Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Elizabeth George: Setting in Action

In Write Away, Elizabeth George discusses how she uses setting in her fiction.


For George, the setting is like a living thing. It can tell a lot about a character, and it can evoke an emotional reaction in the reader. The purpose of setting includes creating atmosphere and mood. It can also contrast with what’s going on in the scene, such as when something bad happens in a peaceful setting. The writer should treat the landscape with the same importance as she treats the character.


George likes to write about places she knows, often going to where a story will take place. She notes everything from the flora and fauna to the buildings to the type of sky. She takes photos as well. However, if she needs to, she creates a setting, usually an amalgamation of different places she already knows. She wants the setting to be as real as possible for the reader. The greater reality it has for the writer, the greater reality it will have for the reader.


There’s also the setting that’s the environment the character inhabits—his home, bedroom, automobile, and so forth. These things reveal a lot about a character without the need for extensive explanation.



Each character has an outer landscape—his looks, skin, hair, eyes, posture, voice, the clothes he wears, and so forth.


Each character has an inner landscape—his thoughts, beliefs, objectives, interior monologue, and so on.


Effective settings require concrete details. Details are an excellent way of showing what a setting is like.


Perhaps the most effective kind of description is that which blends in with the narrative without interrupting the flow of the story.
Elizabeth George wants her fiction to be as real for the reader as possible. The setting in all its forms, described in telling details, helps achieve that goal. She wants to own her setting and, if she does own it, it helps the reader to own it, too.
How much importance does setting have in your fiction?
How do you approach describing setting in your writing?
How much effort do you put into using concrete details in your setting?
How much effort do you put into using details to reveal facts about a character?

Monday, April 4, 2016

Elizabeth George: Characterization is the Most Important Element in Fiction



In Write Away, Elizabeth George presents her method for writing fiction. Here I will discuss her approach to creating characters.

First, though, she has an idea for what her novel will be about and expands that idea as much as possible to have a solid understanding of what the story line is.

Once she has a good idea for her novel, the next thing she does is to begin developing her characters. Without a thorough understanding of her characters, she wouldn’t know where to start writing the story. Characters are the impetus for other aspects of the novel. It’s also through understanding her characters that she develops much of her plot and subplots.

Character Analysis

Her character analysis can start anywhere, with any piece of information about a character. She writes in stream-of-consciousness fashion about each and every character who might appear in the novel. In the analysis, she wants to present everything she can about the character, but she is mainly concerned with five pieces of information:

1)      The character’s CORE NEED.  This a need that originates deep within a person and is the force that drives a person to do the things he does. The need is so important to a person that, when it is thwarted, it can cause a pathological reaction, which leads to the second important piece of information about a character,

2)      The character’s PATHOLOGICAL MANUEVER. This is what the character does under stress, how he reacts when his core need is being denied or interfered with. It displays as some of the negative ways of coping, such as becoming obsessive or hysterical.

3)      The character’s SEXUALITY. She wants to know what his attitude to sex is and his sexual history. This may or may not show up in the story, but it’s important to know.

4)      A PAST EVENT in the character’s life that has had a significant influence on him. Again, this may not show up in the story, but it tells a great deal about the character and why he is the way he is.

5)      WHAT THE CHARACTER WANTS IN THE STORY. That is, what the character wants throughout the story and what the character wants in each individual scene. Of course, this is influenced by the previous four pieces of information about the character. What a character wants isn’t always clear cut or derived from one basic need. It can result from multiple factors. And it may not be directly expressed.

Knowing all of this about each character suggests subplots and many directions a story may take. It can lead to sources of conflict and plot development. This isn’t formulaic writing, it’s organic, and can lead to many surprises. I think this approach to characterization is well worth exploring.

What about you? Do you have a specialized approach to creating characters?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Ernest Hemingway on Writing and Having Had an Unhappy Childhood

I recently saw on Twitter that Ernest Hemingway said that an unhappy childhood is great training for a writer.

See AdviceToWriters.

I've been thinking about what this statement might mean.

Children are born learners; from both their experiences and formal education, they gradually, over a fairly long period of time, develop into who they will be as adults. I think that for the most part our experiences in childhood come to us uninvited. Whether a person has a happy childhood is out of his control; he has no control over the family and environment he was born into and whether it is poor, rich, abusive, or kind. Most families are comprised of a mixture of those things. I do agree with Hemingway in that an unhappy childhood is great training for a writer, especially for a literary one. It's also great training for criminals and psychopaths and generally unhappy adults in all walks of life.

Of course, 'happiness' is a difficult concept to define. Philosophers have given it various definitions. But, for this statement, I think that what we're talking about is, besides having the basics of food, clothing, and shelter, we have both the absence of abuse and the presence of  loving kindness toward us in childhood, the combination of which tips the balance of experience in childhood, maybe in adulthood too, in favor of a feeling of well being and happiness.

To some degree, whether your childhood was happy or unhappy is a matter of perspective. We can certainly have selective memory. Also, people with similar childhood experiences can have different opinions about their childhood, some saying it was happy and others saying it was unhappy.

There's always the possibility that Hemingway was being facetious. Nevertheless, this statement of his begs the question: which is better  for a person wanting to be a writer, to be most anything for that matter, to have had, an unhappy childhood or a happy one?

Which kind of childhood did you have, happy or unhappy?

If you had an unhappy childhood, have you managed to overcome the pain and find happiness?

Which would you rather have if you could do it over again?

Which would you rather your own child or children have?