The Character Biography – Writing more to write less

Charles Dickens could get away with starting a story with the birth of his protagonist. J.D. Salinger chose not to start there and called it ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’. Now before I am lynched, let me say that I am a huge fan of Charles Dickens, but David Copperfield was published in 1850. Catcher in the Rye, although very advanced for its time, was published in 1945. Today we don’t write like either of these two authors.

This is 2014. What do we do?

  1. In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins tells us simply that it is the day of the reaping. She doesn’t explain it or tell us what it means. 
  2. In The Fault in Our Stars, John Green jumps in by telling us seventeen-year-old Hazel is depressed because she has cancer. She is in a support group almost before we hit page two. 
  3. In Room by Emma Donoghue, Jack wakes up on his fifth birthday. He is in Bed and switches on Lamp and has an interesting conversation with Ma. We know something is up and weird, but Emma strings us along. She tells us nothing. 
  4. In The Good Luck of Right Now, Matthew Quick writes about Bartholomew Neil who is clearing out his deceased mother’s underwear drawer and finds a form letter from Richard Gere. The death of his mother and his one-sided correspondence with Mr Gere takes us on a journey that is at once sad, sweet and enchanting.

Now, this is not a post about inciting moments although each one is a brilliant example of a moment of action and change. This is in fact a post about character biographies.

Imagine if I started my post with: To begin my post with the beginning of my post, I record that I wrote (as I have been informed and believe) on a Sunday night at eight o’clock while everyone else was watching the Sunday night movie. (I ain’t no Dickens, that’s for sure.) 

How do great modern authors create characters so complete that I am interested in them even though I only met them a page ago? They spend time creating characters.

The biography

All authors start with an idea. It could be plot first or character first. It doesn’t matter. But, if something happened, it happened to someone. And this is where my character biography begins. I start out with perhaps a paragraph of the things I know about this person. I add details as my first draft progresses.

I split this list into three (from Writers Write):

  1. The physical: What does he look like? I find a picture on the web or in a magazine and stick it up on the wall. Eye and hair colour. Tall or short, etc. 
  2. The sociological: What were his circumstances growing up? Are appearances important and why? Is he rich or poor? Did his parents love him? Was his father a drunk, or was his mother the chairperson of the PTA, maybe both? Was he a bully?
  3. The psychological: As I write his psychological attributes become clearer. I might start out knowing he was very stubborn or ambitious or perhaps a coward. As I write more, I start figuring out why he is like that. 

I write all of this down. I reread or rewrite this biography every few thousand words.

You have to know everything about him. To decide what is important for the story. You have to know more about him that you know (or admit to knowing) about yourself. That is how these great authors fall into a story with seemingly effortless brilliance. It is because they have filled in the back story; they know what is important for the reader and the story.

Indulge in your Copperfield crap. You need it, but remember that the reader doesn’t - at least not all of it.

(You might also enjoy The Beginner’s Guide to Creating Memorable Characters and How to make your characters shockingly real.)

 by Mia Botha

Mia Botha facilitates for Writers Write. She is also a novelist, a ghost writer, and the winner of the Mills&Boon Voice of Africa Competition. When she isn’t writing, she is the mother of two children and the wife of a very lucky man. Follow Mia on Pinterest and Facebook and Tumblr and Twitter

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    Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. If you want to learn how to write a book, write for social media, and improve your business writing, send an email to news@writerswrite.co.za for more information.

    Writers Write - Write to communicate

    Commonly confused abbreviations: etc., i.e., e.g.

    The abbreviations: etc., i.e., e.g.

    etc. means ‘continuing in the same way’
    i.e. means ‘that is’
    e.g. means ‘for example’ 

    Writing Tip: Always punctuate these abbreviations within commas. 

    Examples: 
    Buy carrots, oranges, apples, etc., at this shop. 
    We give all clients an early bird discount, i.e., 10%.
    The course includes writing basics, e.g., grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

    Writing Tip: In good English, use 'etc.' as little as possible. It is better to be specific.

    From our business writing course, The Plain Language Programme

     by Amanda Patterson

    Follow her on Facebook and Pinterest and Google+ and Tumblr and Twitter. Amanda is the founder of Writers Write. Her signature courses are Writers WriteThe Plain Language Programme, and The Social Brand

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    Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. If you want to learn how to write a book, write for social media, and improve your business writing, send an email to news@writerswrite.co.za for more information.

    Writers Write - Write to communicate

    Tolkien’s 10 Tips For Writers

    John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on 3 January 1892 in South Africa but moved to England as a child. He was a writer, poet, philologist, and university professor, best known for the classic high fantasy works: The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

    Source for Tips: EssayMama

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    Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. If you want to learn how to write a book, write for social media, and improve your business writing, send an email to news@writerswrite.co.za for more information.

    Writers Write - Write to communicate

    Where are all the Wonder Women of fiction?

    August is Women's Month in South Africa and this got me thinking about fictional women. The powerful women in fiction have never really been what one would call “nice”. Not that powerful men are always swell folks, but frankly from The Wicked Witch to The Snow Queen there is usually something awfully evil about the powerful women. 

    Source for Image

    Recently, about 70 years ago, William Moulton Marston decided he was fed up with reading stories of damsels in distress and heroes and Evil Faerie Queens. He put ink to paper and whipped up Wonder Woman – the first, and still the strongest – female comic book heroine. 

    With super powers like speed, agility, super-strength – and the ability to be drooled over by teenagers – Diana Prince lassoed her way into the hearts of young girls looking for a hero that brushed stereo-types aside with a flick of her wrist. Wonder Woman, though still very much a product of the times, blazed a trail for strong female protagonists. 

    Today, we can look back at The Wicked Witch and Maleficent and ask why we were so ready to just accept them as two-dimensional. So, here's to the first Super Heroine and to all the ones yet to be written.

    Who are your favourite strong female characters?

    by Christopher Dean

    If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy The Six Defining Characteristics of Strong Female Protagonists 

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    Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. If you want to learn how to write a book, write for social media, and improve your business writing, send an email to news@writerswrite.co.za for more information.

    Writers Write - Write to communicate

    The Plot Maker - Create a rom com storyline in five easy steps

    As part of Women’s Month celebrations, let us turn our writing skills to love stories and have some fun this week. We all love a good romantic comedy—whether it’s Pretty in PinkBridget Jones’s Diary or Crazy, Stupid Love.

    We all know the formula. But a romance with a bit of modern comic spice is the ultimate wish fulfilment for the audience and an exciting challenge for the writer. 

    Create a fresh new storyline in five easy steps. 

    This will work for your next story, novel or screenplay. Take a blank page and divide into five columns.

    List …

    1. In the first column, list 10 careers you dreamed about when growing up—teacher, engineer, architect.
    2. In the second, write down the names of your top 10 celebrity crushes—Clooney, Gosling, the adorable weatherman.
    3. In the third, list your top 10 dream holiday destinations—Santorini, Budapest, Zanzibar.
    4. In the fourth column, list your top 10 favourite TV shows, even a reality show if you want—Grey’s Anatomy, Two and a Half Men, The Bachelorette.
    5. In the last column, list 10 of the best/worst pick-up lines you’ve ever heard about—‘Excuse me, can you give me directions … to your house?’ ‘I don’t know if you know this, but you look a lot like my next girlfriend!’ ‘Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?’

    Source for Comic

    Pick …

    Now choose an item from each list at random and write it down on a fresh page. Maybe it looks like this—architect, Ryan Gosling, Greece, Two and Half Men, ‘I don’t know if you know this, but you look a lot like my next girlfriend!’

    Play…

    Play around with these elements and try to come up with a creative premise for a romantic comedy. Every great rom com starts with the Cute Meet and this exercise lets you play with possible scenarios. So it could look something like this –

    Jenna is an architect commissioned to design a holiday home on an idyllic Greek island. Turns out the client is Ryan Terry, the man she dumped ice on in the small taverna the night before.

    What happens next? You may not end up sticking exactly to the list words, but it will spark your imagination and getting you thinking along the right lines.

     by Anthony Ehlers


    Anthony has facilitated courses for Writers Write since 2007. Published both locally and internationally, he was twice a runner-up in the Mills&Boon Voice of Africa short story competition. In 2013, his crime short story was included in Bloody Satisfied, an anthology sponsored by the National Arts Festival SA. As a scriptwriter, he has written three television features. In 2014, his short films were short-listed for the Jameson First Shot competition, as well as the European Independent Film Festival. Follow Anthony on Twitter and Facebook.

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    Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. If you want to learn how to write a book, write for social media, and improve your business writing, send an email to news@writerswrite.co.za for more information.

    Writers Write - Write to communicate

    Why Writers Should Always Make a Scene

    Making a scene will not make you very popular and you should save that for when you are famous, but making scenes when you write will help you get to the famous part. 

    Scenes are the building blocks of a novel. They are the stepping stones that get you from the beginning of your book to the end. On average a novel has around 60 scenes. This, of course, depends on the writer and the genre, but I find it helps to have a number to work with. An action scene is, on average, 1200 - 1500 words. A sequel, or re-action scene, is around 500-800 words.

    Often we are told to ‘just write’. This is great advice, but it gives the impression that your novel is a continuous stream of words. Words that form a solid block instead of words that tell a story with highs and lows, a story that enchants, teases or terrifies us. Scenes allow us to build tension, create intrigue, and increase pace, block by block. You should start by listing your scenes.

    Seven excellent reasons to list every one of them

    1. Writing a list of scenes will keep you from feeling overwhelmed. A scene or half a scene a day is a concrete, achievable goal. 
    2. A list of scenes helps you to plan. You will be able to see if you have too much or too little for your novel. 
    3. This list will allow you to skip ahead if you are stuck. If you can’t get through scene 23, but scene 45 is screaming to be written you can jump ahead without fear of losing track. 
    4. You can move scenes around. If you write a scene that has a beginning and an end you can move them around if the story demands it. Your list will help you keep track if it was a bad idea.
    5. Every scene should have a goal that moves your protagonist closer to, or further from, his goal. When you list the scenes, write each scene’s goal. 
    6. Every scene should end on a mini cliff hanger, also called the disaster or complication. This gives you the next scene. This is usually a problem to solve or an opportunity to take.
    7. The list of scenes will sustain you through the middle. 

    Source for Mug

    I start writing my list as I brainstorm the story. I do not start out with 60 complete scenes. I will have maybe 20 to start with, but as I write I figure out where I need to add information of where the subplots will go. It is my route map that helps me get from the beginning to the end.

    So go ahead, make that scene. 

     by Mia Botha

    If you enjoyed this post, read 52 Wednesdays - Mia Botha’s Top 15 Posts

    Mia Botha facilitates for Writers Write. She is also a novelist, a ghost writer, and the winner of the Mills&Boon Voice of Africa Competition. When she isn’t writing, she is the mother of two children and the wife of a very lucky man. Follow Mia on Pinterest and Facebook and Tumblr and Twitter

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      Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. If you want to learn how to write a book, write for social media, and improve your business writing, send an email to news@writerswrite.co.za for more information.

      Writers Write - Write to communicate

      Personality Disorders - DSM-5 Resource for Writers

      Source for Cartoon: The Spectator

      Are you thinking about creating a character with a personality disorder? We hope this table, with references from The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, helps you.

      Source for Table

      If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy Shades of Emotion - Characters and their emotions, and Writing About Characters With Phobias

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      Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. If you want to learn how to write a book, write for social media, and improve your business writing, send an email to news@writerswrite.co.za for more information.

      Writers Write - Write to communicate

      The Writers Write Interview - Peter James

      We had a wonderful time with Peter James, the British best-selling author of the Detective Roy Grace novels.. 

      Peter was in South Africa to promote his latest novel, Want You Dead, as part of The Bloody Book Week. The guests were instantly taken by his opening declaration that the people in Johannesburg were the nicest he had ever met. His warmth, charm, and delightful sense of humour made the night one of our most enjoyable yet. 

      We also found out that Peter is passionate about researching his novels, creating a writing routine, and that Graham Greene changed the way he believed crime novels should be written. Most intriguingly, I learnt that some authors really do get their revenge in print by writing their enemies into their next novels.

      The Writers Write Interview 

      Author: Peter James
      Date of Birth: 22 August 1948
      Date of Interview: 7 August 2014
      Place: Winehouse, Ten Bompas Road, Dunkeld, Johannesburg
      The BookWant You Dead
      1. Who is your favourite hero of fiction?
      Sherlock Holmes, but the Sherlock Holmes of the original Arthur Conan Doyle novels. I enjoy his quirkiness.

      2. What is your most treasured possession?
      A sketch portrait of H.G. Welles. He is one of my heroes.

      3. Which living person do you most dislike?
      Martin Amis. We studied together at a tutorial college to cram for Oxford Entrance. Then the first film school in England started up and I decided that was what I wanted to do instead. In 2010 we were both nominated, in different categories, for a book award. I went up to him and wanted to say hello. He said he didn't remember me, and that I only remembered him because he was famous. I was angry and his rudeness inspired me to tweet about the encounter. Ian Rankin offered me £100 to get my revenge in print. So I wrote Amis Smallbone, a villain with a tiny penis, into my next novel, Not Dead Yet. I have the £100 cheque from Ian Rankin framed and on display. Shortly after this happened, his new book came out at No 10. Mine came out at No 1.

      From Not Dead Yet: "Amis Smallbone was, in Grace’s opinion, the nastiest and most malevolent piece of vermin he had ever dealt with. Five foot one inch tall, with his hair greasily coiffed, dressed summer and winter in natty suits too tight for him, Smallbone exuded arrogance. Whether he had modelled himself on some screen mobster, or had some kind of Marlon Brando Godfather fixation, Grace neither knew nor cared. Smallbone, who must now be in his early sixties, was the last living relic of one of Brighton’s historic crime families."

      4. What is your greatest fear?
      I am terribly claustrophobic. Although, I did once spend 30 minutes locked in a coffin in a small funeral home for research purposes. I did not enjoy it, especially as the person who was left to let me out with was a very old man.

      5. Who or what has been the greatest love of your life?
      Lara, the lady I'm with now. 

      6. What is your greatest regret?
      I didn't finish reading for my original degree at Oxford.

      7. If you could choose to be a character in a book, who would it be?
      James Bond. I loved the era. It was less PC and he just had fun. 

      8. Which book have you read the most in your lifetime?
      Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. The novel made me want to become a crime writer. Greene changed the rules for crime writing with this novel. His villain is a 17-year-old named Pinkie who leads a gang of middle aged misfits. Pinkie is also a Catholic and afraid of eternal damnation. The opening lines is classic: 'Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.' I wanted to know who Hale was, why he was in Brighton and who wanted to kill him.

      9. What is your favourite journey?
      Driving to the south of France. 

      10. What is your favourite quotation?
      'I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different.' ~Kurt Vonnegut 

      11. Dogs or Cats? Which do you prefer?
      Emphatically dogs. And I'll tell you why. You can do anything, come home, and the dog will still love you, but the cat will know if you've done something wrong. My dogs names are Phoebe and Oscar, after Oscar Wilde. Although we have a cat, 10 hens, alpacas, and lots more on the way. 

      12. What do you most value in a friend?
      True friends know everything about you and still like you. I call them 'Far-Weather Friends'.

      13. What quality do you most admire in a woman?
      Mental strength. They tend to think more and do more analysing.

      14. Which book that you’ve written is your favourite?
      I have two. Dead Simple because it was the first breakthrough book for me. And Perfect People - a standalone book about designer babies. We will see them in our lifetime.

      15. What are your favourite names?
      Roy - that's the name of the detective in my series.
      Lara - the name of the woman I share my life with now. I've always liked the name, though.

      16. What do you do as a hobby?
      I race vintage cars. I race a 1965 BMW. 

      17. Which are your three favourite books?

      1. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
      2. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
      3. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

      18. Where do you get your greatest ideas for writing?
      From the police. I spend a lot of time doing the rounds with the police. I like to take true life situations and give my detective a puzzle to solve. I also go to homicide conferences. I do a lot of research. I always visit the place I will be writing about. I once wrote a novel set in Namibia, and I'd never been there. I stumbled through answers from journalists and I swore I would never write another book without visiting the setting.

      19. What is your Writing Routine?
      I write six days a week from 6pm to 10pm. This is a habit I got into when I was still producing films. I think a routine is essential if you want to take writing seriously. Although I can write anywhere if I have to, I like to write in my office at home in London. 

      20. What are your Top Writing Tips?

      1. Read. Read. Read. Read books that have done well in the genre you want to write in.
      2. I have this holy trinity of writing which consists of Character, Research, and Plot.  
      3. Structure is important. Know your ending before you start writing. You wouldn't just get into a car and drive without knowing where you're going. Know your most important plot points. This does not mean that things won't change, but you will never get stuck.
      4. Writer's Block doesn't exist. If you have a plot with a proper outline you will never get Writer's Block.  
      5. Once you start writing a book, make time to write every single day. Find a comfortable number of words for you to write each day and stick to that number. I am comfortable with 1000 words.
      6. Love your characters. Even your villains. And the way to make a villain lovable is to give him something to love.
      7. And one from Graham Greene: 'Every writer has to carry a chip of ice in their heart.'

      Follow this link for more photographs from the dinner with Peter James.

      Visit Peter James's Website to find out more. Follow Peter on Facebook and Twitter.

      Interviewer: Amanda Patterson (Follow her on Facebook and Pinterest and Google+ and Tumblr and Twitter.) Amanda is the founder of Writers Write. Her signature courses are Writers WriteThe Plain Language Programme, and The Social Brand

      (We have started a new interview for guests called The Writers Write Interview. This is based, in part, on Amanda Patterson's old format of 17 Questions and Answers for Authors. We've added a few more. We hope you enjoy it.)

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      Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. If you want to learn how to write a book, write for social media, and improve your business writing, send an email to news@writerswrite.co.za for more information.

      Writers Write - Write to communicate

      If you strike a woman, you strike a rock

      Source for Image

      National Women’s Day is an annual public holiday in South Africa, celebrated on 9 August. 

      On 9 August 1956, more than 50 000 women marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest pass laws that required Black South Africans to carry a ‘pass’. This pass restricted where the bearer was allowed to live, work, and travel. Black South Africans had to carry their ‘pass’ at all times, and were often arrested if they could not produce it. 
      After dropping off petitions with more than 100 000 signatures at the Prime Minister's offices, the women stood in silence for 30 minutes. A song was composed in honour of the occasion, Wathint’ Abafazi Wathint’ imbokodo! (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock!)
      This display of female solidarity and inner strength showed how women were an integral part of the freedom struggle. The holiday reminds us of the women who helped change South Africa and the women who continue to shape the country. 

      The 9th of August is known as ‘Women’s Day’ in South Africa. I have compiled a list of some of my favourite literary quotations about women to celebrate the day.

      The Top 12 Literary Quotes About Women for Women's Day
      1. Every word a woman writes changes the story of the world, revises the official version. ~Carolyn See
      2. I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves. ~Mary Wollstonecraft
      3. The domestic career is no more natural to all women than the military career is natural to all men. ~ George Bernard Shaw
      4. It is only rarely that one can see in a little boy the promise of a man, but one can almost always see in a little girl the threat of a woman. ~Alexandre Dumas, fils
      5. Men at most differ as Heaven and Earth, but women, worst and best, as Heaven and Hell. ~Alfred Lord Tennyson
      6. Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, "She doesn't have what it takes." They will say, "Women don't have what it takes.” ~Clare Boothe Luce
      7. How wrong it is for a woman to expect the man to build the world she wants, rather than to create it herself. ~Anaïs Nin
      8. It's wonderful to watch a pretty woman with character grow beautiful. ~Mignon McLaughlin
      9. Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim. ~Nora Ephron
      10. A woman has to live her life, or live to repent not having lived it. ~D.H. Lawrence
      11. If you have any doubts that we live in a society controlled by men, try reading down the index of contributors to a volume of quotations, looking for women's names.  ~Elaine Gill
      12. I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass. ~Maya Angelou

      © Amanda Patterson

      Follow her on Facebook and Pinterest and Google+ and Tumblr and Twitter. Amanda is the founder of Writers Write. Her signature courses are Writers WriteThe Plain Language Programme, and The Social Brand

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      Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. If you want to learn how to write a book, write for social media, and improve your business writing, send an email to news@writerswrite.co.za for more information.

      Writers Write - Write to communicate