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Spare Words – A Tip for Writing Characters by Andrea Mara

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Article by Andrea Mara ©.
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What if something happened in my next-door neighbour’s house, and nobody knew? What if we’re all so busy at work every day, and minding small children at night, and we don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall? That’s how my first book (The Other Side of the Wall) started – I was up at night with my crying baby, feeling bad about keeping my neighbours awake, when I realised one night I hadn’t seen them in a while. Could something have happened to them, I wondered, and would anyone notice if it did?

In the real version of events, I spotted my neighbours two days later, and realised I’d been letting my imagination run away with me. In the fictionalised version, Sylvia looked out the window and saw what looked like a small child floating in a pond in her neighbour’s garden.

The story took off from there; the plot turning and twisting in my head and then on paper, the backstory unfolding, the inevitable ending becoming clear. I knew exactly what would happen to my characters before I typed the first word. I knew who would live and who wouldn’t be so lucky. I knew who was good(ish) and who was thoroughly bad. But what I didn’t know, I realised, was who my characters really were. As I prepared to start writing, they were vehicles for a story – they were there the pins around which the plot was to twist. And at that early stage, their true characters weren’t clear to me at all.

I remember envying authors who were writing character-driven fiction – authors I’d listened to at events, talking about imagining a person first, and taking off from there – the story developing afterwards. I specifically remember hearing Paula Hawkins talking about The Girl on the Train – I’d gone to see her at a literary festival, and she spoke of Rachel, her main character; how this woman with her troubles had come to mind first, and the story later.

I envied Paula Hawkins then (well, I still envy Paula Hawkins!) and all the writers who knew their characters inside out. For me, the plot came first, but I knew I couldn’t go ahead without knowing my characters inside out too.

I knew a certain amount – I knew Sylvia had two children, she was in her late thirties, she worked in the funds industry. But who was she really, beyond the surface details? I’d heard it’s a good idea to imagine your character in everyday situations and ask yourself how he or she would react. But when I tried to do that, I realised I wasn’t that far yet – I didn’t know how Sylvia would react.

So I tried something else, and this was the breakthrough. I wrote what I called Spare Words – a stream of consciousness from Sylvia’s point of view. It was about everything and anything – her thoughts on politics, her feelings about sharing a childhood room with her sister (until that point, I hadn’t realised she had a sister), her determination to be more assertive, the guy at work who got on her nerves, why she wished she could say no. I wrote pages and pages and pages, knowing most of it would never make it into the book, but freed up by exactly that knowledge. It didn’t have to be “good” or coherent or make sense, because it was for my eyes only, in my bid to get to know Sylvia.

And it worked – I came out the other side knowing exactly who she was. I could answer those “what would she do in this everyday situation?” questions now without thinking, because the stream of consciousness let me into her mind.

In the end, only three lines of all those notes made it into the book:

“… I’m terrible at saying no. If you want something done, ask me, because I’ll probably say yes, even if it’s something I can’t actually do at all, like teach your child Spanish or revive your dead rhododendrons. Not that your rhododendrons are dead or anything . . .” Sylvia says, looking around the front garden and wondering why she’s still babbling.

But that was enough – those spare words weren’t redundant. In hindsight, the exercise was critical for me if I wanted real characters around whom to tell my story.

I did it again for my next book, One Click. We were on holidays in West Cork, and as before, I knew the entire story including the ending, but I didn’t really know my main character. I knew she was a psychologist called Lauren, and I knew she had an anonymous blog. I knew she’d taken a photo of a stranger on a beach and uploaded it to Instagram. I knew she relied on social media for interaction, more so now that she and her husband had split up. But as to what made her tick? I wasn’t sure.

So I sat down one night in West Cork, poured a glass of wine, and started to write Spare Words – Lauren’s stream of consciousness. Within minutes, I knew how she felt about the lines around her eyes, about feeling invisible, about being lonely. Not one word of those notes ended up in the final version of the book, but that was fine, I knew who Lauren was – that was enough.

There are countless articles on writing that tell us it’s all about character, and how the character changes over the course of a book. For the crime writer, whose ideas are very often triggered by an image of something odd, or a “what if” scenario, or an unusual true-life story in a newspaper, that’s not always the case. Yes, characters must be credible and three-dimensional, and the reader must care what happens to them, but if you start with plot, characterisation very often comes second. And that’s where those spare words of a never-to-be-used stream of consciousness become not so spare at all.

(c) Andrea Mara

About One Click:

When Lauren takes a photo of a stranger on a beach and shares it online, she has no idea what will come of that single click.

Her daughters are surprised that she posted a photo without consent, but it’s only when she starts to get anonymous messages about the woman on the beach that she deletes the photo. It’s too little too late, and the messages escalate, prompting Lauren to confess to the woman. The woman has her own dark story, one that might explain the messages, but Lauren isn’t convinced. Then her ex-husband begins to harass her, telling her she shares too much online and brought this on herself.

She’s also dealing with other problems. A difficult client at work starts to show up in places he shouldn’t be. Her younger daughter is behaving out of character and Lauren can’t work out what’s wrong. And the cracks are literally beginning to show in her old South Dublin house, mirroring the cracks in her carefully curated life.

Meanwhile, the messages from the internet troll become more personal and more vindictive. Her friends feel she should stand up to her stalker, but Lauren isn’t so sure. And then she makes one small mistake that brings everything tumbling down.

Pre-order your copy online here.


Andrea Mara is a freelance writer, author, and blogger, who lives in Dublin with her husband and three young children. She writes lifestyle features for Irish newspapers and magazines, and has won a number of awards for blogging. She attempts – often badly - to balance work, family, and writing, then lets off steam on her blog, OfficeMum.ie. Her first book, a psychological thriller set in Dublin, called The Other Side of the Wall, and was published by Poolbeg Press in 2017 and shortlisted for the Kate O’Brien award in 2018. It’s available now in bookshops, and on Amazon. Her next book, One Click, is about a woman who posts a photo of a stranger online, and the unintended consequences this brings. Coming May 2018, it’s available to pre-order on Amazon now. Twitter @Office_Mum
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