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.