Thursday, 6 September 2018

Tania Unsworth On Conveying Character

Tania Unsworth, author of the wonderful The Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was A Mermaid describes the process she goes through when writing her characters:

For my main characters, I try not to present a physical description, unless it's important for the story or it reveals something significant about them (perhaps they have bitten nails, for example). I think leaving the physical description somewhat vague allows the reader to conjure up a much richer, more flexible image in their mind's eye, and thus involves them more fully in the creative process. Hopefully it makes the character feel personal to each reader. The kind of writing I admire and aspire to is what I think of as 'generous' - it leaves as much as possible to the imagination of its readers. I have a different approach to minor characters, often describing their appearance in detail - they tend to be more two dimensional as a whole, mostly seen through the lens of the main character.

So how do I convey character? I try and do it in terms of their reaction to things. I aim to put them as quickly as possible into a situation where their responses begin to reveal how they see the world, their fears, hopes etc. Dialogue is another useful way of doing this. I love dialogue! How they talk, how they respond to the person they're talking to. As an exercise, it can be fun to take a chunk of dialogue from a book and without knowing anything else about the story, try to see what can be deduced about the protagonists simply from their conversation.

I tend not to start a book with a very clear idea of my main character. I learn about them as I go along, through their responses to things that are happening in the plot. By the end of course, it's turned the other way around - the character has formed to such an extent, that THEY are shaping the story.

It's a strange sort of paradox that I can never quite get my head around - how my characters grow out of the needs of the story, but at the same time how they ARE the story itself...does that make any sense?

In terms of teaching character writing - you are the expert! I'm not sure I can offer anything new that you haven't thought of. I suppose I would suggest as an exercise that pupils not start with a character at all, but with a situation. Something has happened to someone. Then perhaps they could simply ask themselves a series of questions. How does that person respond? Why? Is it different from how other people might respond? What are they thinking? What do they feel? I do think that just like the reader, the writer has no idea of their own characters at the start - they must find out by asking a lot of questions. Sometimes it's only at the end of writing a story that the writer achieves an understanding of their own characters...which means more often than not, that they have to write it all over again!

For more on teaching character writing click here for my blog post Writing Characters in Key Stage 2.

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