name, but we’ll remember the way they carried their centre of gravity, if they didn’t swing their arms as they walked or they had some idiosyncrasy, like talking out of the side of their mouth. These are things that people don’t generally notice unless it’s pointed out to them. When your character does it, they’ll see traits that they’ve seen out and about but maybe can’t quite place and that’s when you know you’ve got an endearing character. There is a whisper of humanity in there that makes it fictional but familiar.

Peter Sellers always looked at real people for his characters. Inspector Clouseau was a waiter somewhere in Paris – the slight squint, the narrowed lips and the tone of voice all came from someone Sellers met in a restaurant. As absurd as Clouseau is, he still reminds us of someone. He is real. Just not in the material sense.

You find these little quirks and traits as you go through life – people’s lip placement as they speak, the amount of times they touch their face during a conversation, the way they pick something up – and you infuse them where they make sense with characters. But do not make it obvious! One of Marlon Brando’s few admitted self-criticisms was his performance in The Wild One. He’d decided Johnny was apelike and infused ape like traits and idiosyncrasies into his performance, but didn’t cover it as well as he’d have liked (it’s still an amazing performance) – never make it obvious. Remember – most people don’t notice these things. If you mention in passing just once, that’s enough. The reader will pick it up.

Mannerisms are different to idiosyncrasies. They’re more obvious and are influenced by outside forces. For example, a tradesperson carries their hands and wrists differently to an office worker. They might be slightly curled inward. Slightly less dexterous. They’ll definitely be harder and more calloused. But an office worker stands differently. How’s their back, after years of poor ergonomics?

Then there’s how recently they worked. A tradesperson’s hands feel differently of a Sunday evening to a Friday afternoon. Maybe they like to nurse a cold beer for a while after a week of work because the cool surface is soothing on their palms?

Another important factor is tribe. The late Billy Stoneking used to go on and on about tribe when it comes to character development and he was absolutely right. It’s not just our cultures that influence our idiosyncrasies and our mannerisms, it’s the people we roll with – if any. Being a loner has an effect on someone’s behaviour as surely as anything, but life is never so simple as say, Mexico’s a predominantly Catholic country so my Mexican character is a Catholic… are they? Really? There are atheists and Satanists and indigenous beliefs and customs in Mexico as well, and in addition to characters who belong to these groups there’s people who grew up around them, people who adopt certain behaviours because they hated their parents… a kid from a happy household will adopt customs and culture native to their tribe, but a kid who was beaten up by their father isn’t going to be so willing. If a father was at church on Sunday after being at the brothel all night Saturday, then his daughter or son might not be so fond of a church that, ‘forgives all this behaviour, as long as you’ve brought your tithe with you.’ It’s not just culture and country, it’s tribe. In a big way.

Laurence Olivier made an amazing point about character when he admitted to finding the kinds of shoes they would have worn and walking around in them. Of course – they have to walk in these shoes. You can’t just think all of the above and hope it manifests somehow in your manuscript – you have to get it out of your head and find it in your body. If your tradesperson’s hands hurt, what do they do about it? What do you do about it? Run a rope through your palms a few hundred times and figure it out – don’t just think it. Characters behave subconsciously. You have to understand that. OUT OF YOUR HEAD. Walking with a limp changes your posture, your physiology – everything. Don’t just think “limp” – get out and walk with a limp for a month. How does it feel? What behaviours do you discover? And remember, nobody goes around showing off their oddities. How do you try to disguise your limp from other people? How do you hide your sore hands?

It’s like emotion. None of us go around trying to show people our emotions – we are conditioned to hide them. Same goes with idiosyncrasies and mannerisms; the second you point out to someone that you’ve notice something they do; they try to hide it. Your characters are the same.

If you want to know if an inhuman character can do that, look at animals. Animals, of course, do have a heretofore unexplored spectrum of emotions and personality traits that change drastically from being to being. And like the Enigma, every time you change species, the rules reset, and you have to start again; but humans seek what reminds us of ourselves in an animal. That might be parental instincts, it might be the need to connect with others of the species, and it might be hunger or the need to survive. Even Great White Sharks experience that. Once you establish the primal instinct, work your way out. How does is this need helped or hampered by the creature’s physiology?

You can get physiology from how you imagine their home environment. What is the composition of the world they’re from? The environment? Earth has existed in almost any form you can imagine a planet sustaining life – you can research the various animals of the various geological epochs to get a sense of what a creature looks like under such conditions as hyper-oxygenated air (big insects) or huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the air, stable climates, unstable climates… life on earth has been as weird as anything you can imagine. The pre and post Mesozoic eras were especially tumultuous and there are a wealth of strange animals with strange lifestyles to be found there to serve as composites or inspiration, but they all have those same things in common. They need to live, and there are things that get in the way of that and things that help them do that.

That’s where your drama comes from.

Then there’s the social aspect. Triceratops had three horns on its face and we assume that they were for self-defence because triceratops lived in an extremely harsh and dangerous environment, BUT you can’t forget that such an impressive display serves a social purpose amongst many animals as well.

When I was working on Mary, I had it pretty easy because elephants are extraordinarily intelligent in the human sense. Their intellect is such that certain behaviours parallel humans – we bow or shake hands as a sign of respect, they blow air on each other’s faces through their trunks. It’s different, but not more different than some human customs are from each other. When you’re discovering a fictional species, you add credibility and improve relatability but understanding how customs and behaviours are influence by intellect among animals, as well as physiology (if it has a trunk or a crest or a horn, does it serve some social custom?). It’s enlightening. You realize how animal we humans really are!

Writing Process

Some subscribers contacted me about my writing process, so I thought I’d make it a blog.

2019 was a super-productive year for me. Maybe it was because I spent so much time between the release of Dino Hunt in 2015 and the release of Mighty Mary in 2018, studying, earning my philosophy degrees and trying to build myself into a better writer. So, given the freedom of (a very little bit) more time, I churned out four first drafts and finalized Spirits of the Ice Forest for submission. When I say time, I don’t really mean I had much. In 2019, I completed two teaching degrees while working full time in Holmesglen, my Trade School.

But when you’ve got to get it out, it’s all about regimentation. Set time for writing. I have four hours out of every day between when I get home from work in which writing is done. Or sitting there staring at the screen. Both are acceptable. I will sit there for that time whether I have anything to work on or not – if there’s a total blank in my mind, I’ll read but I make time to read every day as well, between dinner and sleep.

So that gets me through the slate of projects. But what about when it’s done? First of all, it’s never done. There are four other first drafts I put down last year that now need to be rewritten and there’s still my great epic that’s now fourteen years old that I have to get back to and finalize. I know it’s time to finalize because it fits into a traditional story structure without feeling forced, it’s original and it fulfills the expectations of my initial vision. I know the four others aren’t there yet because they’re only first drafts: they’re nothing but vision. They need to be tightened and put through the framework.

But it’s not time to do that yet. I need to distance myself from a first draft if I’m to pummel it into a second and third. I need another year. So what in that time? That’s time for more first drafts… but what does one do when there are no ideas?

It’s extremely daunting. What does my head in is when people say, “I wish I had time to write” because having time is the death of inspiration to me. If hell existed, there’d be a special one for writers and it would be nothing but a clean schedule and the mocking stare of a featureless blank page for all eternity. You’ve got to go out and get those ideas. I read history, obviously, as well as a lot of fiction, but I also absorb the news with voracious enthusiasm. There is literally no waking time of day when my brain is not engaged in some kind of learning, especially not when I’m teaching.

Then I let what I take in form itself into images. I use a lot of imagery in my books and that’s because stories communicate to me through images – I used to be a screenwriter and I guess that’s where that comes from. For me crafting a first draft is about collating a series of images into a coherent order. The second draft is working a story through them. And it’s not just landscape. Amanda, my partner, is also a writer and she quizzes me about where my characters come from – it’s life. People I meet in life or see on the news. NEVER other fictional characters.

I’ll do one on character next week.

Hope everyone is doing okay in the ongoing madness and that it all ends soon and we can start to rebuild. At the moment, I’m reading The Lord of the Rings again. I love it. My review will be posted soon on Goodreads.

Stay safe everyone.

Max

Difficult Times

I don’t want to go on about the situation that has clogged up every stream of information, but hope you’re all keeping safe and healthy, that’s the first thing. The second thing is I hope you’re well. I hope you’re not letting the failure of our economic system to safeguard against what should be a manageable situation get you too down. Capitalism is a wonderful dream. A free-for-all economy where anyone can become anything if they are willing to work hard enough. But humanity doesn’t work that way. A few will abuse loopholes, will form secret allegiances with powerful politicians and they will hoard the abundance that should be available for all. A system of oligarchs has shown just how fragile it is.

Maybe I’m a radical socialist or maybe I’m just a realist, but since it’s the economic model smart economic managers turn to when things go drastically wrong and has never failed to set things to right, I’d say it’s nothing but an inevitability. You might as well argue about whether or not clouds exist. One day, democratic socialism will have to be the system by which all countries are run – it’s that or the end of our civilisation. Even Dear Leader Trump has been forced to resort to socialist measures to safeguard what he can.

I’ve submitted my new manuscript to Tamarind Hill Press and I hope they like it, but the research I did into both Viking and Beothuk-Dorset ways of life has got me thinking about recent times. The idea that a region can be governed by a collective of elected representatives with one neutrally elected “speaker” – chieftain, monarch, whatever you want to call them – and no hierarchy of leaders within the parliament doesn’t seem all that unrealistic. It’s not just a matter of redistributing wealth, after all. The struggle for wealth is the struggle for power. If our halls of Parliament, Duma, Althing, Reichstag, etc were without primary ministers, consortia or political parties, but had nothing but regional representatives with nothing to gain from being there except doing a good job in order to stay there, who would the oligarchs pay off to create loopholes to abuse?

Maybe our ancestors – Norse or First Nations – had the right idea.

Onto other business – I’m currently reading Les Liasons Dangereuses by Choclos de Laclos. Not a big fan of the epistolary novel but it’s pretty good. I’m getting through it. Since a lot of us have a lot of spare time at the moment, I’m interested to see what you’re reading…

February 2020

It’s been a big month!

I’m working hard to finalize the manuscript for my new book, which I’m excited to hand over to Tamarind Hill Press very soon. A long journey is finally coming to an end. I know the Vikings who tried to settle Newfoundland – and ran up against the native people who lived there – was something I wanted to do since I started writing fiction, but it took me forever to come up with an interesting story to go with it. 2017, I finally clicked: wrote two drafts and hated them both.

So, I took some time to write Might Mary, which I’m glad I did because it was such a rich learning experience for me that I couldn’t help but come back to my Viking novel. However, 2019 just wasn’t the year. I’d gone to New York and that’s always a recipe for a massive influx of ideas. I wrote four original first drafts over the course of 2019, and didn’t have a chance to come back to a new draft of my new novel until the last few months.

But I’m happy to say I’m back on track and very nearly there! Watch this space…

Reading a departure from my normal fiction of late.  My review for The Master and Margarita is up on Goodreads and my thoughts on Half Moon Lake by Kirstin Alexander are up as well. I don’t think I’ll ‘review’ Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women, however. It’s really not my place. I will, however, post a comprehensive list of things I learned from reading it, in the hope that it might inspire some other men – particularly men in positions of power – to think again about how we perceive the world.

What are you reading at the moment?

Best wishes,

M

January

What a way to start the New Year. Between fires cutting huge swathes through Australia, western nations teetering on the brink of starting yet another war in an already besieged region, the global political climate in general and now the outbreak of this coronavirus, it really doesn’t feel like we’re off to a great start, does it? Thank goodness we have books.

The misinformation that has accompanied every single disaster of the past ten years has been overwhelming. Fortunately, nothing sharpens the eye for it like satire. Read plenty, and you find yourself amongst those who see through the absurdities. For example, you might find the reports of two-hundred arsonists in Australia excessive and find that in fact less than thirty people were charged with deliberately lighting fires, of which most were just stupid, not actually malicious. How could newspapers report such a blatant lie?

Well, people believe it.

The humanitarian crisis that is war and, I fear, will come of this pandemic shows not only visions of great suffering, but great coldness as well. People crying out for the blood of their enemies. Paying no mind to the innocent people who live in the cities they cheer their leaders on for threatening to bomb. But, nothing awakens empathy like reading the stories of the persecuted and forgotten. Those who take the time to read their stories, more so than simply watch or listen, become intimately more aware of what people go through.

It must be easy for everyone else to forget their humanity when they think they’re on the winning side. Nobody “wins” a war. There are countless war novels – fiction, but written by survivors nonetheless – to teach us that.

There used to be a debate over whether insight was a gift or a burden, but I don’t think it exists anymore. Patriotism is the prime currency of every coward. They speak an infectious language laden with lies and false machismo and they’re leading most of the world. The future doesn’t need cowards. Conformists. Loyal flag-wavers. Such notions have led us nowhere. The future needs thinkers. Cynics. People who consider and question and change their beliefs based on what they observe. Knowledge is fluid. The future needs readers.

I’m going to release a new novel this year. At least I aim to. It’s called Saga of the Ice Forest, and it’s about the last attempt by Vikings to colonize Newfoundland around 1000 AD. I’ve been working on it since 2016. I set out to examine the notions of loyalty and subservience but to disguise it in a fictionalized retelling of the clashes that occurred between the Natives and the Nose. The research has been an immense ordeal but deeply rewarding. I’m particularly excited about the antagonist of the piece, the formidable Freydis Eiriksdottir. She’s appeared in fiction before but I just don’t feel like she’s been done justice.

I’m excited to bring it to you. I’m excited to have got so much reading done over the holidays – Half Moon Lake, Do androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a Keeper, The Canterbury Tales and Woman on the Edge of Time got me through the downtime.

Let’s keep the conversation on what’s important. What have you been reading?

September 2019

So, I’ve posted my review of The Great Escape but I’m still in awe of its content. How inventive those amazing people, held prisoners in Stalag Luft III, really were. Making things out of things I wouldn’t even equate as relative. Just incredible. And speaking of incredible, I’ve moved on to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, of which I love the subtitle, The Children’s Crusade, as well as the story behind that title as told in the introduction. Vonnegut is a model of contemporary authorship but he also breathes a sensitive, touchingly vulnerable new life into the telling of World War Two stories. A survivor of the Dresden bombing (which was done by the Allies when he was a POW) it isn’t hard to see why he’d have hated guns, hated war and hated aggression. But his ability to communicate that over to a story is a marvel. At the time, the 1960s World War Two stories were told with gung-ho masculinity and focused on the heroics. The Great Escape is no exception, despite its tragic outcome. Vonnegut’s antithesis on the popular Allied Heroes conception came early in America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and might just have given birth to the arts’ immense antiwar movement of the ’60s and ’70s and beyond.

What an achievement!

Speaking of, I’m still working on my next novel. Following Mighty Mary isn’t easy. The true story of a circus elephant doesn’t really leave any opening for what might come next. But I’m working. And I love what I’m doing.

Almost There!

Well, I’m hoping everyone will get to see what I’ve been working on lately maybe next year or early 2021. It’s been a lot of fun which I haven’t had writing something since Dino Hunt. Not that writing isn’t an exciting process, because you’re discovering quadrants of your own imagination and unlocking these hidden little gems that complete a story that was only vague in your head, which is an exhilarating process. But there’s also rewrites and making the whole thing coherent, which is where the work comes in. Often it feels like pulling the bottom floor out of a building so you can put it at the top. But I know something’s not good when writing it feels like pushing an acorn uphill with my nose. That’s not how the current manuscript feels. It’s one I can’t wait to get back to work on each day, so that’s exciting. I can’t wait to show it to you.

Reading The Great Escape. My review still to come but I’m loving it. Might need a pen and paper to keep track of all the names but wow; I’m just struck dumb by the ingenuity and resilience of these people. Makes me feel even sillier for complaining about writing being difficult sometimes!

I hope you’re all enjoying your month and keeping safe.

m

A new month!

Has a month gone by already?

Oh, well. I’m not just a writer, I’m a keen academic and I work full-time in education. Unlike many a writer, I don’t intend to ever give up my day job. I like researching, I like learning and I love passing on information and helping people along their way. But add to that my volunteering, my need to remain fully qualified and properly trained and practiced in all my disciplines and well… it gets a lot. Very much looking forward to the end of the year when I can relax a little bit and go to England for Christmas and spend New Year’s just hopping about my beloved Europe. I love and miss her.

Still reading! I finished McCarthy’s Outer Dark and posted the review on Goodreads. Now I’m on to The Silence of the Lambs.

And writing. I’m working on what I’ve decided will be my next book. It feels right and I intend to have it out sometime next year. Watch this space.

Suddenly 30

So I hit a bit of a milestone on the 31st of May. Thirty is often a daunting age, or so I was told, but then I was also told life begins at 30. I have to say I’m experiencing neither. Maybe I’ve been 30 for some considerable time but society’s little critiques, insofar as I have been subjected to them, have never mattered much to me unless they related to my acting or my writing. Even my acting I never invested too much of my own ego in. And critiques for writing? Well, you can learn something from all of them. So none of them are bad. There are rules, of course, you’re supposed to own a house (I don’t) have started a family (I won’t) and drive some degree of enviable car (ugh – never). But I don’t think people who had six books published before they turned 30 wrote those rules. Success is precisely what you want it to be and nobody can measure your success but you. I wanted to be a writer. Now I want to be a better writer. This will never end. I’m quite happy with that.

Dino Hunt has been expecting a sequel for about four years now and I’ve been given another possible release date. July of this year. I’m not sure how I feel about something so old being given such sudden new life but I suppose when we put our work out there we are forever reminded of where we came from. That isn’t to say people in general don’t like Dino Hunt. It was a phenomenally popular book, for what it was. I hope, for ASJ, that its sequel enjoys as much enthusiasm.

But I’m on to new projects. Manuscripts galore at Casa Davine. I can’t wait to show those to you.

2019 – A great year

2019 is indeed a year of hard work. I haven’t had time to really think about a blog post… I’m really quite involved in a manuscript I’m working on at the moment. I hope it’s as good as it feels! I’m still not sure which one I want to follow Mighty Mary with – there are a few options – but you’ll all know soon enough.

Still reading From Whom the Bell Tolls. I forget what an absolutely stunning writer Hemmingway was. I mean, I remember it in theory – I know it is powerful – but it’s not until I pick up his work that it absolutely entombs me and I remember viscerally what a master he truly was.