Writing fictional characters: hidden motivations

pexels-photo-251287.pngA strange incident happened on the bus last week. I was sat next to a student, roughly 17 to 22 years of age. Neither of us spoke to the other.

Five minutes from the bus’s final destination, a lady close to my age got on the bus. She didn’t look for a seat, instead she leant her back on the plastic section between me and my neighbour. There were empty seats close to us.

My neighbour tapped my arm and seemed to say “could you give your seat up.” I stood up immediately. I felt shamed. I only expect a much younger passenger to ask me to move if I have failed to notice obvious disabilities.

The lady sat down. Then less than a minute later the student got off the bus. I was perturbed.

Afterwards I wondered. Had I misheard? Had I failed to notice that both women  were disabled? Was the student having an anxiety attack brought on by the lady standing too close to her? The younger woman showed almost no skin, whereas the older lady wore short shorts and a vest top. Was there a cultural factor?

I don’t know what the other two women were thinking. Their motivations were hidden to me.

Hidden motivations are very useful in storytelling.

When we write fiction we add depth to our stories by giving our characters secrets. The characters’ hidden thoughts and feelings shape their actions and cause tension or conflict with other characters.

Look at how radically different these scenarios are when James’s secret changes. Can you imagine how each secret might cause tension or conflict for James at the bank?

James begins an impressive job at an international bank. James is secretly saving up for gender transition surgery. James doesn’t tell bosses because James fears discrimination. 

James begins an impressive job at an international bank. James is a spy for a foreign power. James is waiting for the signal to sabotage the bank’s systems from within. James has fallen in love with the CEO.

James begins an impressive job at an international bank. James is very unhappy because he wants to be a nurse. He doesn’t tell his bosses because he fears they will fire him before he has saved up enough money to go to nursing school.

In each scenario, the nature of James’s secret affects his relationships with his banking colleagues in different ways. This is how secret motivations can drive stories onwards.

Each scenario brings up unique themes. For example, the gender transition surgery story could become an exploration of masculinity in a macho culture.

A fiction writing exercise

Fill in the gaps in this story. Try to complete the exercise at least five times. With each scenario, think about how Jimmy’s secret will shape his relationships with his colleagues.

Jimmy enjoys working for the British government, but his employers don’t know his secret. His secret is ________________________________________________________________. As a result of his secret Jimmy must _________________________________________________________.

Simple ways to generate story ideas

Inspiration, I have discovered, benefits from structure. Good ideas do appear from “nowhere,” but they can also be eased into existence by pre-existing frameworks.

Earlier this month I completed a course on fiction writing with Oxford University online. It taught me a really useful lesson about story building. I learnt how to shape a story around the three act framework.

  • Act 1: The story begins
  • Act 2: The heart of the action
  • Act 3: The story concludes

Most importantly, I learnt about turning points. At the turning point the character makes a decision that produces the action in the next act.

  • Act 1: Lucy sees a chimpanzee in the street.
  • Turning point 1: Lucy decides to follow the chimpanzee.
  • Act 2: The chimpanzee climbs onto a ship.
  • Turning point 2: Lucy decides to follow the chimpanzee.
  • Act 3: The chimpanzee runs into the hold. The hold is full of captive chimpanzees.
  • Turning point 3: Lucy decides to release the chimpanzees and they all escape the ship.

The turning points move the action forward. If Lucy had made different decisions it would not be the same story.

I find that working within a turning points framework helps me to generate stories.

(Before taking the course I struggled with fiction writing because my characters were often quite passive. The world swirled around them and things happened to them. Structuring stories around decisions also makes my characters into much more active people.)

So that’s one example of a useful framework. What other frameworks can we use to help ideas into existence?

Well, there’s picture collecting. If you see something fascinating, keep a visual record of it.

  • Collect pictures of interesting locations, people and events. Display them on a notice board.
  • Join Pinterest. Collect online images related to the general area you think you want to write about.
  • Browse through the free images on Pexels.com.

Once you have enough collected material, play with bringing it together in different combinations to create the framework for your story. Here’s a story I made after browsing for outdoor pictures on Pexels.

Photographer shoots picture of a deer. She sees an escaped tiger on the loose. She jumps into her car and rushes to alert the police.

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Or perhaps it doesn’t happen like that.

When she’s taking a photograph of the deer, she sees a hunter who wants to shoot it.

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She goes to stop the hunter. It is love at first sight and they marry in the woodland where they met.

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Under her influence, the hunter becomes a wildlife photographer and stops killing animals.

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What frameworks and structures do you use to create ideas? You are welcome to share your thoughts in the comments below.

I recommend Oxford’s fiction writing course

Earlier this month I completed a 10-week course on fiction writing with Oxford University’s adult education department. (That’s why this blog has been so quiet recently.)

I enjoy studying writing so over the years I’ve taken various courses. In my opinion the Oxford University course is probably the best available online course for learning fiction writing.

Why do I think it’s so good?

Every week the lessons teach real and practical fiction writing techniques. That’s useful on its own.

Even better, there are weekly writing exercises and two longer assignments. By the end of the 10 weeks, writing fiction had become a habit for me. I was no longer intimidated by fiction writing and truly felt that I knew how to do it.

Our excellent tutor was the novelist Elizabeth Garner.

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Tips to avoid excluding readers

Yesterday I blogged about tailoring content to meet the needs of specific readership groups. Today I’m blogging about writing for all readership groups. When we write for all readerships our focus changes. We can’t say “what is relevant to my reader’s identity?” We have to say “what might exclude some readers?”

This blog post is adapted from a guide I have written for environmentalists.

There are times when we want to appeal to all passersby.

  • A speaking spot at a public event
  • An information stall in the street
  • A poster display in a public place

Much environmental communication aims to attract any person who cares about the planet. In this situation we can’t tailor content to please specific groups. Our readers are everyone.

When we don’t know our audience, we need to change our approach. Instead of tailoring content to appeal to specific groups, we have to focus on not excluding anyone.

  • We must avoid excluding less privileged readership groups.
  • We must avoid excluding readers with reading difficulties.
  • We must avoid excluding readers who lack specialist subject knowledge.

Excluding readers with less privileged identities

Language use is often symptomatic of the commonly accepted social beliefs of the day. In early 20th-century Britain it was usual to write “he” when referring to an unknown person. This reflected male social dominance. It was as if men were the default human majority and women were a minority.

Can you see the problem with this sentence?

She showed the customer clothes in a variety of pink shades including fuchsia and nude.

This use of nude is based on the assumption that nude skin is white person’s skin. It reflects white privilege in society and excludes people with other skin colours. The writer should replace nude with pale pink.

These days we all know that unquestioning acceptance of a group’s social dominance  affects our word choices. Yet, our own assumptions about the default human identity are not always obvious to us. We have to monitor our own writing.

Can you see which privileged groups have been treated as the default normal in these sentences? Who have the writers left out?

All school children should go jogging.
Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston look like average Americans.

Of course, not all school children have the physical ability to jog. And as for the average American, is there such a person in the racially diverse USA?

Read the problematic sentences below. They share a common issue. (Assume that the writers are American or British and belong to socially dominant groups.)

The Native Americans have a unique approach to spirituality.
Did you learn Arabic to speak to your Muslim neighbour?

Writers with socially dominant identities have a tendency to homogenise other less privileged groups.

In the USA the indigenous peoples have been disadvantaged in many ways by settler populations. The result of a long history of struggles is a tendency by some Americans and British to refer to Native Americans as if they were a monolithic block. There are many Native American cultures.

Muslims are a numerical minority in the USA and the UK. They are also badly stereotyped in the media. There is a common tendency among socially dominant groups to assume that all Muslims are Arabs. In reality Muslims come from all over the world.

Excluding readers who have reading difficulties

The world’s population is neurodiverse. Our brains are not all the same. Dyslexia, Autism, ADHD and other neurodiversities affect how people approach reading.

Over a lifetime most people’s reading abilities fluctuate due to medication, injury, illness and education. Reading requires attention, memory, processing speed, access to the senses, experience, general knowledge, literacy and the ability to connect letters with sounds.

Text reading technology helps some people by reading words aloud to them. You might be hearing this blog post. Writers can support this group of readers by writing to be listened to. It is also a good idea to describe visual illustrations for blind readers.

Writers can make text more accessible by changing some bad habits.

Crack down on unnecessarily long texts, long sentences and long words
Unnecessary length excludes readers who tire easily.

Avoid using huge paragraphs and big blocks of text with no subheadings
Without rest stops tired readers may lose their way.

Cut out waffling, flowery language and jargon
Poor writing is difficult to read for the majority of people.

Writers can make positive adjustments to help struggling readers and anyone skimming through text in a hurry.

Share the essential message at the start
Readers who depart early will understand your message. Readers who stay will be helped in their digestion of later pages.

Divide long text into sections
Each section should have a coherent message that contributes to the overall purpose of the document. Tackling one section at a time is easier for readers than navigating through a single block of text.

Use visuals
Infographics and text boxes display crucial information at a glance.

When public speaking, divide your speech into sections and begin each section with a summary of what you will say and why. This helps to retain listeners who have lost the thread.

Excluding readers who lack particular experiences

We learn words from the people we mix with. Every group uses words that newcomers don’t know. By group I mean everything from a schoolyard gang to a scientific research institute.

When scientists write for the public they try to avoid specialist words that are too obscure to be understood by readers.

Panthera genus = Big cats
Homo sapiens = Modern humans
Seismologists = Earthquake researchers

Writing specialist content in plain English opens knowledge to everybody.

Plain English words are those known to the widest number of people in the community. Not all specialist vocabulary has a direct plain English “translation,” but every concept can be explained in everyday language.

Knowing which words are too specialist for the wider community is a matter of judgement. Some specialist scientific vocabulary is widely understood due to exposure in television shows such as Big Bang Theory.

Difficult Latin vocabulary

English has inherited a rich treasury of words with Latin origins. In some English speaking groups and regions these words are not commonly used in conversation. As a result some readers may be excluded by their use.

Here are a few examples of Latin-English words and their plain equivalents.

Masticate = to chew
Augment = to add to something
Ameliorate = to improve
Perambulate = to walk
Pusillanimous = cowardly
Pugnacious = quarrelsome
Desiccate = to dry up
Precipitation = rain/snow
Quotidian = daily

This blog post is about how to make your writing more accessible and inclusive. It is only a brief survey and does not claim to cover all that is needed.

I haven’t touched on the very important subject of gender inclusive vocabulary. So as a last word I will say this. Using “they” for the third person singular is grammatically acceptable despite the discomfort of some grammar purists. English people have been doing it since at least the 15th century. “They” is a simple alternative to writing “he or she.” It’s also inclusive of non-binary gender. 

Writing for readership niches

The following is adapted from material I have written for environmentalists. I hope it’s useful to writers on other subjects. 

When everything we write supports the message we want to communicate, we have the chance to produce well structured writing. Content that serves no purpose is difficult to place into a coherent, flowing and logical outline.

To know whether content serves a purpose we have to understand why we are communicating, who we are communicating to and how we want them to respond.

Defining our purpose
What’s the message?
Who’s it for?
What response do we want?

Environmental campaign writing is designed to be read by specialists and general interest readers. Environmentalists write to raise awareness of issues and to encourage a response from readers.

Who reads environmentalist content?
lawyers and law makers
scientists and teachers
leaders of all kinds
environmentalists
activists and campaigners
citizens
and more …

Writing an article for biologists about river pollution is not like writing to politicians about how a river helps the local economy. The two documents have different focuses. The first writer needs to be comfortable writing about science. The second should be a competent local economist.

We could say that each readership group is a niche. And just as birds evolve their beaks to specialise within particular ecological niches, writers also adapt their skills and knowledge for specific readership niches.

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The magazine industry caters for readerships such as fitness fans, wildlife lovers and DIY improvers. Many successful journalists work in just a few niches.

Watching magazine journalists at work is a lesson in how to structure content towards different audiences. These writers are experts in choosing material to interest particular groups.

Example – Jenny goes eco-camping in the fens

Wildlife magazine journalist Jenny spends a weekend eco-camping in the fens in Cambridgeshire.  She researches and submits articles to four wildlife magazines.

“10 rare fenland birds” goes to Fenland Weekly. “Rare butterfly near Cambridge” goes to Butterfly Monthly. “I met a seal in the river Ouse” goes to Reader’s Wildlife Encounters. “Eco-camping in the fens is wonderful” goes to Eco-holidays Quarterly.

Three articles are accepted. The Fenland Weekly editor asks for a rewrite. He wants Jenny to focus entirely on her encounter with an owl. Jenny agrees to a rewrite.

Jenny and the editor had different ideas because they used their artistic judgement. Deciding what content is suitable for a readership is part logical deduction and part creative instinct. The following exercises highlight the logical deduction aspect of tailoring content to readers.

Exercises in logical deduction

Jenny has written four articles to persuade groups to support special protections for a large (and fictional) pond near Oxford. Can you link the article to the intended readership group? Do you recognise the priorities of individual readership groups?

Readership groups
Oxford City Council
Oxford Infants School
The National Council for Lawyers
The National Institute for Ornithology

Articles
Oxfordshire pond is a test case for English and Welsh environmental law
How our big pond brings tourists and money to Oxford
Big Oxfordshire pond supports rare birds
Make a model of the big pond from egg boxes

Of course, lawyers want to read about test cases, infants like egg box crafts, ornithologists love birds and city councils adore tourist income. Jenny has written articles for each group that focus on what they’re interested in.

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Bob has written for the Infants School newsletter. Jenny tells him to change his article because some content is too grown up. What sections should Bob remove?

Sections of Bob’s article
European Union law and our big pond. Lovely, furry animals that live near the big pond. How many fish live in the big pond. Metaphors of ponds in 18th-century Japanese poetry.

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English children under 11 are likely to overwhelmed by EU law and historical Japanese metaphors. When we write for specific readership groups we have to judge whether content is too advanced, basic or specialised for them.

(I should add, as well, that EU law and Japanese poetry are not very relevant to readers interested in an Oxfordshire pond.)

When we know who we are writing for and why, it helps us to direct our writing into a shape that pleases them.

We keep content relevant and interesting. We avoid writing in a way that’s too basic or too informative.

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Is your writing too defensive?

All writers have bad habits. One of mine used to be addressing invisible critics. I couldn’t write about my ideas without imagining objections to them. This affected how I structured my work.

Compare the two essay outlines below. Both are arguments for the convenience of large supermarkets built outside English towns. This is controversial in England. Before internet retail began driving small stores out of business, big supermarkets were blamed for doing the same thing.

This first essay outline answers the question.

Why are out of town supermarkets good?
– Everything you need is in one place.
– There is a large car park, so no more difficulty parking.
– There are parking spaces for the disabled and parents with children near the doors.
– Everything is under cover, so shopping is comfortable in bad weather.
– The site is often more secure and better lit than some town centres.

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The second essay outline is baggy and out of control. The writer explains why the supermarkets are good and then argues against critics who might disagree. This defensiveness weakens the argument for supermarkets by highlighting the arguments against.

To readers unfamiliar with criticisms against supermarkets it’s also not clear why the writer talks about problems in town centres. So for these readers some of the essay content looks very irrelevant.

Why are out of town supermarkets good?
– Everything you need is in one place, any small shop that can’t compete needs to diversify on the internet.
– There is a large, convenient car park, and if they have bus stops everyone can get to them.
– There are disabled and young family parking spaces, though you have to get there early.
– Everything is under cover which is great in bad weather, and in good weather the convenience of shopping in one place leaves more time to go to the park.
– The site is often more secure and better lit than some town centres. The increase in cafes in town centres is bringing life back to them.

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When I wrote defensively I never knew what my problem was. I felt that my writing was spinning out of control but couldn’t see why. I would write an idea and then think “but someone might argue xyz.” Then I’d have to say something more.

My readers didn’t know that I’d imagined someone might argue xyz. So my argument against xyz looked like an odd digression from the flow of the text.

I see this defensiveness problem quite often in other people’s non-fiction writing. It’s never so bad that every paragraph looks messy. It tends to show up in small patches here and there.

Defensiveness is probably a particular problem for individuals writing in support of new, controversial, disputed or challenging subjects. To wean out defensiveness in your writing, check every sentence and ask these questions.

  • What is the purpose of this sentence?
  • Who is this sentence talking to?
  • Will readers know why I’ve written this?
  • Does this sentence belong here?

10 ways writing reveals careless companies

How a company uses writing reveals a lot about its workplace culture. Here are some red flags to look out for. If your company is guilty of all 10 sins, it’s a very careless company indeed.

  1. Spelling and grammar mistakes on expensive display material. One company I know spent a fortune on large posters for its main entrance. The spelling mistakes were in 15 centimetre high font. It communicated a lack of care and teamwork.
  2. Spelling and grammar mistakes on product packaging. This communicates that the company is unprofessional and nobody cares about standards. What else will be wrong with the product?
  3. Customer service sends standard replies that don’t answer customer questions. You want to know why there’s no disabled toilet. The company writes back to say the toilets are very clean. You’re either corresponding with an unsupervised robot or staff are so unhappy they don’t read emails.
  4. An old email sent to one person has become part of a week long multi-person conversation. If you’d known that email to Mr Bloggs would be read by over a hundred people, you would have phoned him instead. Why does Mr Bloggs do it? He’s either careless or doesn’t care.
  5. Bosses say administration staff send out too many emails. It may be that admin are email addicts. But more likely, the admin staff aren’t being given enough face-to-face time with managers and colleagues. In careless companies everyone depends on the admin staff but nobody knows what they do (or wants to speak to them.)pexels-photo-518244.jpeg
  6. Colleagues always email instead of talking in other ways. A complete reliance on emails means no other communication is taking place. Emails are convenient but they’re not a face-to-face conversation. Caring companies keep other communication channels open.
  7. Company social media and news pages haven’t been updated for a year. Neglecting to add new time stamped content makes a company look like the Marie Celeste. Either someone important lost interest in the company’s image or everyone has died.
  8. Company members use nothing but jargon and acronyms with new employees, visitors and customers. Jargon and acronyms are convenient shortcuts but exclude anyone who doesn’t know what they mean. The company culture isn’t set up to welcome new people.
  9. Public information material is many pages long and written in specialist language. Thoughtful companies send out public communications that are accessible to all readers. Publishing material that can’t be read by everyone suggests a lack of care or an unwillingness to communicate that verges on subterfuge. What are they hiding?
  10. Company managers loudly complain about writing for readers with educational disadvantages or literacy problems. They call it “dumbing down.” Empathy is not prized in this company. Run away. Run as fast as you can.

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Pictures in this blog post are stock photos from http://www.pexels.com.