Speaking through your characters
The review of The Valkyrie of Vanaheim, by ace book reviewer, Nick Borrelli at Out of This World blog, provoked some discussion with my family. It was this comment specifically which triggered it:
"The first thing you notice about a Phil Parker story, and this one is no different, is that there's a tremendous amount of emphasis placed on the characters and their own individual journeys, both physical and emotional. Rarely will you find such quality characterization and dialogue making you feel as if you are intimately connected to each person."
It's a lovely comment. My wife then told me how the same thing was true in my contemporary fiction novel, published last year, WRITE OFF. She had challenged me to write a book she could enjoy during lockdown. (She's read it twice now). We went on to talk about why this emphasis on character was so prominent. As a writer you do your best to put the story, that buzzes around your head, onto the page. Somehow the characters evolve. It's that 'somehow' that snagged my curiosity. Why do my stories possess this 'quality characterisation and dialogue' that appears to be my trademark, according to Nick (and others). Here are my conclusions.
The benefit of an acting background
I studied Drama at university and loved every moment of it. In my three years I was in over 30 productions. One of our very first sessions, led by our head of department who was also a writer, I remember vividly. He sent us out onto the local High Street to 'observe and hypothesize'. We watched people and, using this evidence, returned to the studio to develop a charactersisation which we turned into a polished improvisation. It turned us into people watchers, something I do to this day (when out shopping with my wife especially!).
It also turned many of us into writers. Assessment took the form of projects we could selected as students. For some of us, that meant turning in scripts we'd written. It sharpened my writing no end (student audiences are brutal!). It began my love of exploring a character and deciding how they might be developed into a story.
Learning to act, to portray a character, was another side of this same experience. I was in 30 productions in 3 years! However, my first production turned out to be significant. I was cast as Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet. The director, our head of department, chose to interpret the theme of conflict with a highly topical setting. It was 1972 and violence in Northern Ireland was at its height. In two years time Birmingham (where I studied) would be torn apart by the pub bombings that killed 21 people and injured 182. A terrorist attack by the IRA. Our production defined the Montagues and Capulets as catholics and protestants. The production included us singing a number of unionist and republican songs. I had to sing an IRA song. I still remember the words even now. The power of its message disturbed my greatly. It challenged everything I thought I knew.
I use this story to illustrate this point. As an actor you must inhabit the role, make its yours. Frequently this means confronting a character for whom you have no sympathy. You may hold very different values and beliefs. Playing Benvolio gave me an insight into the mind of someone who chooses to go to extreme ends to achieve a goal, regardless of the costs and repurcussions. It's a dark place to inhabit. I vividly remember my lengthy speech in Act III where Benvolio explains to the Prince, the reasons for the dead bodies lying around him. People he loved. Amidst them are people he'd called enemies. It's a heart-wrenching speech. (Shakespeare is kind of good at that!).
The critical thing I learned as an actor, and as a scriptwriter, was the importance of inhabiting every character you create. I emphasize that word, inhabit. You need to engage with them on every level.
As a Drama teacher, my greatest satisfaction came from supporting young people as they explored the characters they created. OK, so if this is happening, how does your character react to those words? To that person? How else might they react? Why do they react that way?"
My teaching, as with my writing, has always centred on three factors for any character.
Motivation - what drives the character forward? The mistake is to focus on only one element here, motivation should be complex in its make-up but simple in its communication. In The Valkyrie of Vanaheim, Frida begins her journey to honour her mentor, Elsa. Later, as questions pile up about her background, her motivation changes - she needs to find answers, to discover her true identity. After an explosive moment two thirds into the plot, her motivation changes again as her increased isolation increases her paranoia. This internal conflict, a crucial part of motivation as an actor, brings depth to the role. Furthermore, her motives appear to change depending on who she's with! We're not simple creatures, we humans. Our actions vary, even though our goal may be clear, we approach it from different directions.
Relationships - how does the character relate to everyone else? A central part of any story is the element of conflict. In dramatic tales, conflict is vital, on-going, explicit. It will exist in every relationship in some form, even solid friendships. Motivations often provide the cause and the effect. Frida's distrust of men is a generic source of conflict but her attraction for Lorcan allows her to subvert this distrust for a time, though internally it never goes away. She grows closer to Agnes as they're almost the same age, but Agnes' sexual relationship with Billy makes Frida increasingly insecure, she can't relate to her on that level so she retreats. We present different faces, like masks, to other people. We are never the same. That fact is easy to overlook.
Background - what has happened to the character in the past? Life experiences colour who we are. I like that metaphor - the idea that events turn us into different colours. If Yellow is for fear/cowardice, what experience has triggered this behaviour? What sustains it? I've had students colour in their characters using this simple concept, always identifying a significant triggering event that remains in the character's psyche. As an actor you use the events which shaped you and rework them to suit the character you're playing - or writing.
Inhabiting the characters I create in my stories is one of the best parts of writing. I use these three factors to tease out the character until it feels real and grounded. That famous line from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is relevant here, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." Until you do that, you can't get to grips with who they really are.
Giving the character a psychological perspective
This involves tying up the 3 factors I've just mentioned into a psychological profile. They are rarely equal in contributing to the characterisation. Their influences will vary. Let me illustrate with an example.
In my Knights' Protocol trilogy, I wanted my protagonist, Robin Goodfellow (Puck) to be an outsider, looking at the events happening to human and fae alike, unable to be loyal to either side. That was my starting point.
As a fae character, he was long-lived. He'd known Shakespeare (a critical plot point). That meant his background had to be the most significant part of my 3 factors. So I set about creating his life history. I wrote short stories of his long life, referencing elements of them throughout the 3 novels. But crucially, I had to decide, the impact on a character who has lived for centuries. They've seen and experienced everything. There must be a huge number of triggering behaviours. What does that look like?
Plus, why was he unable to forge any loyalty with either race? Why was he so lonely? (He was an outside observer remember). I also wanted him to be unconventional, as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he is a fun-loving trickster. Why had that all changed? By focusing on his sexual orientation I could achieve these things. Historically, in the human world, he would have been persecuted for being gay. I tweaked this in the fae world and made his suffering even worse by forcing him into exile, tearing him away from the man he loved. In human society, he wouldn't have anyone to share this loss. Therefore, of secondary importance, his relationships. They would all be heavily influenced by his background. His isolation arose out of bitterness and repressed anger, built up over centuries.
His motivation would arise out of these two factors. To explain this idea simply, I allocated Robin's character roughly 50%to his background, 35% to relationships and 15% to motivation.
Can you see how the mixture of these three factors can be varied to form a character?
A Common Theme
As I worked on Valkyrie and Write Off at the same time, I realised the main protagonist in all of my stories are outsiders.
In my Knights' Protocol trilogy it's down to Robin's sexuality, Keir's skin colour, Filidea's gender. Put like that it makes them sound terribly stereotypic doesn't it? In fact my choice came out of my world building, once I'd nailed Robin's character. I'd created a close-minded society and I needed to challenge those perceptions in ways which provoked conflict. Anyway, my next character, Alec in Write Off, was another outsider. Despised by everyone, he'd also retreated into maintaining a profile that drove people away. In The Valkyrie of Vanaheim, Frida's physical appearance and her family secret isolated her and left her feeling like a freak.
In each book, their journey has been about how they might be reintegrated. I find that to be an interesting process for people - there is plenty of examples of it to draw on these days.
I've reached the conclusion that, as a teacher of English and Drama, I spent my career helping students understand the deeper elements of a story. Those things they might not see straight away, such as a theme that gave the story added importance and depth. It is why my stories try to do the same thing. I believe, as a writer, we have opportunities to make statements about crucial values and beliefs. English and Drama helped me develop the emotional intelligence of my students. Teachers don't just teach their subject (at least, they shouldn't!). They encourage young people to be better citizens, better versions of themselves. I suppose I'm trying to do the same thing with my stories.
Actor and Writer
I hope this post highlights one crucial point. Actors and writers possess emotional intelligence, it helps them perceive the lives of other people. That emotional 'sixth sense' helps us inhabit characters we invent in ways that make them real and credible. It is a demanding process. It means exploring the psyche of people who live in darkness sometimes. It requires an understanding of the journey they take, how they begin and how they've changed by the time they've reached their destination. Central to this process is the balancing of influences derived from a person's background, relationships and motivation. I think it also about being brave. By that I mean creating characters that challenge us as writers and our readers too. That's a lesson I learned from my writing tutor, it has inspired me to write all my stories.
I'm going to end this post with a quote from Leonard Tillerman, a brilliant blogger and champion of self-published writers. In his review of The Bastard from Fairyland, he wrote:
"While the plot will keep the reader entirely immersed in the story... so will the characters. What struck me the most about this book is the fact that each character has a carefully designed role which lends credibility to the theme. Even though we are in a deep, dark fantasy world, the characters come across as authentic and memorable. Such character believability is a key ingredient to the success of any fantasy novel."
It means a lot when someone you respect says such lovely things about your work. Even better when they recognise what you were trying to achieve as a writer. That makes all the effort worth while!
I hope my approach to acting and writing helps you. I'd love to know what you think. Please leave a message or reference the post on social media. My novels are available here.