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How Good Characters Lead to Good Storytelling

Writing.ie | Resources | Character

Claire Coughlan attended Joanna Briscoe’s workshop at the Mountains to Sea literary festival for writing.ie, and brings you her insights, hot off the press…

Joanna Briscoe has published five novels, including the internationally bestselling Sleep with Me, which was adapted for ITV and was described by Jonathan Coe in the Guardian as “A beautifully written and emotionally candid novel which also happens to be a page-turner.”

Joanna is a tutor at the Faber Academy, where she has taught many courses in novel writing at all levels. She has also taught at Birkbeck, University of London; for City University, and the Arvon Foundation, as well as running workshops in Wales and throughout the UK.

Joanna Briscoe got the idea for her bestselling novel Sleep With Me, starting with a single character. That character, of course, was the strange and fascinating Sylvie Lavigne, for anyone who’s read the book, the enigmatic stranger who enters the lives of happy couple Richard and Lelia, wreaking havoc in her wake. What happens when one seemingly insignificant person encroaches on the lives of a couple? As Richard says at the start of the novel: “That first sighting was repainted and lingered over so many times later; but at the time she was a blur. A slick of grey. Nothing. Beware of mice.”

But how do you create a character so vivid and page-turningly compelling to sustain the narrative of an entire novel?

Joanna told the group of aspiring writers seated around the boardroom of the new DLR Lexicon building in Dun Laoghaire that it all came about several years ago (Sleep With Me was published in 2005) when she was at a dinner party and a dull-seeming woman was in attendance, who didn’t speak much but she seemed to have a strange effect on everyone there. The next day, Joanna knew she had the idea for a character and the rest has been immortalised in fiction.

Do we have to like our protagonist, Joanna asked the group. No, was her answer, although the reader needs to be engaged with them. Joanna said that a common mistake she sees amongst first time writers is in trying to make characters likeable. Compelling and likeable aren’t the same thing.

The best way to start is to begin on the outside, with what they look like. Joanna suggested tearing out photos from newspapers as a visual aid, as this aspect is really important. Above all, you’ve got to know your character but all the research you do won’t be down on the page. However, your confidence and depth of knowledge will show.

Names are very important for your characters and above all, what they do is very revealing. Show us their character through their actions, rather than telling us through summary.

Joanna illustrated this with a quote from Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Getting to know your characters is important, although some characters, usually smaller ones, arrive fully formed on the page. However, she said that sometimes she will abandon a character who isn’t quite working, despite all the effort gone into their creation, which is comforting to know that even such an experienced novelist has to do this from time to time.

Getting to the heart of your novel is the key to unlocking your characters. Ask yourself, what would they do?

Joanna gave dialogue as an example of a key component of revealing character and propelling the narrative along; she said it shows your character like nothing else, mentioning a quote from DBC Pierre, author of Vernon God Little, who said: “Dialogue is pace.” It reveals truth and it also masks it, she said.

With dialogue, Joanna said if you can get away with just using ‘said’ as a signifier, then do, instead of ‘exclaimed’ and ‘proclaimed’ and all the other verbs that people tend to get carried away with. And if you can get away with using ‘said’ at all, and just using the actual lines of speech, then all the better. Reading dialogue aloud is the best way to see whether or not it’s convincing. Joanna said that she hasn’t always done this but it’s something that she always does now as it’s the only way to see if sounds realistic. Dialogue is also a great way of showing, as mentioned before, so if there’s exposition (or ‘telling’) in your writing, show what you want to convey with dialogue or action. And by ‘action’, Joanna said she didn’t mean a high speed car chase or shoot out, but by your characters ‘doing’ and inhabiting their world.

Your characters should change, you should have active characters, not passive ones. Character facilitates plot at significant points where change occurs. Remember, we often don’t like big surprises in real life, but we do as readers.

Next week: Joanna’s writing exercises for getting to know your all your characters inside out.

(c) Claire Coughlan

Claire Coughlan, ©Beta BajgartovaClaire Coughlan has an MA and MFA in Creative Writing from UCD and currently teaches Creative Writing at third level in UCD.

She has worked as a writer and journalist for over ten years, most recently as a review and feature writer for the Books pages of the Sunday Independent. In the past, Claire has contributed to various publications and websites, including Novelicious.com, The Herald, The Sunday Tribune and Irish Tatler, and was formerly Deputy Editor of Woman’s Way magazine.

Claire has written several personal memoir pieces for Sunday Miscellany on RTÉ Radio, one of which was published in the Sunday Miscellany 2008-2011 anthology, edited by Clíodhna Ní Anluain.

She was the recipient of an Arts Bursary in Literature from Dublin City Council in 2009.

About the author

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