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How to turn your cardboard characters into flesh and blood

When I received feedback from my beta readers on By the Feet of Men, the consensus was that - outside of the protagonists - it was difficult to make a distinction between the different drivers. They went so far as to say the vehicles actually had more of a personality than the humans did. That was a problem: the novel couldn’t work if the drivers were as interchangeable as, say, the drummer in Iron Butterfly. With the world bleak and grey, the characters absolutely had to provide the colour. And so, to get into the heads of each driver and reshape them into personalities worth caring about, I used five techniques, all of which are discussed below  You know what the result was? When Starburst Magazine reviewed the novel, they said “[it] has no shortage of rich, colourful supporting characters.”

 It’s almost as though they knew I would one day write an obscure blog post and need a punchy sentence to prove I at least halfway know what I’m talking about.

 1.     Cast an actor to play the character

This is the easiest one for me, because I have scenes storyboarded in my head before I start writing. Imagine that your novel is going to be adapted for the big or small screen. Who would play your protagonist? What about the antagonist? The love interest? The irritating sidekick? The old gas station attendant with a moustache? Each time I wrote about Cassady in By the Feet of Men, I saw Ed Harris in The Abyss. Late 30s, early 40s, bald, slightly grizzled, fallible, prone to outbursts, a glint of humour around the eyes. When you cast the right actor to play your characters, you’ll see them more clearly in your mind. The character may take on some of that actor’s tics or tendencies and make them more human. They may end up being the complete opposite. Whatever the case, having a fixed image of what they look like is a strong basis on which to mould them into a personality that leaps off the page.

 2.     Make the character a mixtape

As Brent Katz wrote recently for The Rumpus when discussing Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, the novel’s mixtape scene cleared away the fog from the page: “I began to see its natural laws, its structure, and its illusive main character more clearly”. What better way to get inside the head of a character than choosing a few songs you think they would listen to? Play it before you start or at low volume in the background while writing.

Here’s a mixtape I made for Clark in Static Age. It’s frenetic, angry and slapdash, just like my misunderstood boy.

1.     Queens of the Stone Age – Regular John

2.     Captain Beyond – Dancing Madly Backwards

3.     Merchandise – Become What You Are

4.     Television Personalities – Part Time Punks

5.     The Music Machine – Talk Talk

6.     Temple of the Dog – Your Savior

7.     The New Christs – No Way on Earth

8.     Minutemen – Sickles and Hammers

9.     Baikonour – Proto Coeur

10.  Leaf Hound – Freelance Fiend

 3.     Choose an accent or dialect and have the dialogue reflect this

For this point, I’m thinking any character from Peaky Blinders as an example. If you were asked to pick someone from the main cast and describe them, chances are the accent – whether Brummie, Northern Irish or cockney – will be one of the first things mentioned. What’s more, each regional group in the show uses vocabulary and grammar structures that the others do not. This colours the dialogue, makes it more unique and enables the viewer to differentiate between characters instantly. And, seeing as everybody has prejudices towards certain accents and regions that are easily made and difficult to break, the use of accent/dialogue is a simple way to get the audience to root for, pity, suspect or despise a character even before paying attention to what they have to say. In a novel, simply changing one character’s speech to use informal contractions like gonna, woulda and ain’t will mark them out as different from the rest. It’s up to you to decide if you want to lean on this to make the character appear unrefined, juvenile or feverish, or to subvert expectations by having them speak like that in order to disguise their true persona.

Note: it’s probably best to avoid doing a full D. H. Lawrence and adopting unusual grammatical patterns and vocabulary choices so wholeheartedly that you end up with sentences like “Asn’t ’e! Oh, Jack’s been ’ome an ’ad ’is dinner an’ gone out. E’s just gone for ’alf an’ ’our afore bedtime. Jack never said nothink about your Mester.” Nobody wants to read that, even if it is lifted from the pages of a masterpiece.

 4.     Give the character a backstory (even if it doesn’t appear in the novel)

I watched an interview with Leonardo DiCaprio and Quentin Tarantino the other day, in which they speak about how DiCaprio developed his character of Rick Dalton for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. According to DiCaprio, he identified with the real-life story of an actor from the 1960s who had played a gunslinger on TV before committing suicide due to depression, and based his interpretation of his character around that. Tarantino then goes on to explain that while the backstory was strong, very little of it makes it into the actual film. There was no need to rewrite the script; rather, Dalton simply had to be brought to life in the right way, and DiCaprio found a way to do it without impinging on the narrative. When you create a backstory for the characters in your novel, you know who they are, where they come from, where they grew up, what they had for breakfast and why they’re carrying that gnawing anger around in the pit of their stomach. The reader doesn’t have to know every tiny detail, but the more fleshed out your hero is before you sketch them out in digital ink, the easier it will be to turn them into a living, breathing entity.

 5.     Write a short story featuring the character

Some characters pop up in multiple novels. Vonnegut was famous for this, leaning on recurring names such as Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater and Rabo Karebekian to make point after point about how absurd life is. Brett Easton Ellis did it too, with Patrick Bateman turning up in Glamorama and The Rules of Attraction outside of his endearing turn in American Psycho. This can be cool if you’ve written multiple novels – take a character that already exists, update them and throw them into your new work. You already have a feel for the character’s voice and, through your use of intertextuality, you build a connected world.

 If, on the other hand, you don’t have multiple novels or simply want to write something entirely new, a short story can be the perfect way to ease into a character. William Gibson did exactly that with his razorgirl Molly Millions, who first appeared in a short story, “Johnny Mnemonic”, back in 1981, before making the step up to primetime in Neuromancer in 1984. She even refers back to Mnemonic in the novel. Thanks to the short story, Gibson already had a template for his character, with a clear tone, history and visual identity, which (I’m guessing) made it easier to add her into his digital dystopia when the time came.

oh what characters these chaps are.

oh what characters these chaps are.

We need to use apocalyptic language for apocalyptic times

As Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World, “Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly. They’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” Despite living in the age of Netflix, YouTube, six-second ads and 1.8 billion images uploaded to the Internet every single day, the written word hasn’t yet lost its power to captivate, compel or cause foundations to come crumbling down. More self-published books are being released than ever before, the blog publishing platform Medium is in the top 200 most-visited websites worldwide, and text still accounts for one-third of all content online. For the time being, at least, our thirst for the written word remains unquenchable.

Although we live in an era characterised by misinformation, spurious data and ‘facts’ made up to fit the story, we tend to believe what we read, too. As Leetaru points out in Forbes, “Citizens are taught from an early age to accept information provided by elites, from the government to the mainstream media to academia, on face value without question.” Having dived head first into, and then proceeding to swim through, the rivers of data that accompany the Information Age, this idea of the ‘elite’ has now expanded to include anybody who sounds remotely like an authority, people who shout louder than others, and contrarians who adopt controversial positions to entertain and enrage. Even more worryingly, the (fairly) recent erosion of trust in government bodies and the media in particular has caused us to turn to populist rhetoric as a means of shaping our understanding of the world. Instead of relying on—for the most part—rigorously checked facts, figures and accounts, we cherry-pick from a smorgasbord of headlines and soundbites that have been assembled purely to attract attention and push up the click rate.

This is obviously dangerous in many respects.  One person might read an article spearheaded by a quote stating that migration flows to Europe are “hopelessly out of control” (even though, as Patrick Kingsley notes in The New Odyssey, migration accounts for just 0.2% of the continent’s population). That person then demands that the borders be closed, loses faith in the current government and gradually turns to more extreme alternatives to stem the tide. The result: political parties such as Alternative für Deutschland in Germany or Rassemblement national in France get a foot in the door of parliament. Another person’s attention might be drawn to a piece warning about how vegan diets “end up in disaster”. With phrases as doom-laden as this littered throughout the article, the person dismisses veganism outright, even though the claim on which the piece is based—that veganism is a diet rather than a movement and a philosophy—is utterly false.

But…what if we could harness this sensationalist approach to information for good? What if the loudest headlines were the ones on top of articles that weren’t attempting to misinform, spread hatred or denigrate heartfelt beliefs, but which sought to educate us, bring us together, perhaps even scare us into action? What if we dismantled the mental barriers that are currently holding us back using the very tools that built them in the first place?

This brings me to the language we use to talk about climate change. Until recently, the words we relied on to describe the anthropogenic impact on the environment were, by all standards, pretty benign. ‘Change’, for example, suggests a gradual, not unpleasant slide into a new situation that we might be able to harness for our benefit – like, say, if we were to switch jobs. What it doesn’t suggest is that we are currently ankle-deep in a sixth mass extinction event. There is no urgency when we say ‘climate change’, nothing that suggests we need to do anything on a personal level to arrest it. ‘Global warming’ is another term that lacks bite. Popularised by a NASA scientist who presented findings to the US Congress in the 1980s linking greenhouse gases to the heating of the planet, it is a phrase that suggests long summers, brief winters and a slight temperature rise for everybody. It is this kind of language that has confused people to the extent that on days where the mercury plunges, naysayers are quick to trot out the line “Where’s your precious global warming now?”, as if the entire matter boils down to it being sunny or not.

Thankfully, we are starting to see a switch to stronger terms. The Guardian, for example, has changed its house style guide to recommend the use of terms such as ‘climate crisis’ and ‘global heating’. This is a step in the right direction. Heating is not the same as warming. Heat, after a point, becomes uncomfortable. If the entire world is heating up, we aren’t imagining that we’ll simply wear less and stock up on sun tan; it is aligned much more with images of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, vast dust bowls and bleached skeletons in the middle of the desert. A crisis, meanwhile, captures the public imagination. The Financial Crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Crisis in Venezuela. The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of crisis is “A time of intense difficulty or danger.” This is the time we are in, though we may not have realised it quite yet given that we’re still surrounded by the bubble we’ve blown for ourselves. Even so, the more we read that this is a Crisis Era and the more we hear it being shouted from the rafters, the more we may begin to believe it.

The United Kingdom has gone one step further on the terminology front. On 1 May—during a break from the slapstick routine it has been performing on the international stage since mid-2016—the British government declared that humanity is in the midst of a climate emergency. It grabbed the headlines. It made people stop and think, at least for a moment. An emergency is immediate, an unwanted, potentially dangerous situation requiring action right now. The British government’s announcement was followed by a climate and biodiversity emergency declaration from the Republic of Ireland on 10 May, Canada on 17 June, New York City on 26 June and Sydney on 1 July. With town and city councils all over Europe, North America and Australia indicating their support for this type of declaration, more national governments are surely set to follow.

Other outlets are employing language designed to challenge and provoke in the environmental arena, too. Looking through a recent Extinction Rebellion newsletter reveals the use of highly charged words and phrases such as ‘ecological collapse’, ‘genocidal impact’, and ‘act now with love and rage’. Similarly, the website thinkprogress.org doesn’t shy away from speaking about ‘catastrophic collapse’ and ‘terrible human suffering’, and describes the Hothouse Earth scenario as being akin to triggering a rockslide or avalanche where total destruction is unavoidable. These are the kind of X-ray words that Huxley was talking about, the ones that pierce us to the very core, galvanise our imaginations, cause cold beads of sweat to roll down our backs.

We need this kind of incendiary language to be applied across all relevant articles and content. If discord, vitriol and pithy summations work so well to whip up fear and anger among certain sections of society, why shouldn’t they have the same effect on society’s discourse about the climate crisis? The time for sober discussion, impartial reports and articles quoting scientists as being “concerned” about the evolution of the anthropocene is over. Now is when we have to use every weapon we have in our arsenal to pierce the minds of as many people around the world as possible—even if those weapons include ramping up our language choices to blockbuster levels. Genocide, annihilation, extinction, devastation, conflagration, perdition, death, suffering, starvation. Use them all. We have to catch the eye, appeal to selfish outlooks, elicit fear, shame people, dismantle mental blocks. We need to push back against terms intended to downplay the crisis, like the dystopian ‘molecules of freedom’ recently dreamt up by the Trump administration’s Ministry of Truth. We have to make others believe that human-made genocide truly is just around the corner, and get people to act and vote and change because of it. We have to do everything and anything to stop the sleepwalker—humanity—from stepping off the cliff. Because if we fall, there’s nothing at the bottom to catch us. Terry Pratchett once said that “Before you can kill the monster you have to say its name.” Let’s start calling the monster of climate cataclysm for what it is. Then we might just have a chance at going about killing it.

rising.

rising.

Why I don’t use italics to denote foreign words

Brexit, white supremacists in the White House, far right rumblings across Europe, ethno-nationalism. It feels as though humanity is on a knife edge at the moment. We’re standing there in the snow, clinging to the mountain ridge, hoping our footing is strong enough to keep us where we are. But a katabatic wind is buffeting us, our fingers and toes are numb and we don’t know which direction to go in. Wouldn’t it just be simpler to slip over the edge and slide down the mountain into oblivion? To accept that we’re not going to get out of this situation, to give up, to bow our heads to the forces trying to knock us off our perch and let them do it?

Well, no. Of course not.

Any movement or group that spreads hate and discord relies on its ability to create a fear of the Other. Othering individuals, communities and cultures is fundamentally based on the assumption that that which is being othered represents a risk to our way of life, to what we know and understand about our individual or collective sense of Self. Still, these groups aren’t the only ones doing it. In fact, alienation comes quite effortlessly to most of us, even if it isn’t our intention. It happens in our conversations, in the risqué jokes we make among friends and family, in our snap judgements of people on the street, in the influential media we consume, at home and work, in the condescending interactions we have on holiday. It can be conscious or unconscious. The latter is perhaps more damaging than the former—if you don’t know you are othering someone, how can you stop it?

When a foreign word is highlighted in italics—i.e. one that is not part of the language in which the text is being written—it becomes Other. Syntactically, it still belongs to the sentence; semantically, it has been set apart, singled out, left to fend for itself. It has the same effect as placing a big red arrow underneath it. When it has been italicised, your eyes can’t help but stumble over the word. They see it, they stop, they look at it again. They are taken out of the reading experience to consider that single word, to see it as something alien. And then they dive back into the safe waters of the familiar, eyes gliding over the page, devouring the words that haven’t been italicised. When the next italicised word appears, the sense of Other is compounded. They can see it, further down the page, in the next sentence, on the same line. They know it is alien. Perhaps this time they don’t stop to mull it over. They jump over it as though it is an obstacle in the road.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the notion of Us vs. Them crystallises, becomes the standard. Even if the aim is to highlight the uniqueness of the word, to celebrate it, to signpost it so that the reader won’t trip over it, the result is still one of Entfremdung. If the word is not the same, then it does not belong. If it does not belong, it is not to be wholeheartedly trusted. And if the word cannot be trusted, then the people to whom the word belongs and the culture surrounding it cannot be trusted either.

In The Penguin Modern Classics edition of Burmese Days by George Orwell, there is a brief, but interesting explanation on the use of italics in the novel:

“Almost fifty words have been italicised at every appearance. One effect is that Orwell’s story is presented as he would wish: it is the British who are aliens in this society and the language in which the story must be told—English—is itself alien to the host people.”

Here’s an example:

“The old butler was hurrying from the servants’ quarters, thrusting his pagri on his head as he came, and a troop of twittering chokras after him.

     ‘Earthquake, sir, earthquake!’ he bubbled eagerly.

     ‘I should damn well think it was an earthquake,’ said Mr Lackersteen as he lowered himself cautiously into a chair. ‘Here, get some drinks, butler. By God, I could do with a nip of something after that.’”

The butler is immediately othered through the italicised use of the term ‘pagri’. Instead of adding the suffix ‘headdress’ or receiving an explanation (‘pagri, a turban typically worn by Indian males’, for example), we understand only that the butler has thrust something strange on his head, making him strange by association. This, coupled by the fact that he has no given name other than butler (despite being an ‘old’ butler who has probably been at the clubhouse for a long time) and ‘bubbles’ rather than speaks like Mr Lackersteen, establishes him as an entity that has no real place within the rarified clubhouse atmosphere. In addition, the butler is followed by ‘a troop of twittering chokras’. On first read, it seems as though the chokras are an animal of some kind, perhaps birds (twittering) or monkeys (troop). In actual fact, they are boys employed as servants for the white men at the clubhouse. All we understand, however, is that they are Other.

This is exactly the problem and the power that lies with using italics. It causes immediate alienation, creates a dividing line between host and hosted (or perhaps invaders and invaded). And while Orwell applied this technique to lay bare the hatred, hypocrisy and intolerance surrounding British colonial rule, many other works have no such ambition to fall back on.

Giovanni’s Room is a wonderful, complex novel, a natural successor to the Isherwood novels of the 1930s and a gateway to the gay literature of the 1960s and 1970s. One thing Baldwin does consistently throughout the novel, however, is to mark French words in italics almost to the point of parody. For example:

“He was sitting bundled up in his greatcoat, drinking a vin chaud.”

 And:

“‘I’ll see you later. A tout à l’heure.’”

And: 

“It was observable, through open windows on the quais and sidestreets, that hoteliers had called in painters to paint the rooms.”

 In the three examples above, the italics serve only to keep reminding the reader that the novel is set in France, France, France. There is no social commentary being made here, no attempt to force the reader to contemplate the horrors of colonialism or forced occupation. Baldwin’s intention may have been to put the reader in the shoes of David, the US protagonist, as he seeks to unpick the existential knots binding him to the streets of Paris, but the attempt falls short when one considers that David has been in Paris for over a year and has clearly mastered the language. He is at home in this environment, more so than in the USA, a country to which he has no desire to return. Moreover, the words highlighted are so banal. Vin chaud is simply mulled wine. A tout à l’heure is a repetition of ‘see you later’. A quai is a quay. And an hotelier is...an hotelier (a word used in English since around 1900, according to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary). Why use italics at all?

Compare this to the following passage from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

“The bald pilgrims in Beena Mol began another bhajan.

     ‘I tell you, these Hindus,’ Baby Kochamma said piously. ‘They have no sense of privacy.’”

In this example, Roy turns the use of italics on its head brilliantly, choosing to highlight a word in English as a way of underlining the superiority complex of Baby Kochamma, a Christian, when confronted by a group of Hindus. It is not the bald pilgrims who are othered after starting to sing a bhajan (a spiritual song); they are accepted, natural, integrated. Instead, it is the educated, English-speaking Baby Kochamma who is framed as prissy, conceited and out of step with the rest of her environment.

If the intention is not, like in Burmese Days, to reinforce the sense of alienation between the foreign word and the English-language text, I would argue that it is better not to italicise the word at all. If the reader wants to look up the word later (or immediately), then they will, but don’t rely on the typographical equivalent of stringing fairy lights around the front of a house. Embed it within the rest. Make it part of the whole. It’s more constructive to build bridges than to dig trenches. After all, we’re all standing up there, on that knife edge, wondering which way things are going to go. Navigating a safe route down starts with the language choices we make and how we use it with one another.

Home doesn’t have to be something we cling on to like crazy people.

Home doesn’t have to be something we cling on to like crazy people.

Chart / May

Miserable things I found out this month include:

  • In Poland, Coca-Cola sent empty plastic bottles (with green labels) to influencers asking them to recycle the bottles, share their efforts online and encourage people to create a world without waste. The plastic bottles weren’t old ones that had already been used; they were new. This is the kind of behaviour that future generations will look back on and absolutely despise us for. Maybe they’ll even hunt down the people who came up with ‘initiatives’ like this and try them for environmental crimes. Fingers crossed. In any case, the Caligula years will thankfully be coming to an end pretty soon, whether we want them to or not.

  • The Botswana Democratic Party has decided to lift its elephant hunting ban, because stocks have rebounded to 110,000, and a few of those 110,000 are being a nuisance to farmers, killing a few unfortunate people and generally not respecting man-made boundaries. Instead of seeking a solution that is beneficial to both spheres (such as ramping up eco-tourism), preserving a critical part of a delicate ecosystem, protecting a species ranked as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List, and continuing to set an example to the rest of the world, they’re going to let overweight white men with small dicks shoot elephants in the chest until the problem goes away and everything is fine.

  • McDonald’s has released a vegan burger in Germany to cash in on that ethical dollar. This is one of those things where nobody is going to be right, but: for me, it’s a little like when Tony Soprano, an outsized sociopathic bastard who was awful to pretty much anyone he locked eyes with, did something a little bit nice (like, say, deciding not to kill someone) and the audience thought “ah, I guess he isn’t so bad after all”. Yeah, a vegan burger might be a step in the right direction, but McDonald’s is a brand that is wholeheartedly committed to animal genocide. It’s better to not support it at all. Only by taking a concerted stand against the concept of corn-engorged, bloodstained fast food will it one day become possible to liberate the global food supply from the hands of companies that couldn’t care less how much animal suffering they cause or how sick we become from eating what they serve us. The ‘value for money’ card doesn’t play, either - nobody who is eating a vegan burger at McDonald’s is doing so because they can’t afford to buy normal vegetables. Let’s be honest - by and large, veganism is the privilege of rich white people. And these are the people (as usual) who are influencing the discourse being taken here. So why not - instead of succumbing to laziness, hunger pangs, idle curiosity or whatever - do the right thing and ignore these pedlars of misery? They’re just trying to tempt you back into the fold.

  • The world’s population is now nearing 8 billion. I remember when it reached 6 billion as a kid (in 1999) and was amazed at how quickly it then went on to hit 7 billion in 2012. Now, just 7 years later, we’re close to the next milestone. I suppose it’s not so surprising, actually. More people equals more sex equals more babies. But the question is how long this is going to go on for. Do we just keep having babies until the systems in place can no longer support us and everything collapses? Modified monoculture crops paired with chemical fertiliser (the innovation that allowed the population to grow massively in the first place - cheers, Justus von Liebig) are already eating away topsoil at a catastrophic rate, contaminating rivers and groundwater, killing the insect population and killing natural diversity. The food we eat is, by and large, unhealthy and unnatural, and this will become even more so as we desperately strive to feed every new mouth that comes into the world. These cycles, in turn, produce more CO2, the thing we need to somehow suck out of the atmosphere in order to stop the Great Acceleration from turning into the Great Human No-brakes Joyride At High Speed Into A Wall of Extinction.

    But the question is why exponential population growth, caps and limitations aren’t part of the political discussion. I mean, I know why - it’d be political suicide. You can’t take a person’s right away to have a baby. Even so, if we’re changing the way we eat, changing the way we travel, changing the way we consume and use resources and changing the way we speak (climate change > climate crisis), why shouldn’t we change the way we populate the Earth? Even a cursory glance at the World Population Clock reveals our current approach (which is to do absolutely nothing at all) reveals how unsustainable it is to simply allow people to have as many kids as they want. What I’m certainly not saying is that a cap should be forcibly imposed. That’s fascism. There is a whole raft of religious, educational and socioeconomic issues to contend with here, too. But population growth should at least be a much more vocal element of the conversation on the climate crisis, and it might get people to think more about whether they do actually want to bring another child into a world already groaning under the weight of civilisation. Stuart Aken (who was kind enough to review my book) has some more coherent thoughts than mine on this.

Music with no discernible flow because nothing makes sense anyway:

  1. Tyler, the Creator - Igor’s Theme

  2. IDLES - Mercedes Marxist

  3. Autoclave - Dr Seuss

  4. Holly Herndon - Alienation

  5. Ellen Allien - Free Society

  6. Red House Painters - Between Days

  7. Critical Defiance - 507

  8. Tim Hecker - That world

ominous audrey.

ominous audrey.