Category Archives: Characters

Happy Birthday, Judith Kerr

One of the first pieces of advice I got as a beginner writer was to read other writers’ work. I’ve modified that for myself – read about the writers themselves as well. When you’re alone and suffering those scary writers’ blues and wondering if you’ll ever achieve the goals you’ve set, it helps to know that some really famous writers have been where you are and still have days when they doubt themselves or find it difficult to get that vivid idea in their head onto the page.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Judith Kerr’s brilliant children’s book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and it is also Judith Kerr’s birthday today, Thursday, 14 June. Judith Kerr is 95 years old and came to England as a refugee, escaping the wave of Fascism which took the lives of so many. The Tiger Who Came to Tea was a bedtime story she told to her daughter and it became her first picture book.

In a BBC Radio 4 programme this morning, she explained how she’ll make several copies of a piece of work to give her scope to play around and develop it. She freely admits that “Drawings don’t take me as long now because I’ve got better at it.” Such honesty is encouraging when so many famous writers prefer not to share their development process and give the impression that they’ve always been able to create with great ease.

Listening to her speak this morning and reading about her in the The Telegraph Magazine of 2 June, she had some useful tips and although she is an illustrator, she’s also a writer:

“I go on for as long as it works. You can’t just stop, even if what you’re doing is rubbish, because you have to work through that …”

However, when she has to stop, it’s always “at a point where the next thing is sort of in view.” And her final comment: “A blank page can be very intimidating.” We can all identify with that!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Judith Kerr!

“Pink Rabbits and Other Animals” available to download on BBC i player

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Filed under Characters, Children's writing

Keeping your focus

You need a destination when you’re writing, even if you’re not physically travelling. Whatever it is, book, play, short story or film, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up in a place you never intended with your protagonist not achieving their goal or overcoming the obstacles you’ve placed in their way.

But that’s not going to happen to you. You’ve planned it all out. You’ve got the chapter breakdown, you’ve written the detailed treatment – nothing can go wrong yet somewhere along the writing road, you lose your way and the ending’s muddled.

Here are three pieces of advice to avoid ending up in a cul-de-sac.

My first writing tutor told me to write down in one sentence what the main character’s aim was and to pin this on the wall in front of my keyboard.

Tony Jordan, gave me the second piece of advice, when I wrote for “Eastenders”. Always know what the end of the scene will be.

And the third piece was from a tutor on a screenwriting course, visualise what will be on the cinema billboard advertising your film. This last one will leave you in no doubt who the most important characters are and breathe colour, atmosphere and life into your story.

Happy writing!

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Filed under Character mapping, Characters, Film writing

Women and the World

A few posts ago, I talked about how female actors were choosing not to wear make-up when filming.  Amongst those who had made this decision was the actor, Sarah Lancashire.  She recently won the BAFTA for Leading Actress in the Best Drama, Happy Valley, so less make-up obviously didn’t affect her performance.

Why is it so important for female actors to portray themselves in a naturalistic way?  First, the world of drama becomes more like the ordinary world of the audience and female viewers will connect better to the actors.  It’s all about role models and even adult women need those but do they need the ones portrayed in films.  Yes they can dye their hair the same colour as the heroine and get longer lashes but when they’re playing Jane to some he-man’s Tarzan, as soon as the screen goes black, they’re back in a real jungle where too often they really are Jane.

It’s not just about making role models for ourselves but about finding stories that mean something to women.   Female actors are trying to do this all the time as well as finding work.  For too long, actresses have gone from playing the love interest for the lead man to playing the lead man’s mother – apparently the only acceptable roles for women in a male dominated industry.

When groups of women are portrayed in films, not many story lines dip beneath the surface of what society expects from them so it was good to watch a conversation between Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern talking about how much they enjoyed working with each other on “Big, Little Lies”.  In Witherspoon’s words,

“I think the show pulled back the curtain on what women are really thinking in marriage and life and that it’s not just the persona we construct for society.”

“Big, Little Lies”, the screen version was adapted from the novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty.

This difference between the real world and film where women are concerned was forcefully highlighted when Jessica Chastain spoke out at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

“Chastain, a member of the 2017 festival’s jury, was witness to 20 of the world’s most acclaimed new movies and noticed a disheartening trend. The Academy Award-nominated actress acknowledged that there were exceptions, but most of the female characters seen at the festival were passive and empty shells of characters. Chastain continued by saying that these characters did not reflect any woman she had ever encountered in real life and that the lack of accurate representation speaks to how the world views women as a whole.”  (uinterview.com/news)

Unfortunately, until there are more female directors and writers, film story telling is unlikely to change and neither is the world.

For further insight into women in film this article in the guardian is worth a read.  https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/sep/27/geena-davis-institute-sexism-in-film-industry

 

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Mirror, mirror on the wall …

Who is the fairest of them all?  If you’re an actor, anyone with access to a good make-up artist.   We take for granted that the people on the small screens in our living rooms or on the big screens in our cinemas are wearing make-up.  They’ve got to look perfect for the camera.  That’s what’s the audience expects but is it what they need, when the character being portrayed should look more like the person next door.

More and more female actors are refusing to wear make-up.  Sarah Lancashire in the UK crime drama series, “Happy Valley” appears without foundation just like any middle-aged policewoman might do in real life, when there’s more important things than lip gloss, like finding the killer or preventing a murder.

As Sheila Hancock pointed out in the MailOnline recently, more and more women actors “hardly wear any make-up at all and that’s why it looks so real.” She goes on to say “the public won’t notice that.” And she’s right, they won’t, because if it’s a good drama, they’ll be concentrating on the film but subconsciously it will filter through the different layers of the story telling. It will have a greater impact on the audience, on their emotions, and on their empathy for the character and long after the lights have gone up in the cinema and the TV screen gone blank, a small spark will keep the memory of what they’ve seen alive.

We still need heroes today, to look up to and emulate, whether they’re fictional or not.  However, when those heroes are coated in layers of make-up, with not a hair or eyelash out of place, how can you have anything in common with them and therefore how can the story have any real meaning?  Good stories should ripple out into our lives.   It’s why we tell them.  To make sense of our lives, we need to identify with the characters and it’s so much easier to do that without a layer of slap in between.

 

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Right brain, left brain, no brainer.

Pre-1980’s research into the brain appeared to show that people fall into two distinct camps – left brainers and right brainers. The left brain was  supposed to be the logical, problem solving side and was claimed by people who were good at maths and unemotional, whereas the right side was for all those airy fairy, creative types.  I rather liked the idea of being right brain – I was bad at Maths and good at dreaming.  Now I had an excuse for failing my Maths “O” level.  I wasn’t stupid – I was a creative genius but apparently not.

Smugness always comes before a fall.  Recent research shows that to be good at Maths, you need to use both sides of your brain.  Then just as us so-called right-brainers consoled ourselves that we were still better at language, this too has been blown out of the water, with the identification of a large language centre in the left brain that interprets actions and the world around us

Twenty years ago, I did a study with a class of Creative Writing students on their preferred learning styles – did they learn best from seeing, hearing or doing.  The younger students had very distinct preferences for a certain style, but the older the student the more likely they were to use all of the styles, not showing a preference for any particular one.   The conclusion I drew was that the older you are, the more used you become to accessing all areas of the brain, probably through a process of trial and error.  Humans will usually find the easiest way to do anything.  There was one older student though, who was a visual learner only.  He was the best writer in the group and his novel was very visual but he found it difficult to edit.  He couldn’t see the structure of his work.

So how can we as writers access all the areas of our brains?    It depends how you write.  Do you have an outline or do you,  like Francoise Sagan with “Bonjour Tristesse”, pour it all out verbatim on the page as you go?  If you have an innate sense of structure and drama, then possibly you don’t need an outline.  For anything other than a short story, I do.   If nothing else, it stops me repeating myself!

It also helps me to have a clearer idea of the whole story, so as I write I can ‘see’ it in my head and know what bit is where and why it’s there.    It’s helpful to know about structure –  a bit more than beginning, middle and end – where one ends and the next section begins and what event marks that ending/beginning – three act structure and not only for scripts – you can use it for any story.

And most important of all character biographies – and we’re not talking about what they like to eat or what size shoes they wear, unless it’s crucial to the plot.  It’s the psychology of your characters – what drives them, what are their fears, what are their nightmares?

Here’s a short exercise to get you analysing – write a one page synopsis of something you’ve read or watched in the last couple of days or something you’re working on yourself.  Three paragraphs, okay you can have long ones, one each for beginning, middle and end.  To do it, you have to identify the key points that tell the story – and only the key points and identify when each section ends and the next one begins  and what action causes it.  Happy whole-braining!

 

 

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Filed under Characters, Constructive Criticism, Novels

Whose point of View?

 

First person has its draw backs.  You can only see what the protagonist/heroine sees unless you adopt a structure for your novel, where the reader can see subplots or the antagonist/baddie going about their business or you can use letters or diaries written by other characters.

But first person can be more memorable:  how much less dramatic would the following novel opening be, if it were in the third person?

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.  It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me”  “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier.

It draws you like a sleep walker into the dream like  story and the sense of danger surrounding the heroine but even as you read it, you are the heroine, you are in danger.

When a character’s a strong individual, first person can work really well.

Veronica Roth is completely at ease in her heroine, Tris in “Divergent” and using the first person takes the reader straight into her life and her world.  No matter where she is, you move when she moves, you feel her fear, her pain, so effective is Roth’s style of writing. When she runs to board the train, you know exactly how her feet feel as she begins to jog alongside and you hear her thoughts as she has to increase her speed before she reaches up and clasps an outstretched hand.  You are Tris.

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ heroine, Katniss is first person point of view as well, waiting  for the reader to step into her shoes. We’re inside her head, her feelings for Gale catch at our hearts, her love for her mother strikes a chord and as she fights for her life, we understand her choices in who she will save and who she must kill.

And if you’re still not convinced, Mslexia’s judges for their annual novel competition have just compiled their long list with comments on the factors that affected their decisions.  Amongst them was the following:

” … those written in the first person, with a strong and idiosyncratic voice, often grabbed their attention.”

But in the end, it’s the character who chooses the voice, in that moment when they pop uninvited into your head.

 

 

 

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Filed under Characters, Novels, Rewriting

Saturday

Most of us have had that “I remember where I was” moment, when we hear of something that is so dreadful, the memory imprints itself forever.  It’s like  we’re outside ground zero but caught in the aftershock.  That’s the way I remember Hillsborough.   It was a sunny afternoon twenty seven years ago; I was in the garden with the kids.  They were digging in a flower bed and I was promising them a sandpit.  The phone rang. I went indoors to answer it. It was my sister-in-law – her son had gone to a football match and something terrible had happened and she couldn’t get hold of him. She didn’t know if he was dead or alive. I switched on the television. Outside my children were playing in the sun. Inside on the TV screen, other people’s children were dying on a football pitch.

It was a terrible day, waiting, listening, not telling the children what was happening,  until the news came – my nephew  finally arrived home safe but the shock and the horror of those scenes of what started as an ordinary Saturday didn’t go away.

A week later I took my children into Liverpool to buy them that sand pit. I can remember there being few people about and there was a strange atmosphere. Half way across Clayton Square in the city centre, suddenly everyone stood still. I can’t remember if there was a signal, a church bell or a ship’s horn but suddenly there was silence and nobody moved.  It was the exact time that the football match at Hillsborough had been halted seven days before.

I stood, holding one end of this large plastic sandpit with my son holding the other end while my daughter, unnerved by the silence, moved closer and grasped my hand.  Then through the stillness came footsteps and a man hurried past, staring straight ahead.  He didn’t look to left or right.  It was almost as though he was alone in that whole city, as though we were all of us invisible to him.   In a way it was symbolic of how the next 27 years would be as the families of the men, women and children who died at Hillsborough fought for truth and justice.

In 2005, I started a short film festival to showcase the work of new film makers and amongst the entries was a film, Bar to Bar from Mike Forshaw, a local emerging Director.   I saw a lot of films over the next few years but the ones that stand out are those that strike a chord.  I remember the images on the screen and connect to the characters and their emotions.  I remembered the clarity of the images and the honesty of the characters’ portrayal in Bar to Bar.  A few years’ later, we showed another of Mike’s films, Slippin’, which had been shown at the London Film Festival the previous year.  Again  I found this same connection to the characters in the clear story telling.

Next month in London, Mike Forshaw’s most recent film, Saturday, will be given its UK premiere at the London Sundance Film Festival.  Saturday is a powerful retelling of that day in 1989 through the eyes of a young boy who stays home in Liverpool, whilst his brother goes to the match.  It has already been shown at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in  the US but could not be screened in the UK, until the enquiry into Hillsborough had reached its verdict on the deaths of those 96 Liverpool fans.  Finally their families had truth and justice after 27 years.

The day after the verdicts, 30,000 people stood on Lime Street, not silent this time, nor invisible to the passer-by but singing the Liverpool FC anthem, ‘You’ll never walk alone.’  A scene that is beyond description but burned into the being of everyone who saw it.

I understand that the filmmakers of  Saturday  will be bringing this powerful retelling home to Liverpool after its UK premiere. I understand this because for in that strange way that Fate links and connects people and events, my daughter, Jennifer Monks, the little girl who held my hand nervously in that silent city, 27 years ago, became the Line Producer on  Saturday. 

Sundance Film Festival: London 2016 – Short Film Programme

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Filed under Characters, Film writing, Short films