This character sketch thing is difficult (Week 2 of Start Writing Fiction)

Since Monday I’ve been working my way through the second week of the Open University’s Start Writing Fiction course on FutureLearn. The initial exercises proved to be reasonably easy. The first was to consider the best and worst place to write, in my opinion, and then put a character into each one. I think I got the idea of place reasonably well, but failed to put into practice the concepts of showing character explored in week 1. The second was about using fluff phrases to start a sentence, before rewriting the paragraph to remove the fluff phrase. Again, I think I managed okay with the exercise itself, but didn’t put character into either one.

The third and final exercise troubles me. The prompt was to turn on the radio and use the first thing I heard as the basis for a short story, but the exercise also had specific instructions to include week 1’s concepts. Using physical description, actions, backstory and so on to reveal personality.

This was my first attempt. The first thing I heard when I turned on the radio was the Stereophonics with I Wouldn’t Believe Your Radio, specifically the line “You can have it all if you like”.

I remember when the Stereophonics was all I’d listen to. I dressed in tattered jeans, the kind that cost £70 and come pre-torn in a way that looks almost like natural wear-and-tear, except when you look at the perfect seams. These were accompanied, invariably, by a pair of fat Vans trainers, black with bright yellow laces, and a band t-shirt. If it was cold, I had a grey zipped hoodie to add to the ensemble. The picture was completed by a bleach-blonde pixie cut.

I would walk along the street and see the looks of disdain from adults dressed smartly in suits or sensible cardigans, and revelled in it; I didn’t want to be like them, boring and normal, doomed to a life of tedium in some dead-end job with a dress code, or worse, a uniform. I had a future ahead of me, the exciting future of an artist. I could have it all if I liked, the money, the fame, the world-wide travel. And those adults with faces full of judgement didn’t have a clue of the genius they overlooked.

Pretention faded as reality showed its face. Other music immigrated to my playlists. New passions diverted my attention.

This afternoon I packed up my things, turned off my work computer, switched out my heels for comfortable plain trainers to drive in, and headed home. I’d just finished changing from my work clothes into jogging bottoms, a much-faded band shirt, and a sensible cardigan when Mike got home. I popped my head out of the bedroom in time to see him deposit his laptop bag by the door. He slipped his polished shoes off and greeted me with a smile and a kiss, and then a “hello”. An hour later we were on the X-box, running around a Lego Middle Earth as we waited for the man from the Indian place to deliver our balti.

And that was when I realised. I had it all: a job I liked, a boyfriend I could have fun with, a nice flat, and a comfortable life.

So in that respect, I did use physical description to start the exercise off, then moved to thoughts – how my character interpretted the looks from others and how she judged them as boring while considering them judgemental. And I circled back ground to my “theme”, the idea of “having it all”, while showing that my character has moved on from a pretentious teenager who thinks they’re special to someone who is fine with being normal and wanting normal things.

But I’m not happy with it. For a start, it’s not a story, it’s just “I used to be a pretentious teenager, and I became something that the pretentious teenage version of me would have been scornful of, but I’m happy as I am”. I think I had something with the pretentious teenager character and lost it when I moved to the second half of it.

I just had a second go at the exercise. This time I took a different prompt – a flick through the dictionary. The word I hit upon was “gyre”, which I didn’t realise was actually a real word and not just some nonsense from the Jabberwocky, meaning a circular or spiraling path, or to whirl. It’s also used to refer to circular ocean currents of the kind that bring rubbish into gigantic rubbish islands. I wrote out a whole bunch of things that the meanings of gyre could relate to – from a potter’s wheel to a microwave, and from the spiral (well, technically helical) staircases in castle towers to the helicoptering fall of a sycamore maple seed pod.

But my second attempt – involving a woman who has just moved into a new place watching a mug of milk circling in the mircowave – just wasn’t going anywhere. For a start, I wrote out two paragraphs before I realised I’d given exactly zero words of physical description. My theme had overpowered the point of the exercise, to build a character in a short scene.

Evidently I’ve not taken in week 1’s lesson very well. I may have to go back to it and refocus.

It has become clear to me that my writing suffers from NPC syndrome. None of my characters have personality or depth. They’re interchangable. They are functional objects within a plot, occupying a position which becomes the core of their being around which features are developed.

I’ve got some work to do, then. If characters are my problem, I need to pay greater attention to people. My friends, my family, complete strangers. I need to think: who is this person? What can I tell about them from their clothing, their hair, the way they move, the manner of their conversation? And I need to write it down and let it inform my fiction.

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