I am referencing Hallbury Summer because I have just completed the revised version and the character is still fresh in my mind, and, hopefully, in some of yours.
So why this article?
I make no exaggerated claims for my writing ability; however, I sense from the feedback I receive that the believability of my characters is one of my strengths, so I thought I might explore the ‘method’ with you here? I wonder how my practices compare with your own?
First, can we agree there has to be a ‘method’? I learned early in my theatre school training that inspiration is very nice when you can get it, but if you are sitting in front of a keyboard at six o’clock in the morning with a raging headache, it is likely to be beyond your grasp. For all the many mornings like that, you need a method.
In establishing that ‘method’ I’m not ashamed to admit that I call upon Stanislavsky, either. Although ‘An Actor Prepares’ must be out of print by several decades it still has much to say to us. At the very least, an ability to ‘talk myself into’ a character is an asset. I use it habitually.
So, what does Joe Palliser look like? I don’t know! He is my lead character, therefore whether I am writing about him in the first or third person, he is ‘me’. No, he doesn’t necessarily share any of my personal peccadilloes or conform in any way to myself, but for the purposes of the book I am inside him looking out, and unless I am obsessed with mirrors, I don’t need to know what I look like. Let me explain why that’s important. I want my reader to treat Joe in just the same way – to see the world from his POV. If I tie readers down by a description he becomes a chessboard figure. They will be better satisfied by developing their own picture.
In fact, I need to know remarkably little about Joe: his backstory, for instance, is very limited. He was in the care of a babysitter when his parents were involved in a fatal car accident. Apparently his parents were moderately comfortable financially, but do I need to know if they were doctors or dockers? No. Only the car accident is important, because it orphaned him and may or may not have some bearing on his personality (this in contrast to his younger brother Michael, who was in the car at the time and physically as well as mentally damaged).
From my first introduction of his name my reader is building up an image of Joe in their minds. It is my job as author to develop that image by introducing the third dimension –lifting him from the page – and the greatest tool at my disposal for that is dialogue.
Dialogue: do you know what I really hate? The self-indulgent author who cannot resist making his character bombard the reader with his personal opinions, or who feels compelled to give a history lesson in the midst of a piece of dialogue! Nothing disrupts a readers’ enjoyment more: in life no-one will accost you on the street with a two or three hundred word vent. It just doesn’t happen, and if it ever should, I suggest you run. I guess my recommendation would be if you feel you have something to say, choose the subtlest (and briefest) manner of saying it, and reserve it for the author’s voice, not the voice of a character.
Dialogue should, in my opinion, be rounded and natural. Don’t edit out the monosyllabics, the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ of everyday speech, just for the sake of a word count. Speech should be reflective, a mirror to the way normal people speak to each other; it should flow, taking the plot forward or setting up a third party character. To me, using a dialect for my lead character is a big stonking ‘NO’, but that doesn’t apply to ancillary characters for whom dialect, in its broadness and sophistication, can be a useful personality guide. However, this proviso must remain: I must describe my other characters as Joe sees them.
If I were to wax further upon my treatment of characters that surround the lead I would tell you how I often make sketches of them, and certainly talk to them as if I were Joe. They join me in my room as I introduce them, and if they are interesting enough to Joe, they stay.
You see, the great joy of writing and its mystery is that moment of magic between the fingers and the page – the undeniable ‘something’ that happens.to make Joe, or my other central figures come alive. Are they good or evil, weak or strong? I don’t know. Let the reader decide. Are they real in the reader’s eyes? That is a question only the amber spyglass can answer.
But I had fun, didn’t I?
The revised version of Hallbury Summer is now available in both eBook and paperback versions. You can find it here, or by clicking the cover image in the sidebar.
If I can be of assistance by sharing experiences with other writers, aspiring or otherwise, please contact me.