Monday, 13 February 2017
Ellen Phethean - ‘Creating Believable Characters’ Workshop and Interview
On a cold January day at York Library, Ellen Phethean gave an insightful character workshop to a keen set of North East Scoobies (along with a few guests from North West region!). The workshop covered many of the main problems that writers face when trying to create rounded, believable characters. And without characters, as Ellen rightly pointed out, you have no story.
The group was taken through a series of questions and exercises to identify what makes a compelling character, what the most common problems were when creating characters and how to tackle them. Ellen showed us a number of ways to avoid making our characters too flat, passive or predictable and, through the exercises, ensured we understood and reinforced each technique. At the end she asked us to interview each others’ characters so we could identify and discuss any issues we had with our own characters.
All of the exercises were simple yet effective and gave us plenty to think about. Ellen illustrated all of her points with examples and extracts from children’s novels and broke down the character-making process in a clear, concise way. Personally, I found the workshop extremely helpful and I think it gave every attendee at least one useful technique to deepen their characters, both now and in the future.
Interview with Ellen
1. Did you always want to be a writer / poet? (and what made you want to become one – was it a particular book or poem you read?)
I wrote when I was young but I’m not sure where I got it from. At school I enjoyed English and acting and later studied Drama and English at university where I wrote sketches and shows. I felt I was mainly a performer until Julia Darling asked me to join the Poetry Virgins and we published an anthology. Once I was published, I began to see myself as a writer and a poet and later became Writer in Residence for Seven Stories.
2. How do you go about creating your protagonists? – do they just come to you or do they come out of a setting or a situation?
I tend to see a character in a situation or in a place.
3. Do you ever hear your characters’ voices in your head?
Sometimes. I like dialogue and I have a theatrical background. And I like reading in the first person – it gives the reader a more limited viewpoint than the third person. Perhaps one day I shall write something in the first person. Patrick Ness does this very well.
4. Do you ever find your characters take over, making the story take a different turn?
As I write the characters can do something I haven’t anticipated – I write to find out what happens. I have the overall arc but the story has to be character-led.
5. Do you ever ‘become’ your characters? - i.e. the method acting technique.
No. Never. It’s a different way of creating a character. I visualise them like a film and describe what I see.
6. Out of all the characters you’ve created, who is your favourite and why?
They’re all different. ‘The Wall’ was my first attempt at creating a character and so I have a particular affection for Kylie the teenage girl who gets pregnant. Ren is a bit different – she’s more of her own person in her own world.
7. Who is your favourite literary character (created by another writer)?
Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea quartet has a wonderful, rounded female character called Tenar. I also love Todd Hewitt and Viola in the ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy by Patrick Ness – those are fully rounded and interesting characters.
8. Which author do you think paints characters most vividly?
Michelle Paver creates vivid characters in Wolf Brother and so does Margaret Atwood. Surprisingly there’s also good characterisation in ‘Little House on the Prairie’ by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
9. Which writers and poets have inspired you the most and why?
Ursula Le Guin is a huge inspiration – I love how she creates other worlds which give you an alternative way of looking at the world and asking ‘what if?’. She’s a feminist with a political perspective. I also love the landscapes and people of Kathleen Jamie. Carol Ann Duffy is amazing and accessible but not simple. Sean O’Brien has a political perspective, is musical and pulls no punches.
10. Where do you get your ideas and inspiration – are you a hunter or a gatherer?
I’m a bit of both. I collect lots of interesting facts about all kinds of things, from the workings of the moon to ancient names for trees. An idea comes when I’m bothered about something – when I wrote The Wall I had teenage boys and was very concerned for them so the idea behind the story was relevant to me. Someone I know has adopted two Chinese babies and I wonder what they will do when they grow up.
11. Which is harder – poetry or prose?
They come from different places. Prose can be a slog and you’ve got to be determined. Lots of people start something but don’t finish it – you have to finish and work on to the end. But poetry is different – you accumulate poems until you have enough for a book.
12. When writing prose are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m not really a plotter. I want to get on with it. I do research on a ‘need to’ basis. If I’m writing and don’t know something I’ll leave myself a note and come back later with the research. I know roughly where the story’s going and I have an idea of the ending but not the complete plot. My current story could go one of two ways – it could have either a romantic ending or a non-romantic ending!
13. Do you have a strict writing routine – i.e. every morning for two hours? - or do you just write when the mood takes you?
I try to write every day unless I’m teaching. I try not to look at social media when I’m at work. Mornings are best for me but I might continue into the afternoon if the writing’s going well. I schedule my writing time into my diary.
14. Where do you prefer to write – at a desk / shed at home or your local cafe / library?
I write mostly at home but not always in the same room. I start writing longhand but once I’m in the middle of something I switch to a PC. I often start off a scene during a class, while my students are writing.
15. Do you set a target word count each time or just write as much as you feel?
If I have a deadline then I’ll set a word count, otherwise I write as much as I can – maybe 1,000-2,000 words per day, but I don’t beat myself up if I don’t reach it. I use Scrivener – it lets you set an average word target for each chapter which can be useful.
16. Do you prefer pen or keyboard?
I start with a pen and then go onto the keyboard for the second draft, unless I’m in the flow and want to keep going by pen. When I get stuck on the keyboard I switch back to longhand.
17. Do you work to music or prefer silence?
Silence. I can’t think with music on, although being on the train or in a cafe with background noise is okay.
18. Do you have any techniques or triggers to get you into ‘the Zone’?
I just sit down and write – or procrastinate! I might read the last chapter I wrote.
19. In your poems you manage to create a moving, vivid, extraordinary image in so few words. How do you go about doing this, what are your thought processes, your word searching?
A lot of editing goes into it. You explore an image in words with emotion in the back of your mind. For example I wrote a poem about my son leaving home and I had this idea of the house as a beach with all this stuff left behind on it which gave me the image for the poem. The poem itself doesn’t mention my son except in the title.
20. If there’s one key piece of advice, one gem of wisdom about the craft of writing, be it character development, re-writing or plot vs story, what would that be?
Just keep doing it and get to the end. Be ruthless and don’t worry about it being sh*t!