My first week on the Start Writing Fiction course

I’ve recently started a free online course with FutureLearn called Start Writing Fiction, run by the Open University. The course focuses on characters; after all, a story is nothing without them. I certainly think it’s important to have characters who feel like real people and who are distinct and interesting. Since I don’t know everything and am some way away from having some published novels out there, I thought I’d give this course a go and see what I could learn.

The first week of lessons has left me feeling positive. There were a few exercises, including one involving watching people (either in a video included in the course material or in real life) and thinking about what their stories might be, based on their appearance and their actions. The first task was to create a character sketch of the chosen person, which I did from the point of view of a café worker cleaning tables near one of the figures in the course video. This is what I came up with:

It was a quiet day at work, and after I’d cleaned the coffee machine and wiped the surfaces, there wasn’t much else to do, so I grabbed a damp cloth and did a circuit of the room, wiping tables where there was a spill or mark. My eyes kept coming back to the lady sitting alone. She wasn’t the only customer; two men sat chatting by the window. But this woman sat alone with her coffee, her notebook and her keys, right in the middle of the café, facing the big windows. Her hair was tied back sensibly, matched by plain, sensible clothing, but her sparkling, perfect nails hinted at some glamour. She scribbled in her notebook, hunched over, then sat up, stared out the windows, and tapped the tip of her cheap biro against her chin. No doubt she was trying to work out the solution to some problem or other, though what it was I couldn’t tell. Something private, perhaps, because when she closed the notebook she placed the hefty set of keys right on top of it, downed her coffee, then stowed her things in her pockets and left. I scooped up the empty cup and dropped it in the bin.

The next part of the lesson was to look at passages from a couple of books in which characters are introduced. These passages used a combination of physical appearance – in one, a birthmark, and the other the character’s hair and skirt – and actions to convey an impression of the character. We were then tasked with submitting an updated version of our character sketches, considering those passages, and I think mine did get better a little. Here it is:

The café was quiet, so after I’d cleaned the coffee machine I did a sweep of the room with a wet rag, wiping up spills on the tables and tucking in chairs. I found myself glancing up at the lady sitting alone in the middle of the room, one minute hunched over her tiny notebook, scribbling in it, the next moment sitting up, covering the page with her immaculate nails and tapping her cheap biro against her chin. No doubt she was pondering some complex problem. She scribbled again, and from where I was, wiping the adjacent table, I could see that it was at the top of the page though she’d written to the bottom, changing something perhaps, or adding to it. Abruptly, she closed the book and placed her keys deliberately on the red cover, as if the weight of the keys guarded the notebook. She downed her coffee, pocketed her things and left. She was out the door before I’d even retrieved the take-out mug to throw it away.

I’ll acknowledge that I’m weak on physical description, both times. There’s room for improvement still. In the second passage I wanted to focus a bit more on the lady keeping the notebook private: when writing, she is hunched; when pondering, her hand covers the page; when she’s done, her keys hold the notebook closed. So I hope that is conveyed.

I think there are two key things I will take away from this first week of the course.

First, the way in which both appearance and actions can be used to convey far more than what someone looks like or what they’re doing. They can reveal personality, maybe hint at events to come. I don’t tend to do this much in my writing so far, so it’s something I will have to practice some more. Maybe I’ll try a few exercises involving the characters from the things I’ve written recently, or just based on people I see around.

Secondly, in support of this, I will start keeping notes regularly. I’ve got a little notebook I can use for the purpose already, so that’s now gone into my handbag and will come out whenever it is needed. This was suggested in the week’s lessons as a way to include some truth in the fiction. The notebook will be to record little things, the way people interact, turns of phrase, things I observe that are part of everyday life, even the way I feel about things. It will be a resource to help me add that touch of realism into my fiction when I need it.

I’ve been in a writing rut far too long. Hopefully this course will help me get back on track.

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