Characters who act and feel

A couple of insights from award-winning writers

Image via Pixabay

I hope you’ll forgive me for a messier newsletter this month. I’ve been working hard, finalising my capsule course on writing memorable characters (less than 24h to get it at the pre-order discount!), proofreading a compelling true crime book, conducting manuscript assessments, judging a short story competition, and getting ready to teach my Faber Academy course on editing your own writing in October (in which there are still places available). I also wrote a short piece on journaling for writers, which is up on Medium.

At least I’ve had plenty to do while not being able to leave the house under Melbourne’s strict lockdown. But we’re nearly clear, and just in time for picnic weather!

I’ll share with you today a couple of insights about writing character that came from my interviews with authors Emma Viskic and Mirandi Riwoe that form part of my capsule course.

Emma Viskic is the award-winning and internationally published author of the Caleb Zelic series – a series I acquired at Echo Publishing. Emma and I were speaking about how a protagonist’s character arc is inextricably intertwined with a novel’s plot.

Emma said, ‘Plot can't happen without character actions. In all the books I've written, there's probably a couple of things that happen external to Caleb. The rest happen because of his actions or inactions, his decisions, and the things he tells people.’

The inciting incident of the story, she said, is often the one event that happens ‘external’ to Caleb (but not always). ‘And then through the rest of the books, each time a main plot event happens I like it to be because he is responding to something that has happened or he wants to happen… You do occasionally get surprised and he occasionally gets surprised, but most of the time you can look back and go, oh yeah, that was inevitable, because he made that choice when he could have made any other choice.’

This is something I’ve mentioned here before: the character’s own actions and decisions leading to the shifts and turns in the plot, rather than things simply happening to them. It matters because it helps your reader to be invested in the character’s decisions, to sympathise with them, and it also helps to build tension towards a fulfilling resolution – one that is the character’s own making.

Mirandi Riwoe, award-winning author of Stone Sky Gold Mountain, The Fish Girl, and more, talked to me about getting to know your characters before you start writing. While she doesn’t fill out a character profile, she does sit with her characters for ages and takes copious notes, about ‘things that they might say or think or see or maybe something to do with their past that they've experienced… it’ll all come to me with time.’

In this way, she said, she will discover everything about them. She will know their favourite colour the way you’d know your own favourite colour. She said that another important thing to imbue your characters with is ‘feeling’. For example her character Meriem, in Stone Sky Gold Mountain, is left out at a dance by other women:

‘Now that happened to me, that happened to me twenty years ago or something. And it has stayed with me, obviously… I thought that'd be a good way of showing how she's kind of exiled and how she’s still got a bit of dignity about it… I always think, if something has made you feel angry or outraged or sad or upset or whatever, if you do it well enough through your character it probably will make your reader feel something too, which I think is important.’

It was such a pleasure to talk to these two writers I admire so much. If you want to hear more from them, check out the course.

Opportunity of the month

Overland’s fiction submissions are open! Their current round of prizes also have a huge amount of cash attached. That’s the Judith Wright Poetry Prize (first prize $6000), the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize (first prize $5000), and the Nakata Brophy Short Fiction and Poetry Prize for Young Indigenous Writers (first prize $5000).


Take care, stay safe, and get in touch if I can help with anything,

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