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Developing Character Part 1 with Joe Murphy

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Character

Hi there, Joe Murphy here. This is the first in a somewhat raggle taggle series of articles about writing. I’ve somehow managed to get two novels – 1798: Tomorrow the Barrow We’ll Cross  and Dead Dogs – published to pretty decent reviews and have a third novel, I Am in Blood (working title at the moment), due out next year from Brandon. When my first novel was published Vanessa and others at writing.ie were hugely supportive and welcoming of a country lad from Wexford who was, and still remains, outside of the Dublin writing scene. My books seemed to attract interest and discussion not least of all because they are in two completely different genres. It was this “genre-jumping” that prompted Vanessa to ask me to write an article for writing.ie on ‘Switching Genre’. On foot of this she asked if I’d be interested in writing a series of articles on different elements of writing.

Of course, I said. Definitely. Anything to help a fellow writer put some sort of shape on their work. This idea of shape is important and we’ll come back to it in a minute. The thing with agreeing to write a series of articles is that life gets in the way. My son was born and promptly took over almost every waking moment of our lives. The few spare moments left were then divided between work and writing I Am in Blood.

The articles just never happened.

Now, however, I think it’s time to do what I said I’d do. Integrity is important, don’t you think? If you, as a writer, have the arrogance (and I use the word deliberately) to believe that your own thoughts are important enough to be read by other people then you should stand over what you think and what you say. Walking the talk. Moral purpose. Integrity. As a writer, if you haven’t that, you’re just someone with a larger than average vocabulary.

So here we go.

tomorrow-the-barrel-well-crossI used the words raggle taggle earlier. This is because the advice and opinions here have no basis in anything other than my own experience and my own way of going about things. There’s no over-arching schema. No tick-the-boxes to neaten things. Just Joe Murphy and his theories and how he goes about writing stuff. It’s sort of a lucky dip. And like a lucky dip, if you don’t like what you get, just throw it in the bin. Take what you want from these articles and discard that which you don’t.

The other word I used was shape. This is important. When building characters, I’d always bear in mind the shape of the narrative into which they’ll sit. Where does it start? How does it end? What key events must take place to link those two points? How will the characters be trammelled, or indeed warp, this structure?

And this is my theory on character. Any narrative, be it biography or High Fantasy, is peopled by constructs. Even if a writer says a character is based on a real person, they are only that. Based. A writer will select particular traits to emphasise or downplay. Character flaws or strengths are focused on depending on the theme and shape underlying the narrative. No character is ever really true to life. They are all, in some ways, ciphers.

Take some serial killer, for instance. Let’s say said serial killer has a penchant for particularly savage mutilation. On the other hand he’s very nice to kids and old folks and is an active fundraiser for a cancer charity. What side of his character do you emphasise?

As a writer, you cannot do both. You can touch on the shadowed half of him, certainly. This makes him three-dimensional. But dwell on it too long and you undermine the thrust and theme of your own story. The shape of it. You cut the ground out from under your own feet and confuse the reader.

dead-dogs-joe-murphy-lgeRemember, characters are constructs. Vessels to communicate a theme or facet of a theme. And readers expect them to be. To communicate the entire range and depth of a real human using the dry ink and paper of literature is as impossible as the notion is absurd. Characters are a function of plot and theme, not the other way round.

And this is as true for “biographies” as it is for anything else. Depending on what part of a person you want to elevate for the delectation of the masses, you can have a completely different narrative. Take the different narratives at play around Napoleon, for example. A hero here, a tyrant there, depending on what ideology his character is being used to prop up.

In saying this, a novel might appear to be a character study. My second one, Dead Dogs has often been quoted back to me as just this sort of thing. The narrative ‘voice’ being so consistent and engaging. The outlook of the narrator being so intensely communicated. One person said that reading the book was like living in someone else’s head.

Of course, I’m gratified by the reactions. But the idea of the narrator being a realistic character is not at all true. His mind, along with the minds and syntax of every other first-person narrator, from Vernon God Little to Ishmael, is simply a hall of mirrors to warp your perceptions so that, in the final mirror, you see that part of the world the writer wants you to see, stained or tarnished in shades they want you, in turn, to be coloured by.

From Holden Caulfield, to Scout, first person narrators are characters designed to draw you in and change how you look at the world because, as readers, we trust them. We identify with them. By the end we might not agree with how they see things but it is exactly this that makes them so artificial. They see particular things in particular ways because the theme needs them to.

Take the third person narrative, The Road. The boy and the man are never given names because they are supposed to represent us all. Or at least the male half of us. Their conversations are spare. Lacking colour and decoration. Exactly like the world around them. Here we have the supreme example of characters in their form and their dialogue embodying an over-arching theme.

And all the best characters do this. Bilbo Baggins. Captain Ahab. Jack Torrance. They all stand for something larger than themselves. The trick is then writing them so that they sound and act as realistically as possible while still fulfilling this role.

And that, dear reader, is the hard part.

(c) Joe Murphy

About the author

  • A writers' retreat space, in an old world cottage, overlooking Lough Derg in North Tipperary -
  • www.designforwriters.com

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