I sometimes co-run ‘pop-up’ writing events in Hall and Woodhouse Cafe, Bath with my writing friend and co-founder of Writing Events Bath, Alex Wilson. We run similar sessions in four week blocks at Bath Central Library. Last week we ran a pop-up session, focussed on developing characters. These sessions are designed to get participants writing. We devise exercises and people write for five or ten minutes then share in pairs and often read out their pieces to the whole group. It’s always amazing to see what can be produced in such a short time.
During the session, we were considering how characters change and develop as you write and how it is necessary to show several aspects of a character in order for them to be interesting. Obvious stuff, but staying with the obvious is always important. Who likes a nicey-nicey character anyway?
I used to be a Gestalt Psychotherapist and one of the theoretical concepts from Gestalt Therapy suggests that we do not have a fixed ‘self’. The self is fluid and changes according to the environment or situation. For example, if you are talking to your MP at a local surgery, you will be different from when you are talking to your best friend in the Boston Tea Party. A different aspect of your self is called for. With the MP situation, you might surprise yourself if you have never been to a surgery before. If your MP is Jacob Rees-Mogg, like mine, you could suddenly discover a barely contained rageful self (or character). We won’t go into the finer distinctions between definitions of self and character here but I think the Gestalt Psychotherapist, Irving Polster, did say that the character is ‘the one who wears the boots.’
So as a writer, if you are not sure how to deepen your character, put them in a different situation and a different part of them will emerge. (Or a different aspect of you, the writer, will emerge?). The different situation can involve another, or it can be a different environment.
Colin Barrett recently won the 2014 Frank O’Connor prize for his collection ‘Young Skins’, first published by Stinging Fly in Ireland 2013 and by Jonathan Cape 2014 in the UK. These memorable stories show life in small town Ireland from the perspective of young men with few prospects, who become involved with crime, drinking and disastrous relationships. The stories are funny and moving and the characters are likeable even though some of them commit acts of violence.
The longest story in the collection, ‘Calm With Horses’, tells the story of Arm, former boxer, retired in his early twenties from fighting and employed as a hard man by a drug dealing gang fronted by his friend, Dympna. Arm has a young autistic son who is soothed by therapeutic horse-riding sessions but nothing can soothe Arm or offer him hope. When he kills alleged paedophile, Fannigan, to save him from a worse death at the hands of Dympna’s vengeful uncles, his own fate is sealed.
I interviewed Colin Barrett for the Bath Short Story website and he said this about writing a short story:
“Try to make something interesting happen as near to the opening as you can. Now this doesn’t have to be some showy eruption of plot or an aphoristic nugget of an opening line, though it may well be; it might just be the deployment of an unobvious adjective or unexpected detail seamed somewhere into your opening paragraphs. A nuanced little observation or moment, carefully placed. If you can get a small moment right near the start it sends a signal to the reader that you can trust me, you can keep reading. There’s nowhere to hide with short stories, if its five or ten pages long it’s got to start well, do well in the middle, and end well. No point saying it gets good half way through.”
Colin demonstrates this advice at the beginning of ‘Calm With Horses’ :
“Dympna told Arm to stay in the car while Dympna gave Fannigan a chance to plead his case. This wasn’t the way it usually went but Arm nodded okay. Arm watched Dympna stalk up the lawn and politely hammer on the front door of the council house Fannigan shared with his mother. Eventually Dympna was let inside.”
So why does this beginning work so well?
- The names immediately suggest place and character. We can guess, if we didn’t know anything about the settings in advance, that we are in Ireland. The nickname, Arm, suggests a character who is known to swing his fists. Fannigan is clearly not a friend.
- We are thrust into the action in the first sentence. There is a situation. Something bad has happened (Fannigan must plead his case) and we guess something bad is going to happen. Dympna is in charge; he ‘told’ Arm what to do. In the second sentence, we know Arm has been used as a heavy weight before and we can surmise from the tone this does not bother him – he nods okay and watches.
- The third sentence emphasises the type of characters by the marvellous use of ‘politely hammer’ (More on this in point 5) The fact that Fannigan lives with his mother and we don’t exactly know what is happening inside the house makes the whole opening compelling and sinister. I definitely (with trepidation) want to know what happens next.
- There is only one adverb (politely) and one adjective (council) in this paragraph and each earns its place. As I already said, ‘politely hammer’ is an evocative combination. To me, the odd juxtaposition suggests Dympna’s thought processes e.g.’ I will at least knock (instead of perhaps smashing down the door) out of respect for the mother and thus doing, absolve myself of anything bad.’ ‘Council’ house neatly sums up Fannigan, Dympna and Arm’s world. They probably do some sort of shady business in a large council estate. The verb ‘stalk’ shows how Dympna wants to appear menacing, but also gives him an air of self importance. ‘Stalk’ also suggests a prey.
- .The sentence length is varied for effect. Long, short, long, short. I find the last short sentence chilling.
- The action is summarised and the sparsity of detail increases the tension. The reported dialogue increases this tension too.
- The title is interesting, because this opening is far from calm in tone. So there’s another hook here. Who or what is calm with horses?
I recommend reading the whole collection for both enjoyment of language, and great character and plot. At the moment ‘Stinging Fly’ may still have some signed copies of the book.