Posts Tagged ‘characters’

On writing skills: Professional writing versus fanfiction (Part B).

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Previous post: (Part A)

Part B: How fanfic can help you write better

I first dipped my toe into reading fanfiction because I knew some authors I had worked with had started that way. It seemed like an area I needed to know more about if I was going to work with emerging writers; not only to offer advice, but also to recognise certain writing styles and habits typical to fanfic.

I admit to being apprehensive. I’d heard the comments, read the news stories – I expected to find utter rubbish. And it’s not all gold dust in them thar hills. But there’s less-than-perfect writing anywhere. The internet is full of barely readable blogs[i] and typo-ridden news articles.

I have come across works – novel-length pieces – that are better written and constructed than some published novels I have read. And these are pieces people have put together purely for the love of it – no hope or expectation of payment, or a publishing deal, or even (necessarily) readers[ii]. Some of the stories have taken months or years to write and perfect. Many of the best ones bear little resemblance to the original works on which they’re based. They might use the same characters and traits, but often key aspects are so substantially changed that even the world is different. Perhaps only the character names remain the same; a kind of shorthand so the reader – almost guaranteed to be a fan – knows at least what to expect from the personality of that character.  These are well-written, well-crafted stories. Usually with a tonne of research and planning and thought, and even editing behind them.

There are a million writing guides out there explaining how to write, how to plan, how to research, how to self-edit. The information is overwhelming…

…and can be difficult to sift through for brand new writers who don’t have an established community of fellow writers.

Forever alone

Not everyone knows where to start or how to put esoteric writing advice into practice. Not everyone can make it to writers’ festivals, and not everyone is comfortable contacting known authors for advice – even though many are very friendly and happy to help.

The fanfic community can be a safe space to learn about the writing process, and these days the internet makes it easy. Far from being lazy, fanficcers have developed their own approaches to writing and “publishing”[iii] ­– most of which are identical to processes successful pro writers use, though couched in slightly different phrasing.

If you want to develop your writing skills, you could do worse than to emulate some fanficcers’ processes.

Five (fanfic) writing techniques
that will help make you a better storyteller

1. Meta and analysis.

This really leads into all the other points. Fanficcers are (obviously) based in fandom. They will analyse the canon work to within an inch of its life. And they will pull characters to pieces to understand their thoughts, feelings, motivations, backstory and relationships; figuring out how they would react in any given situation. They talk about these characters and their world among themselves – they can because, of course, these characters are shared. But the end result, when they write, tends to be a level of believability and depth that you can only get by knowing your characters and setting so well.

Outside fanfic, writers spend a lot of time arguing the merits of being a plotter or a pantser. In either case, if you know the background and impetus to your story and know it well, it’s going to be stronger on every other level than if you haven’t thought about it at all.

2. Knowing your characters.

This writing advice gets handed out constantly. Lots of authors recommend writing character sheets or “interviewing” your character to get to know them. If you’re writing fanfic, you have the advantage of an existing canon “template” to work from. In this case, the key is to learn how to convey the characteristics that readers will expect to see. Fanficcers have to make sure they get their portrayal right. They will study them until they know everything that makes them tick, so they can drop them in an unfamiliar (or canon-accurate) scenario and know exactly how they would react and why.

If you’re writing original fiction, the same rule applies. Only you don’t have a template to work from and you need to create this person (or bird, or potato) from scratch.

3. Consistent worldbuilding.

Very similar to the above. Fanfiction allows you to work with a template for an existing world. It means you have to develop the skills to portray things correctly, as the reader expects. Or you have to justify any differences if you diverge from canon.

Again, for fanfiction you need to know your world backwards. To write original fiction well you need the same skills and techniques to convince your readers this place is real.

4. Alpha and beta readers.[iv]

Most successful published authors have their own team of readers who critique their manuscript, although there are professional writers who hand in their first draft to the publisher without any eyes but their own ever having been cast over it.

Fanficcers don’t have a professional publishing house at their service (usually!) so they’ve worked out their own ways to develop and polish their work. Many of them put their fics through rigorous testing before it goes online. They have readers check that the story and characters hang together, that everything is as strong as it needs to be. And they may put it through its editing paces for spelling and grammar as well. These readers are usually fellow writers, or sometimes just readers passionate about the genre or topic.

This is a great system for polishing original work, too. Putting a manuscript through its paces before submitting to agents and publishers, or even before hiring your own editor, can result in a much tighter and more developed story.

5. Brit pickers, science pickers etc.

A step deeper than fact checking, although this is basically what this is. Many fanficcers are writing in a world or culture that is not their native one; for example, they might be Americans writing characters and stories set in the UK or vice versa. Or they might be writing a story about a scientist, or an artist, or a bird, or anything at all. They research heavily before they start writing, but then they get an expert to check through and ensure the language and tone is correct, not just basic facts.

In both fanfic and original fiction the slightest (unexplained) off-note will throw a reader out of the story. It can be invaluable to get someone who knows to look things over for you. You can’t always rely on an editor or proofreader to pick up these details.


Of course, none of these methods are exclusive to fanfic; many professional writers use the same or similar processes and more besides. But if you’ve never put much thought into planning your story, or considered why such research or planning might be necessary, some of these techniques – and the reasons behind them – might help you explore and develop your own work in new and interesting ways.


[i] Ahem.

[ii] Although, realistically, no one enjoys writing into the void. Even if they’re not looking for fame.

[iii] Albeit usually online and for free on specific forums/communities.

[iv] Fun fact! I got someone to beta read this post and the one previous. Thank you, Fabulous Colleague. You know who you are.


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On writing skills: Professional writing versus fanfiction

Monday, March 31st, 2014

 Part A

This post isn’t about getting fanfic professionally published. Nor is it an attempt to disagree (or not) with authors such as George R. R. Martin who stand directly against fanfiction for various reasons. This isn’t about encouraging writers to plagiarise or teaching them how to file off the serial numbers on fanfic to publish it as original work[i].
It is about how the techniques required by fanfic can help writers develop their skills and become more thoughtful about their processes.

Fanfiction[ii] gets a lot of stick. Despite its lengthy history, for a long time fanfic was tucked away and never spoken of in polite company. While it’s never really been secret, over the past few years, it has been brought a little further into the light. Certain books[iii] have achieved success off the back of their fanfic beginnings. Publishers have been actively seeking out popular fanfic works to greater or lesser success.

But just because it has had light shone upon it, doesn’t mean people regard it any more highly than they used to[iv]. Talk to most people from outside the fanfic world and they tend to be a little bit:


“Real” writing

Fanfic, goes the argument, isn’t “real” writing. It’s cheating. It’s lazy. It’s stealing someone else’s ideas. It’s plagiarism. It’s sordid. It doesn’t involve skill or creativity. It doesn’t take any talent[v].

“Real writers”, professional writers, create original worlds and characters from scratch. Their works are carefully and fully developed, and they consequently have a depth that’s impossible for a fanwork to achieve.

There’s no denying there are differences between “professional”, or original, writing and fanfic. They each have their own sets of standards and expectations – something that is acceptable for a fanfic would be frowned on in a traditionally published work; someone writing professionally is bound by a lot more rules and guidelines than someone writing fanfic; the author of an original work has to convince their audience to believe in and follow a brand new fictional world where the fanfic author has to reassure their audience that they can be trusted with already beloved characters and worlds and meet their expectations. They’re important differences…but that doesn’t mean fanfic isn’t real writing, or that it doesn’t involve useful skills and techniques that can be applied to professional (or other!) writing.

Critics would have it that pro writers are pro writers and fanficcers are fanficcers and never the twain shall meet. But there are plenty of traditionally published works that prove the twain have   met and they get along quite well, thanks. There are off-shoot series based on popular films and TV shows such as Star Wars and Stargate that are not called fanfic because they are officially licensed[vi].

Books like Wide Sargasso Sea, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and the Young Sherlock Holmes are described as derivative, or mash-ups, or parodies; “inspired by” or “set in the world of”… but are equally the kinds of books that could only be written by someone deeply familiar with the source material that inspired them.

Ignoring the legal and financial sides, what makes these books different to fanfic? Is it simply the fact that the original creators have authorised them? You don’t have to delve too deeply into or AO3 to find works that are equally just “variations on a theme” – stories that continue where canon left off or reset the entire story in a completely different world.

Like it or loathe it, the suggestion that such writing would involve neither skill nor creativity is patently incorrect.

A number of publishers and even authors employ ghostwriters or collaborators to continue a popular series. Tom Clancy’s splinter cell series, Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and many others have all been taken up by other writers. Such endeavours require the same skills as fanfiction: the writers need to immerse themselves in the original canon, to learn worlds and characters and write in a way that matches and is true to the original creators’ style and tone[vii]. In these situations, popular media judges the writers for their skill and their ability to “get it”.

Does anyone ask these writers whether they will ever write “for real” as fanfic writers often are when they are found out?

Possibly they do, but is the scornful tone quite so loud? What constitutes “real” writing? Where’s the line?

The line must be drawn here

There is a post going around on Tumblr, written by someone who reads scripts for a living, reassuring fanfic writers about their talents… It is a good post, and as someone who works with stories for a living, I agree with much of the sentiment: there are some incredible storytellers in the fanfic world, and often fic ­– unconstrained by the rules and expectations of a money-making business –  bends genres and expectations in ways professionally published works don’t. (Or can’t?) Of course, some of these fanfic authors do actually write for a living, because writers of fanfic are just as varied as any other group of humans. They’re people. They come from all corners of life, and they’re all ages. They’re students and academics, scientists and librarians, business analysts and soldiers, artists and authors… So it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many of these writers know what they’re doing.

Writing lessons

Another recent online comment declared outright that “fanfic isn’t like professional writing”. This was in response to a post aggressively criticising the presence of certain phrases/tropes/writing styles in fic. Others went on to point out that such negative phrasing (rather than gentle guidance) tended to put people off writing at all[viii]. Fanfic, they pointed out, was more often about writing for fun and not everyone writes it with the intention or desire to learn how to write better.

Fair enough. Writing should be fun…or at least enjoyable and/or satisfying[ix].

Some fanfics are badly written and/or thinly-veiled self-insertion stories written by sparkle-eyed daydreamers.

So what? There are quite a lot of original works that could be described the same way.

Some people write for the same kinds of reasons and enjoyment as they might otherwise watch a film or read a book. No one asks them to work at those pastimes until they have them mastered.

Does writing anything have to be a training exercise? No… but it can be.

In fact, if you do want to learn how to write better and develop your skills, fanfiction is a pretty good way to start. Not the only way, granted. And maybe not everyone’s preferred way. And I don’t particularly advise ficcing your favourite author’s work if you know they are against the practice. But if you’re looking for writing exercises to develop your skills, using a pre-created world as a source or template seems as valid as other known exercises such as writing a scene from a photograph or using a song as a prompt. By learning how to explore, examine and develop someone else’s canon, you can often work out how they have pieced things together; the elements and themes and considerations that go into making a fictional world. And from there you can figure out how to go about creating your own…

Continued in Part B: How fanfic can help you write more professionally


[i] Some publishers accept and even encourage reworking fanfic but despite recent publishing deals it is more often frowned upon. It cuts so close to plagiarism that it can be a risky proposition and just changing the names is not enough. I once received a submission that was quite clearly a reworking of a Harry Potter fanfic; there wasn’t a single name or setting that was the same as the original, but it was still obvious.

[ii] fanfiction = fic. As distinct from “fiction” = original or published fiction.

[iii] You know the ones. Fifty Shades of Grey. The Mortal Instruments. A number of well-known authors began their writing careers in fanfiction. Some hide this fact, some are open about it. It’s surprising how many popular novels secretly began this way.

[iv] Fanfiction gets a lot of flak from all corners of the reading populace. Part of this is fan shaming, part of it is because of its reputation for being the originator of slash fiction and for being focused on erotica – even though, by definition, fanfiction is just that: a reimagining of an existing fiction by fans. Erotica and slash are just one aspect.

[v] One of the things often counted against fanfiction is the fact that a lot of the writing is amateur and often poorly executed. And some writers get outraged that people are “playing in their sandpits” or “misrepresenting” the characters they created. For actors who have portrayed certain characters it can undoubtedly be somewhat disconcerting to see “themselves” written into blushingly graphic anatomical situations.

[vi] Which is not quite the same thing as Amazon’s “Kindle Worlds”, which is licensed fanfiction.

[vii] This is also a fairly accurate rundown of how an editor approaches most edits. Suggestions and changes need to be made with the author’s voice and foundations in mind.

[viii] This holds for criticising any kind of writing, fanfic or otherwise.

[ix] Just covering my bases here for all the authors who feel writing is sometimes like squeezing blood from a stone and far removed from the notion of “fun”.


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Conflux 9

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

It’s always great to head off to Canberra’s annual Conflux, where I can catch up with friends and make new ones.  It’s a chance to find out what everyone’s up to and celebrate successes. There are parties and gatherings and just all-round fun.

Mark Timmony, Karen Miller and Kaaron Warren

Mark Timmony, Karen Miller and Kaaron Warren

But for me it is also a chance to learn. Conflux may be a speculative fiction convention that draws and encourages fans of all flavours, but more than anything it is a celebration of writing; bringing together authors and publishers and readers in one spot. For all that I already spend a lot of time reading books and blogs about genre, writing, and publishing; events such as Conflux are an opportunity to hear experts and folks in the field speaking in person about their passion.

It’s a chance for me as an editor to discover what makes the worlds I wander through work so well, and to learn how writers understand their processes – so I can talk to them in their own terms when I am editing their words.

It’s also a chance for me to share the pearls of wisdom I pick up with other writers who may not yet have discovered writing communities or online resources. My incessant livetweeting during these events[i] is intended as much to help spread the word to them as it is to record/report the event as it happens. And spending time attending panels and talking to industry folk keeps me armed with the latest information to help new writers who often turn to me and other publishing professionals for advice.

This Conflux I not only followed panels, but also participated (because I was momentarily brave when filling out my registration form). I spent a late night with Patty Jansen, Ian Nicholls and Satima Flavell mumbling to a bleary-eyed audience of ten about whether self-publishers need editors (you can probably guess what I think about that). I think we mostly made sense, and even if we didn’t all agree, no one punched anyone and we’re all still friends. I also got to ramble about social media etiquette at the end of the con with Russell Farr, Zena Shapter, Alan Baxter and Alex Adsett. My favourite part of that was Jason Fischer repeatedly putting his hand up and prefacing every question with a promise not to pun. (Although I am pro-pun, as anyone who’s ever had to edit my magazine and newspaper heads can attest, so I was all for it…)

I also did my first pitching session for Etopia Press! That was an adrenaline-pumping  hour – who knew five minutes could go so quickly? I can’t speak for the writers, but I really enjoyed that session as I met some lovely writers, heard some fantastic stories, and can’t wait to read more. I also chatted about pitching and the process thereof to a few people later on, so maybe I’ll blog on that topic down the track…

Topics I followed through the con…

Small press: I work with small, medium and mainstream publishers so this was a particularly interesting series of conversations, not least because so many innovative things are coming from small press in this changing publishing landscape. The mainstream versus small press smackdown highlighted the different considerations and approaches publishers and small press take – and the different challenges they face and the opportunities for their authors. There was a strong sense that small press like Ticonderoga have been able to take more risks and follow their hearts on “artier” projects in ways that mainstream publishers, driven by the bottom line, cannot. Marc Gascoigne described Angry Robot as medium press and was keen to take advantage of the ability to move faster than larger publishers on publishing projects and even marketing and promotional ideas.

Fantasy: I read and edit so much in this genre, and there are so many sub-genres within it – and they’re constantly changing and expanding.

Duncan Lay and KJ Taylor prepare to launch each other's books!

Duncan Lay and KJ Taylor prepare to launch each other’s books!

The panel examining the success and visibility of women in fantasy was particularly fascinating as this seemed to vary depending on country and subgenre. Indeed, while this panel was taking place, *this article*  was going around Twitter; and many people have since been discussing the Strange Horizons survey. It was especially interesting to hear Trudi discuss her unexpected success in Poland, where she says publisher support and promotion meant her book tours made her feel like Stephanie Meyers.

Young Adult: Again this is a topic I followed as a fan and as an editor. Arguments about YA and what constitutes a YA novel seemed to permeate the whole convention – and you can log on to Twitter at any time of the day or night and bump into people discussing the subject. As the YA explosion panel explained, the fact that so many books originally published as “adult” titles have since been rebranded as “YA” only adds to the confusion.  Garth Nix pointed out that it’s no surprise so many adults enjoy YA fiction – the word “adult” is right there in the name. The panel ultimately concluded that YA is story-driven and this will always appeal to readers.

Crime: It was a twist to see the “crime tropes” panel pop up in a speculative fiction convention, but the reason for this soon became clear with a quick poll that confirmed everyone present, speculative fiction readers all, also read crime. The success of last year’s first GenreCon already made it obvious that most genre readers probably cross the streams fairly readily, but it was impossible to determine from this sample crowd whether as many readers of crime also cross back to science fiction. This talk covered the difficulty of categorising crime novels when so many cross genres – Daniel O’Malley making the point that in “anything ‘other world’ a single drop will make it so, but a drop of blood does not make a book a crime novel” – and quickly led on to book covers and bookshop shelving (a topic which came up numerous times during and after the convention; frustrating more than one bookseller.)

Co-author Lisa Hannett and cover artist Kathleen Jennings model their beautiful 'Midnight and Moonshine'

Co-author Lisa Hannett and cover artist Kathleen Jennings model their beautiful ‘Midnight and Moonshine’

Short story: I’m starting to edit more of these now I am working with digital presses – which have begun to accept and publish shorter works – so I was keen to learn from the experts what makes a short story successful and how the process differs for the writer compared with writing a novel. Lisa Hannett described short stories as “evoking more than they explain” and it was interesting to hear the panel describe the importance of the first paragraph or two of a short story – rather than the first line. Jonathan Strahan admitted a good first line made him suspicious as he’d then anticipate two pages wasted on justifying such an opening.

The business side of writing: In “facing reality” terms, this was one of the most valuable panels I attended. I often hear from new writers who plan, based on the first draft of the first thing they’ve ever written, to quit their job and live off their income as a writer. I know enough to talk them out of this,(!) but this panel took it to the next step. This was about the reality of being a career writer once you have been published. In many ways it was similar to workshops I have co-presented for freelance editors – the focus being less on the actual work you do (writing or editing) and more on the reality of what that life means: you will be running a small business. And you will be working alone. You have to be prepared, you have to be organised, and you have to know yourself. Karen Miller pointed out that while writing is a solo endeavour, publishing is a team sport and you need to know the roles of all the publishing people you work with. All the panellists agreed that publishing was just one step in a writing career and shouldn’t be the end goal because actually being published involves a lot of work and effort on the writer’s part.

Guests of Honour: I tried to attend as many guest of honour presentations as I could, although I missed more than I would have liked. Karen Miller’s photo presentation stood out in particular, showing how valuable a research trip can be and how differently a “standard” tourist tour of the castles and exhibits of Europe can be, viewed through a writer’s eyes. Under Karen’s guidance, stunning shots of a romantic, mist-swathed glassy river became the potential scene for a bloody ambush; an intricately engraved helm featuring the moulding of a bearded face became the enchanted armour for a king and so on. She showed us pictures of elaborate (and decrepit) doorways and encouraged us to imagine what sort of occupant might reside beyond, and further: how difficult (or how easy) others may find it to enter through such deceptively restrictive openings. The presence of tourists in the ancient dwellings served to add perspective – providing a measure by which we could see how humans have changed in height and girth (or not) and the challenges a character (and thus a writer) may face maneuvering within any given space.

Books about these places are easy to find, but Karen’s photo presentation made it obvious that these realities are much clearer when seen in pictures.[ii]

I also signed up to attend my first ever kaffeeklatsch – with Angry Robot’s Marc Gascoigne. I think everyone has been watching Angry Robot closely since they started as they’ve certainly been trying exciting new things and publishing fantastic titles – lots of Australian authors among them. Angry Robot are extremely online-savvy and one of the most important things I took away from the conversation, given the number of authors I have heard bemoaning the need to be on a blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, etc. was that the only thing that is a must-have for any author is a website. Nearly all publishers feature pages for their authors, but Marc pointed out that readers will go to Google, not a publisher, for the latest information about their favourite author. An author can keep all their information on their own site and be the obvious, official place for readers to go. Additional social media: blogging, Twitter etc. should only be undertaken with genuine interest. As our later social media panel discussed: readers and followers can instantly tell if you’re faking or marketing, so if you aren’t interested, don’t have time, or can’t be bothered: don’t do it – concentrate on the writing!

Angry Robots

The “Angry Robot family”: Marc Gascoigne, Jo Anderton, Ingrid Jonach, Kaaron Warren

I think all the authors at the chat[iii] liked the idea of Angry Robot’s inclusive approach to publishing, which both Marc and his authors described as a kind of “family” with AR authors
encouraged to join in on their email loop for discussions about releases and covers, launches and signings. More than one writer mentioned later how isolated they had found their own publishing experience by contrast.

For myself, I think it’s imperative that any future office[iv] I move into comes equipped with underfloor caves like the AR offices. And cobbled streets outside, too. Or inside. I’m not picky.


In all this was another fabulous con. I met some wonderful new people and learned far more than I could ever condense into a single post. (Even one as epically long as this.) And I haven’t even touched on all the launches, readings and parties that took place between and after panels. Once again, this was a weekend of fun and enrichment that reconfirmed to me how lucky I am to work with the books and stories I love to read.


[i] Apologies to everyone who has been bombarded during this month’s Bothersome Words Conference Tweeting Extravaganza.

[ii] Or real life. I think we could all justify a holiday to somewhere that would help with our next writing/editing project: yes/yes?

[iii] And at the Angry Robot Hour held later in the con… I may have stalked Angry Robot a little bit…

[iv] House.

Latest additions to Mount ToBeRead, courtesy of Conflux.

Latest additions to Mount ToBeRead, courtesy of Conflux.

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Fictional characters are real people too…or they should be

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

I recently* watched an interview with author John le Carré, in which he spoke at length about life as a spy versus life as a writer and the importance of story and character. Stories, he said, are “the ultimate escape: the fictional world is the one in which you really want to live”.

Now, if ever there were two careers likely to make one an expert on fiction versus reality, I’d say spy and novelist would be the ones! And le Carre’s assertion on stories is certainly true for me – the fictional worlds I travel to are invariably more interesting than my real life,** but more importantly, they tend to make a lot more sense; I am somehow more deeply involved in, and often inspired by, fiction in a way that I’m not always by my blander meatspace existence.

I wonder is this escapism true for everyone in the way that it is for those who write and work with stories? Le Carré wasn’t just talking about the daydreams in which surely every human indulges. He meant the particular finely crafted fictional worlds of books and film – populated with people so lifelike you can imagine them stepping off the page and down the street.

Stories help us to understand reality

I have spoken before about people who resist giving up their hold on the real world. And I frequently encounter those who are dismissive of fictional fancies. Yet we have always made sense of the world through storieThrough the Looking Glasss; we’ve always taught children and societies through myth, parable and fairytales.
Many university courses, particularly the oft-looked-down-upon Arts courses, still do so.*** Not just English, but philosophy, culture, sociology and other subjects are all taught with one eye/ear on stories to get the message across and clarify different concepts. In part this is also to show students and readers the different ways there are to read various books and texts, but these are important lessons too for writers who want to learn about hidden layers, messages and triggers in a story.

This week Linda Morris wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald about the Australian army’s prescribed reading and film lists****. “Reading lists,” she writes, “are assembled by military forces to help soldiers understand the history of conflict, develop critical thinking and navigate moral and ethical questions.”  Here is a prime example of fiction – albeit based on and bolstered by real life encounters and non-fiction materials – being used to help people come to grips with the real world. The realities and complexities of war are such that simply explaining the facts are not enough to prepare a person for it. We need stories to bring things to life; to enhance understanding.

It is sometimes easier to relate through fictional characters – whose inner thoughts and turmoils are often more clearly defined than those of a “real” person ***** –  and consequently it is easier (as a reader or a writer) to untangle your own thoughts, feelings and experiences through their stories. And yet these days a lot of people would say that fiction isn’t the place to get life lessons. It’s all just someone’s imagination.  How sad, they say, to live your life in books and not experience the real world. You can’t really connect with a fictional character, they say.

Can’t you?

Readers need characters to be real

Countless tales have been written where fictional characters come to life. And plenty of people talk about how much they wish certain characters were real. The fact is someone wrote that character, that experience. Even if entirely invented, the author must have drawn on something to pull that creation together: their own human emotions, or traits they’ve seen in others.

Many authors’ writing tips include putting together files or boards for each character, including their backstory, traits, appearance, tastes and so on. It’s important to note barely any of this goes into the actual story but it’s enough to help build the character into three dimensions in the author’s own mind – which means a lot of things will, or should, bleed through as they’re writing the story proper. It also means there is a frame of reference already built in when that character needs to react to a situation or interact with other characters.

Of course this technique won’t work for everyone – many writers are dedicated pantsers, working entirely without notes – but even if you keep it all in your head, you need to “know” your character if you’re going to wrangle him or her (or it) successfully on the page. This background is handy to prevent characters simply performing “actions of convenience” that move things to a necessary plot point but are otherwise out of character or lack sufficient motive. It means that if someone has to ask the question “why did he do that?” there is already an answer.******

This level of detail is why authors so often talk about characters writing themselves – not all of them spring to the page fully formed, some require careful creation by the author­ – but once you know them well enough, your characters may almost speak for themselves. This also means that when it comes to editing, your editor will also be able to spot inconsistencies in a character – even though they may not have all the background knowledge you do as the author.

So do writers

The irony in all this is that while the fictional world may be more alluring, the best characters are true to life; they are drawn on real people, real experiences – even if one single character is a mishmash of several real people. Le Carré suggests writing these characters can be an opportunity for the writer to explore themselves, noting that “in the reinvention of oneself you get the therapy of making character”.*******

Good writers are generally good observers, taking in all levels of detail from the world and the people around them – from dialogue overheard in cafes to altercations and misunderstandings between friends.********

The most convincing characters are believable because they draw on reality. Of course there are extremes – the serial killers you’d hope are not actually based on the writer’s true experience – but again the most memorable tend to be the most human. What makes them chilling is their charm, often the fact that you can imagine this person, responsible for such reprehensible crimes, could be your neighbour, your friend, even your lover. They share traits with people you, the reader, actually know.*********

Of course there’s further irony in the fact that while they strive to create realistic worlds – and even the fantastical ones must in some ways be realistic –  many writery types often joke about their personal obliviousness to and inability to interact with the real world.**********  Again, I would point to the real world’s dismissal of those who work with fiction as perhaps a reason for this sometimes-awkwardness; for example, the glazed expressions from people bored to death when one waxes lyrical about a beloved story or thrill of getting the words to align Just Right.

Fictional characters never judge you for this passion.***********

Stories and fictional characters are often what make some of us get up in the morning and keep us up at night. They may be our own creations or someone else’s, but though they’re not often accorded the same respect, they’re things we take as seriously as other people take their own jobs. (Perhaps more so in some cases, because some people hate their jobs and don’t care about them at all.)

Caring this much is hopefully what makes good stories. You care about the fictional as if it were real, because sometimes you wish it was. And ideally you want your reader to have the same yearning. If le Carré is right, and the fictional world is the one in which you really want to live – or the one in which you’d like your readers to want to live – then you have to make it real.

Do you get lost in your fictional worlds? Do characters write themselves onto your page? Or are you one of those terrifylingly well-adjusted creative types who can compartmentalise and socialise with the best of them?


*Recently = months ago. It was one of the extras on the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy DVD.

**Not a challenge. Even the most creative writer would get limited mileage from the exhausting adventures of editor-sitting-at-desk.

*** Anything from Shakespeare to The Matrix can be used to explain complex philosophical ponderings…

****Linda Morris: Military gets the reel deal: now army’s reading list includes these films SMH, July 30, 2012.

*****Because real people don’t have their own separate author, or a draft and edit function. Well, unless you want to be metaphorical or philosophical about it…

******Of course if someone is asking that question when they shouldn’t, that may not be a good sign. Make sure any excessive background you have kept wrapped up tightly away from the manuscript has a little more air to breathe and circulate.

*******And really, there is no better place to start when asking a character to perform a certain feat than by asking yourself what you would realistically do or say in the same situation. If you don’t like the answer, decide which one of you – you or the fictional character – needs personal development/therapy.

********You need to watch out for this. Some writers will warn you that anything you say can and may very well be used in their next book. I once made the mistake of mentioning an altercation I was involved in, forgetting I was at that moment standing in a room full of writers. I quickly found myself surrounded by a selection of eavesdroppers clamouring for a detailed anecdote, which both my stage fright and my conscience failed to provide. However, this was a handy reminder that writers are always listening and anything you say to, or near, a writer is fair game.

*********As indeed do real serial killers, apparently. Neighbours and friends are frequently reported as shocked that the quiet unassuming person on all the news channels is the criminal described.

**********This tumblr post by Neil Gaiman is the perfect example.

***********Unless you write them that way. In which case I refer you to the above footnote. Not that one. The other one.

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Watch your language

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

My mother used to call me a slut.

One step into my bedroom and she’d cast her eyes despairingly to the ceiling and berate me for my sluttish behaviour. It wasn’t until we’d lived in Australia for several years that things changed and she would comment only on the untidiness of my room.

This was not because of any change in behaviour on my part (despite my parents’ best efforts to get me to “do something about that pigsty”) but because they’d finally worked out that the word had an entirely different meaning in this country than it had back home.

Fast forward a few years and this particular word is almost universally used primarily in the “immoral” sense.

Language, then, is important. It’s important when you’re a schoolkid trying to fit in – even if you appear to speak the same language as your peers, slightly different word choices can lead to embarrassment if not actual miscommunication – and it’s important if you’re a writer, trying to set a scene.

This time last year, I wrote a similar post on building worlds. Lately I’ve read a lot of stories set in places that are clearly foreign to the authors writing them, so I’d like to return to the theme of worldbuilding from a language perspective.

The internet has made it easy to research countries and cities, and even different industries. With enough time and effort it can be relatively straightforward to build up a fictional set of characters livingfootpath in a real-world place. But picking up those subtle language differences is not so easy – and it’s not always obvious that there are differences, unless you’re looking for them.

The most common issue encountered in my writing/reading/editing bubble is the use of American English when a scene, its characters and even the narrator are intended to be English or Australian – and this differentiation must certainly work the other way for American readers/writers/editors.

Often, people flag footpath versus sidewalk as the most obvious writer “tell”, but there are more subtle differences of which to be aware. For example:

Once they have traversed the walkway of their choice, do your characters buy their groceries from a shop or a store? And how do they carry their shopping home – in bags or sacks?

Do they snack on biscuits or crackers? If they tuck into a packet of chips, does that mean a steaming hot bag of fries or a nice pack of crisps?

Do they take cream or milk in their tea? Or do they prefer a nice bottle of fizz? Or pop? Or just a plain old soft drink?

Where do they live? In a house or a cottage? Or perhaps they prefer a more urban lifestyle and they’ve shacked up in a flat/apartment/unit/condo

Clothing can be a conundrum, too. If a character puts their pants on, does that mean he has his trousers on or that she’s clad in nowt but her knickers? If they’re sporting a rather fetching vest, should this include a pocket-watch adornment, or is this another word for undershirt?

Narration, as well as dVestsialogue, will need to fit too. Natural style for a UK or Australian speaker is usually:  “come and sit down,” or “go and get your sister,” where US style is to drop the and: “come sit down, ” or “go get your sister,”* – subtle but notable differences. US style also allows for gotten and anyways, which are not typical of UK or Australian English.**

From an editing standpoint (because we tend to check these things) this goes even further. Are any of your characters experts in their field? It’s important to not only know the language of their industry but how the experts use it – including their colloquialisms and jargon. This can be key to your story and it’s vital to note that the manner in which the public commonly uses an industry’s terms is not necessarily the way the experts wield the same words.

IT is a perfect example here, where terms are commonly misused by everyday folk and it’s easy to assume that tech experts will use the same colloquialisms, when in fact they are as precise as any doctor with their wording, even when they bandy jargon about.***

Do your research. If you’re setting your story somewhere with which you are unfamiliar, don’t just rely on the interwebs to show you where that country town is or how many Tube stops are involved in your characters’ travels. Concentrate on the language as well as the layout of your world.

If you can’t visit your intended setting, watch television shows and read books from that area – they’ll give you a good feel for dialogue and language culture. If your story is set in a specific time, be it the distant past or the present, do the same and take note of how words and language may have changed – even a couple of years can make a difference. If you’re going to write about a field or industry outside your own experience, don’t just talk to experts about their work – check that your fictional expert is using the jargon correctly, too.

The right language adds fine detail to your worldbuilding. Get it right and your reader will be an armchair traveller, mentally meandering the streets  you describe with the ease and familiarity of a local (which, of course, they may well be!). Get one word wrong and they can be as easily thrown out of the story. The believability is strained, the narration rings false. If those details are wrong, thinks the reader, what else is untrustworthy in this tale?

How do you craft your language? And what words throw you out of a story?

*    And yes, there’d be different punctuation here as well. I’m not entering that argument here.

**   Of course there is some slipover. Americanisms and UKisms and Aussieisms cross oceans and borders with merry abandon. But unless it has been adopted into common use, an editor will likely adjust for local style. So even though, for example, “gotten” is being adopted into colloquial use in this country, it’s totes not something many editors would let pass just yet.

***  For more information on this, speak to any IT guru you know who has had to help someone fix anything on their computer. (This will be *every* IT guru you know.) Ask if you can watch next time someone asks for tech help. Marvel at the array of facial expressions deployed by said expert as they try to translate what *exactly* this person means when they say their computer is “broken” and describes the elements involved.

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Genre-ly speaking

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

There’s been a lot of chat about genre on the interwebs lately; in particular, people have been discussing the question of whether one should write according to genre – and according to what sells both to readers and to publishers in the first place – or whether it’s okay to write what you want and hold firm to the belief that someone somewhere will recognise the deep-seated brilliance of your creation, genre (and markets) be damned.

This seems a rather multi-layered question and there are so many different answers and aspects to consider.

Genre is confusing

Genre often means more inside the industry than out. Even passionate readers may only be aware of some of the broader categories and this can cause problems, particularly in areas such as speculative fiction, which most readers I speak to think of as “science fiction and fantasy” – assuming they have even heard the alternative term at all.* There is an understanding among readers that the “science fiction and fantasy” section of a bookshop will also include horror, all the vampire and werewolf fiction they desire, urban and paranormal fantasy, supernatural fiction, and anything else that seems a bit “otherworldly”.
That said, there can be confusion over books that, due to their themes or certain narrative devices, fall neatly under “speculative fiction” and thus find themselves duly shelved with other, more obviously fantastical or science fictional titles. This categorisation may not work well for readers who don’t quite know how to relate to what seems to be, for example, a straight-up detective novel with subtle supernatural elements.

It’s hard to know whether this is a problem of marketing or categorisation. Would such a title do better in general fiction? Would the author be better advised not to write the book at all or to adjust the writing to fit genre conventions? This last seems a great disservice to the original story, but what’s more important – the creation or the success? Are there similar problems in the crime genre which also has various subsets?

When contemplating genre, it’s important to consider who you think will be your main readers – but keep in mind you can’t actually control your audience. For example, YA, or young adult, fiction seems to be growing in popularity, but the definitions of “young adult” differ slightly from country to country (and possibly publisher to publisher). Depending on the title, it’s generally accepted that it’s not just “young adults” but also actual adults who will read YA, as well as children, depending on the book. I recently heard an industry expert say that not only does the Australian publishing industry not call this genre “YA”,** but also that he thought it was really sad that so many grown women (in particular) were reading – and becoming obsessed by – YA novels such as Twilight and other popular series because they were intended for children and he felt they should be kept that way.***

This seems like the voice of someone who would certainly like to keep distinct lines between genres, at least when it comes to distinguishing between adult and children’s titles, but honestly it just doesn’t always seem that clear-cut. I have worked on a number of titles for adults that have later been described in reviews as “young adult novels” – to the author’s surprise and, if the cover labelling is anything to go by, presumably the publisher’s as well.


So how do you decide what to write, genre-wise, if you already have a plot and a story in mind? And how does this relate to the common writing advice that’s already bandied about?

Write what you know

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be an expert, but surely the genre, and indeed the subject matter, should be something you care about and are interested in?****
Writing is not a quick process and it is certainly not a get-rich-quick career. Why would you saddle yourself with a genre and style in which you have no interest? It would be immeasurably hard to write such a thing as well as something you were passionate about and, assuming you were successful, any publisher would be likely to require you to continue to write in that genre, at least initially – thus you would effectively have written yourself into a corner.

Assuming results in donkeys

Or something. There are certainly some clear-cut lines with genre, but there are also books that have crossed those boundaries. If you make assumptions about the publisher or the market and deliberately rework your ideal book to fit more comfortably into an established genre, you are denying the publisher (and your readers) an opportunity to see beyond that. Sometimes categorising isn’t obvious and sometimes publishers slip genre titles into general fiction or even (shhh) literary fiction. The Time Traveller’s Wife, for example, is a successful novel that has been slotted into “general fiction” in most bookshops, but given the time travel elements is certainly speculative fiction, despite the romance within. Sir Terry Pratchett, on the other hand, often says in interviews that he was under the impression that he was simply writing satire until being categorised as a fantasy writer. Elizabeth George is an established crime writer, but it’s the romantic back story of her characters that gets her readers most up-in-arms.

Trying to adhere too neatly to genre conventions in order to fit can be a mistake. Readers will see straight through it if you aren’t genuine, and it’s important to remember that there’s a reason other books have so easily crossed genre or slipped into “general” or even literary fiction. Russell Davies talks about this in A Writer’s Tale, pointing out that even his comedies have tragic or sad moments and vice versa. His suggestion is that this is what life is like – if the audience is to believe the story, you have to add a dose of reality and that means not being all one thing all the time. This applies to any story if you want it to stop falling flat. It’s where the secondary and tertiary storylines can come in so handily: the romance back story in the crime novel, the tragic spy thriller set in the fantasy novel etc can add depth to a tale that might otherwise feel too two-dimensional if forced to sit wholely trapped within a single convention.

Note, though, that all this still has to be true to you as a writer, to the story you believe in, or it will ring hollow and the reader – not to mention the sharp-eyed editor – will find you out. Genre is about much more than making sure you follow a few conventions. You have build it from the ground up. It will be reflected in the language you use, the world that you build, the characters you choose and their motivations, the plot itself and the interactions between the characters. It will be there in the rules you follow and it will be evident in the rules and conventions you break, the things you don’t show. While it’s true that some genres sell better than others, in the end it comes down to story. A good story told well will always sell better than a humdrum tale told half-heartedly.

What do you think? Should writers “write to fit” or just let the story flow as it will?

There has already been some discussion on this here: Kylie Mason: In Which I use the Words Genre and Convention (following the first Genre Cage Fight at Shearer’s) and here:  Zena Shapter: Should Genre Mean Something Special to You Or Not?


*Mostly they haven’t. Hands up those of you in the industry who have heard the old “but all fiction is speculative” line more than five times?

**Which may be news to the authors, editors and publishers I see online regularly discussing the genre using that term.

***Admittedly, said expert visibly cringed when discussing the wave of YA vampire fiction that was in the New York Times bestsellers list at the time and said he didn’t understand any of it, so perhaps not the most unbiased of opinions on that front…

****At this point I find it comforting, salient and, frankly, amusing to turn to Mitchell and Webb to illustrate this point with their series of screenwriter sketches, including this one which proves that you really will do better if you know and care about, for example, spy drama, rather than just making up what you think is required to fit the genre: Mitchell and Webb – Spy Service 
Fast Tube by Casper

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Identifying your characters

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Like many others, I wasn’t born here. I was born, and spent the first part of my childhood, on the other side of the world. Culturally similar, sure; English-speaking, by definition. But unmistakably different.

I’ve spent more of my life here, however, and if you were to meet me for the first time now you’d have no idea I wasn’t a local. Mate.

This means that people, even close friends and those from my “native country”, tend to strip me of my historical identity. “Pfft,” they sneer. “You left years ago. That doesn’t even count.”
I find it breathtakingly hurtful – what “doesn’t count” is part of my make-up, but there’s no malice intended behind their words. Perhaps it’s even a fair point – I have yet to make it back to the country of my origin. No accent. Gone too long. I don’t belong there and if I went back now, I am sure I would feel out of place.

But none of this takes into account that even in this country I was still raised by a family who followed all the customs and culture and language (yes, English, but used in subtle and different ways) of their origin. And there’s much to be said for memory and the formative years. I’ve lost count of the times as an adult I’ve recalled something poignant from childhood that has no relevance here; or similarly, failed to catch the significance of a story or witticism that any true local would only have needed a hint of to nod knowingly.
It’s rare, but every now and then there is a jarring moment of displacement, like a flicker of TV static; a reminder that something doesn’t quite fit – and that something is me.

This by no means a cry for sympathy or empathy. It is merely an acknowledgement that sense of self, of place and identity, can be subtle, yet pervasive. It’s the little things that prompt each of us, every now and then, to ask the question “who am I?”

And as it is in reality, so it is in fiction.

One of the best compliments an author can receive about their writing is when a reader says that they really believed in a character. But characterisation is one of the hardest things to get right and a lack of believable characters can let down even the most powerful story. So how do you go about creating them?

Some of the most successful stories are those that build worlds and characters around those themes of identity and place – either deliberately or subtextually. Even if that is not something you are concentrating on, it can be helpful to keep these things in mind when you’re creating your characters. You don’t have to spell everything out, but when a character is placed in a given situation, it is worth remembering their background even if the specifics don’t make it to the page. Ask yourself who that character is, and why.

Your character’s childhood, their upbringing, their interactions with others and the world around them all link back to the identity that, as author, you have created (or failed to create) for them. How they react to things and how they are placed in the world are equally informed by their background, and can feed into their characterisation and differentiate them from other characters in the narrative.

What do you think? How do you feel about identity? And how do you “create” your characters? Do they spring fully-formed, complete with life-history, into your head? Do you make character notes? Or do you prefer to work with a blank slate?

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