Richard Skinner watches a world go by, in intricate detail
I’m delighted to welcome Richard Skinner to my blog today. Richard Skinner, acclaimed author of The Red Dancer, The Velvet Gentleman, The Darks and Fiction Writing: The Essential Guide To Writing A Novel, offers his 1st hand advice on developing characters, which is an essential skill, but yet one of the hardest hurdles to overcome for many authors. Richard is also currently a Tutor on Faber Acadamy’s Writing a Novel course.
One of my greatest pleasures, and sources of ideas for developing characters, is going to a crowded place – a railway station or a café – and just taking in what’s happening around me. People-watching is fascinating because it gives you huge numbers of visual stimuli to invent and build stories about the strangers around you. When developing characters, you could take this process a step further and write these sketches and short stories there and then, a process that will improve your powers of observation and description enormously.
One overcast weekend in October 1974, the French writer Georges Perec spent three days at a café in Place Saint-Sulpice, Paris, recording everything that passed through his field of vision: the people walking by; the buses and school cars caught in their routes; the pigeons moving suddenly en masse; a wedding (and then a funeral) at the church in the centre of the square; the signs, symbols, and slogans littering everything; and the darkness that eventually absorbs it all. He called this ‘Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien’, which translates as ‘An attempt at exhausting a Parisian location’. His book is an eerie, oddly touching document, and is a wonderful exercise in observation and description.
While I was in Malaga recently, I spent a couple of hours one morning observing an elderly man. He was about seventy years old, very smartly turned out in an olive green check jacket, green slacks, brown brogues, a white shirt and cerise tie. He had little hair, but it was neatly cut and combed. He wore metal-frame glasses, had a hangdog expression and hunched shoulders. He was obviously retired and I decided that he must have been an accountant, or an insurance man – something to do with finance. He was sitting at a well-known cafe called Lepanto, watching the world go by, but studiously ignoring the jazz band that was playing for money on the street nearby. He was a man who enjoyed peace and quiet. He was joined by a lady of a similar age whom, I quickly realised, he had been expecting. She wore a grey ruffled cotton jacket and smart blue jeans. Her hair was auburn (dyed?) and her glasses were tinted orange. They immediately launched into debate, though I was too far away to hear, and I understood that he enjoyed other people’s company more than I thought he would. They seemed familiar, intimate with each other and I thought that maybe they had once been lovers. I imagined them as characters in a Gabriel García Márquez short story. Perhaps they were childhood friends who had been lovers and now were only friends again. Once passionate with each other, they were now too old to be bothered with the trials and tribulations of love.
After some time, she kissed him goodbye and left. He paid the bill and walked in the other direction. I followed him. He was carrying a shopping bag that I hadn’t noticed before. He had been shopping for clothes. He walked slowly and had a habit of pulling on his lapels. Out of his right-hand pocket, he pulled a handkerchief, which he carried in his left hand. He stopped to talk to a man selling lottery tickets on the street, then went into a tobacconists and bought several lottery tickets. He then went into a shop further up the street that sold huge rolls of fabrics, all different colours and patterns, and it struck me that maybe he had worked in the fashion business, perhaps as a dressmaker. This would account for his smartly-dressed appearance and the shopping bag. At this point I stopped following him and watched as left the shop selling fabrics, crossed a square and disappeared down an alleyway. He was a fabulous character and I have never forgotten him.
Try it yourself. Go to a railway station or a café and observe a character of your own. You never know what you might learn about the world around you – or your own descriptive powers.
As part of my course, Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector, which I’m undertaking in order to give me a foundation in teaching skills, with the eventual goal of becoming a Creative Writing tutor, we have to deliver a micro teach. This is a 15-20 minute lesson in which we have to use all the strategies we have learnt throughout the course.
The most challenging aspect of this task is that the class will have a mixed ability and a mixed level of interest in regards to the subject taught. How can I deliver a short Creative Writing class to such a diverse group?
I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks. At first, I considered tackling one of the major foundations of Creative Writing: what is a story? I had planned to teach the basic structure of a story (that it must contain a beginning, middle and an end, and have a conflict and sense of change) and provide the group with a series of short examples, including examples of what a story isn’t. I was then going to get the group to write their own one paragraph short story.
However, I think this might been too big a concept to deliver in 15 minutes, and it might be too daunting to get students to write a story – even a short one – if they have never done any Creative Writing or have no interest in it. I thought the lesson sounded a little bit dry.
I thought about exercises I had enjoyed, and remembered one called ’101 Uses for a Button’ (or something like that), which I read in The Five-Minute Writer Margaret Geraghty. It encourages you to think creatively, outside the box, and come up with as many different uses for the simple button. An interesting task to start a lesson with, I think. Something easy and fun.
But how could I build on this concept? ‘Thinking outside the box’ can be interperated in a different way: avoiding cliche. Cliche often creeps into writing, especially for beginner or unconfident writers, and it is something that most people are familiar with, even if they are not a writer. So I would then provide the class with a few examples of cliches, writing them on a flipchart, and ask them to contribute some more. I might incorporate an exercise here, asking students to re-write a cliche or two.
I would then develop this theme into a discussion on characters and stereotypes, including a little theory on flat and round characters (E. M. Forster), which would lead into the main writing task. I would provide photocopied photos of a variety of different people and ask each student to pick one. They will have five minutes to write a character sketch – I would provide a handout of prompting questions to help them if they are stuck. Then I might get the students to pair up and describe their characters to each other, or ask for volunteers to read out their character sketches to the class – I’m not sure which, yet.
I would end with a summing up.
These are just my inital thoughts for the micro teach. Over the next few weeks, before the micro teachings beging, we will be looking at course and session planning, so hopefully that will help. At the moment, I have a feeling this lesson is too long for a 15 minute slot, so I’m going to have to think about it some more.
Any feedback/suggestions would be welcome!
Stumbled across this great photography project: You Are What You Eat.
It is a selection of photographs of people’s fridges. The captions tell us about the owners. You can tell quite a bit about lifestyles from these photographs.
For example, this is the contents of a 1-person household. The owner was a World War II prisoner of war. He has a well-stocked fridge, which even includes cans of food. Make me wonder if he now has a fear of hunger, and makes sure his food supply is always well-stocked with long-lasting products in case of emergency.
The caption for this photo is: “Short Order Cook | Marathon,TX | 2-Person Household | She can bench press over 300lbs. | 2007″. I’m mostly wondering why the hell there is a snake in her freezer (top right).
Anyway, food for thought. How well do you know your characters? What would they have in their fridge?