What Portrait Photography Can Teach Us About Characterisation…

I enjoy spending time in galleries and, whether it is a collection of paintings, sculptures or photography, I can while away a few hours looking at art. Photography stimulates ideas and sparks my creativity perhaps more than any other art form. I used to spend a lot of time at the Portrait Gallery in London and Vienna has an equally impressive collection of galleries. I was thankful to find that the World Press Photo Awards made a stop here each year, so I haven’t missed out!

I particularly like the work of David Bailey, Mario Testino and Annie Leibovitz. This week I discovered a portrait photographer who was new to me: Michel Comte. Based in Zurich, Comte is a trained art restorer whose first photography contract was with Karl Lagerfeld. He has worked for Vanity Fair, Vogue, Armani, Ferrari, Jaguar and Mercedes Benz, to name a few, and has photographed Miles Davis, Jeremy Irons, Mike Tyson and Michael Schumacher, with whom he became good friends.

He is one of the few professional photographers I know to have photographed both for international advertising companies and for documentaries covering war zones. Comte has increasingly moved towards a more reportage and documentary style of photography, and has travelled to unstable areas in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sudan and Cambodia. If you are interested in his work, the video below shares some of his thoughts on what makes a good photograph.

So, what does this have to do with writing, I hear you thinking? Comte got me thinking about the idea of how much of a person’s soul and character can be captured in a split second, and how so much of what you – the viewer – see forms an impression of who they are as a person. Very quickly you form a judgement from the eyes, the body language, the clothing, the expression and the feel of the picture. This is what Comte says, ‘the person projects.’

As a writer we have the exciting and difficult job of ‘capturing’ each character almost as a snapshot, and portraying who they are through their movements, body language and expressions. Writers have the advantage of using dialogue, actions and the responses of other characters, but the essence of character description comes down to much of what is captured in a moment with a lens. Comte talks about Catherine Deneuve, and the way that a normally confident woman shows a moment of unusual vulnerability in the his photographs. These are the moments which, as a writer, need to be drawn out and put down on the page.

Have a look at the video, if you haven’t already, and think about what strikes you from each image. Think about how you would describe the person and why. Ask yourself what it is about one person that stands out and makes them unique or memorable. It might be a look of vulnerability or mystery, it could be the stance or the eye contact. Sometimes what people wear or how they stand and move, dictates your response to them as a person.

What do you think about character description? How has art or other media inspired your work?

The Creative Process

Author Jon Rance is guest posting today on the creative process of his writing. His book, This Thirtysomething Life, published by Hodder and Stoughton, is a love story about what happens after we’ve fallen in love, when we’ve swapped frolicking in the bed for cigarettes in the shed and Match of the Day for Mothercare. Brutally honest, laugh-out-loud funny and heart-warming, this is a diary about one man’s bumbling journey on the road to adulthood. If you like Nick Hornby, you’ll enjoy this. Thank you, John.

30something

Firstly, a big Thank You to Fiona for letting me loose on her blog. She’s a brave lady indeed! For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Jon Rance, author of the romantic comedy novel, This Thirtysomething Life. I approached Fiona and asked her if I guest blog on her site. Luckily she agreed and so here I am.

Being a writer, people often ask me the same sort of questions. Where do you get your ideas? How do you write? Where do the characters come from?  I guess what they want to know is what my creative process is. It’s an interesting concept and I’m sure different for every author. Mine is a bit haphazard if I’m honest. I read about authors who meticulously plan out books down to the last full-stop. I don’t.

When I start a novel I need the following things. A title. Main characters. Motivation. An ending. I think having a title from the off helps bring the whole thing together. I often think of the title before I know anything about the book. I need to know who the main characters are. By this I just mean a brief bio, name and what they look like. Motivation is what will drive the book forwards. In This Thirtysomething Life, I knew from the beginning that the story was going to be about a guy having a hard time growing up and coming to terms with becoming a father. Right from the word go everything else stemmed from this idea. An ending. Endings can change during the book, it happens, but I think it’s important to know at the beginning where the story is going. The journey is something else, but a destination is important, whether it’s a scene you have in mind, a sentence or just where the character is emotionally.

Once I have those I just start writing. For me writing is a very organic process. I need a few chapters to really get to know the characters properly. I often find that once I know them better, the plot is formed mostly in part by them and the choices they make. My writing has always been character based. I think in my genre of commercial fiction, characters are the base of everything. Plot is important, but for me the first draft is where I get to know the characters. Once I have the first draft down, the second, third, fourth – fifteenth are mainly about tweaking the structure and the plot. I often think writing a novel is like building a house. The first draft is building the structure. Every other draft after that is about making it look nice. The last draft is the one where you get to hang up the paintings, pop the interesting sculpture you bought from the market on the mantelpiece and then sit down on the comfy sofa and marvel at what you’ve accomplished.

I’ve definitely improved as a writer with every book. I wrote four complete novels before This Thirtysomething Life was picked up and published by Hodder. Those four novels were my learning curve. I made some mistakes, but more importantly, I learnt about my creative process. I think it’s a very personal thing. We can learn from others, read books about writing, get hints and tips, but at the end of the day, we all have to learn our own creative process. I used to think mine was ridiculous and that I should change and be more organised, but what I’ve come to realise is that it doesn’t matter how you write, as long as you do it your way because writing is about being creative, it isn’t painting my numbers and checking boxes. Think of the creative process as your friend rather than your enemy. It’s taken me a long time, but I love mine now because it is all mine and I couldn’t do it any other way.

hodder2Jon Rance is the author of the romantic comedy novel, THIS THIRTYSOMETHING LIFE, which was a Top Ten best-selling book on the Amazon chart. Born in Southampton in 1975, he studied English Literature at Middlesex University, London, before going travelling and meeting his American wife in Australia. He is currently working on his second novel, HAPPY ENDINGS. Outside of writing Jon loves travelling, music, sit-coms, art and watching football (but not playing anymore due to dodgy knees).

Both THIS THIRTYSOMETHING LIFE and HAPPY ENDINGS are published by Hodder and Stoughton. Jon is represented by Ariella Feiner at United Agents.

His website can be found at www.jonrance.com

You can also follow him on Twitter @JRance75

Zadie Smith – Middle-of-the-Novel Magical Thinking

This video was filmed at the New York Public Library. Author Zadie Smith begins with this quote:

‘In the middle of a novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical centre of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post—I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses.’

Here is a summary of the rest of her talk. I found it inspiring and very true:

You need to work hard and make choices that are meaningful.

By the nature of your sentences, you are expressing a belief about the way you see the world.

Your views will change with time.

Delve deep into the consciousness of the characters.

‘Magical thinking makes you crazy and renders everything possible. Incredibly knotty problems with structure now resolve themselves with inspired ease. See that one paragraph? It only needs to be moved and the whole chapter falls into place, but why didn’t you see it before. You randomly pick a poetry book off the shelf and the first line you reads becomes your epigraph. It seems to have been written for no other reason.’

This talk comes from a longer essay written by Zadie Smith. If you enjoyed it, I invite you  to come back on Thursday of this week and on Monday week, as I will cover some more of her key points for writing.

Developing Conflict and Tension

Today’s guest post is written by Elizabeth Craig who writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink.

She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010, 2011, and 2012. Her most recent releases are Quilt or Innocence (June 2012) , Hickory Smoked Homicide (a November 2011 release), and A Dyeing Shame a Myrtle Clover mystery (December 2011).  Her next release will be February 5, 2013–Knot What it Seams.

Elizabeth is active in the online writing community.  She shares writing-related links on Twitter as @elizabethscraig and posts on craft and the publishing industry on her blog, Mystery Writing is Murder. She and Mike Fleming of Hiveword also manage the Writer’s Knowledge Base–a free search engine to help writers find resources.

Developing Conflict and Tension in Our Story

Conflict is one of the elements of an interesting story.  As much as we love our characters, if everything goes smoothly for them, then it’s hard to keep our readers reading.  After all—if it’s just an ordinary day for our protagonist, then we really don’t have much of a story.

A few tips for developing conflict and tension:

Quickly introduce conflict into your story.  If it’s delayed too long, the reader might start flipping ahead through the set-up and back story to see where the story really gets started.

Use both larger conflicts and smaller ones.  A lower level of conflict can be easily maintained by introducing tension in our story.  Maybe we’ve got a character who lost his job and is struggling to make ends meet.  He finally snares a job interview—and it’s for his dream job.  His car breaks down on the way to the interview. He was in a hurry when he left, and forgot his phone.  This approach can resonate with readers, too—it’s realistic and relatable. It can also give us an opportunity for us to display a character’s personality to our readers…when we show how the character reacts to the problem.

Provide conflict through other characters.  Here we do need to watch our character motivation and know our character and what matches his personality.  Who rubs our character the wrong way and why can tell us a lot about the protagonist as well as the other character.  We could bring in an ex-wife, an overprotective father, an annoying neighbor, or a backstabbing co-worker.  Every time we have a scene with one of the troublesome characters, we have the opportunity for tension.

Use both internal conflict and external conflict. What are our character’s inner demons?  What’s our character fighting with himself over?  Consider how his internal conflict can shape the story and his reaction to events. What external conflict prevents him from obtaining his goal?

Raise the stakes to create a faster pace.  Raising the stakes and making the conflicts and outcomes increasingly dire for the protagonist is one way to increase our story’s pace and keep readers turning pages.

Try to delay resolution. One thing that’s been difficult for me as a writer is delaying resolution of the protagonist’s problems.  I’m a problem-solver in life and I want to solve my character’s problems, too.  But letting problems spiral out of control and allowing them to gnaw at my protagonist can add excitement and tension to a story.

Give readers some breathing room.  Some of this is personal taste, but as a reader, I really enjoy having breaks in the tension and conflict.  This break can be accomplished through humor, or a subplot that’s moving along the path to resolution when hope in the main plot seems to be lost.

Make the protagonist’s external conflict and internal conflict collide.  What if our character had to sacrifice what’s most important to him in order to accomplish his main goal?  What if he’s got to face his inner demons to save the world?

Tension and conflict are two ways to keep readers turning pages.  What tips have you got for developing them in a story?

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