Tag Archives: Writing Experiment

The Power of Three for Characterisation

Recently, the number three has been haunting my writing and reading: tripartite goddesses, ‘Love, Death and Robots’, Kathleen Jennings musing on story structure, three act plays, and so forth. I have been reading ‘How to write’ books by Diana Wynne Jones, Angela Slatter (rereading), Kate Wilhelm, among others, and I’ve come across a clever way to define a character, using the power of three – Three different viewpoints.

When you are first coming to grips with a character, have three different people describe them. The first one loves them, be they a lover, a child, a parent, a sibling, or a close friend of the character. Let this love influence their description. The second one loathes or hates them, and so they see this character from a different perspective, with their hatred colouring their description. Lastly, have someone meet the character for the first time character , and so they have little urge to have emotions tinge their opinions.

This contrasts to my usual technique, which is to ‘interview’ the character for their personality traits, like and dislikes, and personal history. This isn’t defining the character by their own traits so much as how others perceive them. So, you get less of their internal life and more of how they interact with other people. It makes my story telling flow better when I know how my characters interact. Feel free to try this out for yourself.


Filed under Characterization, The Writing Life, writing, Writing Experiment, Writing Style

The Pouting Pen … an article I wrote ten years ago.


The Pouting Pen

Think of me as “Dear Abby”, except I only give advice on your relationship with your pen, typewriter, word processor, or computer.  Are you suffering from writer’s block?  Uncertain of the definition of a writing term?  I’m here for you.  If I don’t know the answer, I will point you in the right direction.

I won’t be giving advice on anything to do with university assignments…if you are having difficulties with those, see your tutor or Student Services.



Dear Pouting Pen,

I am having trouble with finding a title for my novel.  Where do I look for and find a good title?


Tongue-tied with Titles.


Dear TTT,


There are fashions in titles, just like everything else.

The classic book title takes the pattern of ‘(The) **** of (the) ****’. I can look over to my bookcase and see four such titles in that style: ‘The Dolphins of Pern’, ‘The Wheel of Time’, ‘The Mystery of the Ruby Glasses’, & ‘The Sword of Shanarra’. This could mean that this style is overdone, but it just means that it is a classic form. It works, so don’t knock it. Oh, and the ‘of’ may be an ‘and’ in some titles of this type, like ‘The Power and the Passion’.

Then there is the clean and simple use of a one word title. Gregory Maguire favours this type: ‘Lost’, ‘Wicked’. So do many other authors. It has the advantage that you can use words that have multiple meanings, and you don’t give away anything major of the plot. A single word title is strong and powerful. The addition of a ‘The’ in front of a single word doesn’t weaken the effect, like in ‘The Awakening’ or ‘The Bribe’. Next level is adding a modifier, like an adjective, e.g. ‘The Little Country’ or ‘The King’s Buccaneer’.

Quotes are often a good source of titles. ‘Band of Brothers’ is from Shakespeare…you can’t go wrong with Shakespeare as he covered everything about the human condition in his body of work. Personally, I like to use bits from old sayings: ‘Rosemary for Remembrance’, ‘Stuff and Nonsense’. You can use lyrics from songs, anything that gives your title meaning. You can also twist a saying, particularly if your book is a parody…’Wyrd Sisters’ by Terry Pratchett is an example. The cleverer the twist, and the more appropriate to your novel, can make this style of title a zinger.

Lately, there has been a flourish of longer titles. ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ is an excellent example of this type. I avoid this style myself, but when it works it works well. The Victorians loved long titles, and they also liked to add a comment under the title. If you are writing Steam Punk or historical novels, this style is very suitable.

What a writer wants from a title is a cluster of words that are memorable; something that encompasses the theme of the work, without giving too much away. Some people like to put titles on their chapter headings (guilty). Titles are important, as a weak title can drive away readers before they even get to read the main text.

Some writers have a natural knack at picking a good title. If you know someone like this, cultivate their friendship. (Joke, joke.) However, you can work at your title to improve it, just like anything else. Make a huge list of titles, and cull down to the one you like. Use a working title, and then change it when something more appropriate takes your fancy. Buy book of quotations, or start looking up lyrics on the internet.

If you are getting too frustrated with finding a title, just leave it for a while. Come back when you are calm and relaxed. Reread your piece. Sometimes, the title will be hidden in the very words in your story.



Dear Pouting Pen,


I am unsure of the genre of my short story – in fact, I am unsure what genre really is.  Can you help me, please?


Yours in confusion,

Genre Geronimo


Dear Gerry,

Genre is how various categories of writing are recognised. Genre is a marketing tool, and a useful method for hunting down books you might enjoy, and it is used in judging books for awards. When you go into a book shop, usually the books are separated by genre: Cook Books, Humour, Reference Books, etc. These are very basic categories, often covering an enormous variation in the types of books lumped together. This is often why very original books, like Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival’, may end up in the children’s fiction area of a bookshop. No one knows what genre it should go into, because it covers so many genres.

Genre can be broad…Fantasy. Or it can get very specific, like Victorian-era, London-set, Steampunk fantasy aimed at a twelve year old audience. Every genre has its own rules and traditions, such as sword and sorcery genre books should have swordmen/swordwomen and wild magic as basic plot elements. Does that sound straight forward? It isn’t, as many genres overlap, and new genres are forming all the time.

For a writer, genre can be both restrictive and wonderful. Big Picture: I write Fantasy, and I dabble in horror and Science Fiction. I don’t think I will ever write a war-based novel or a Western. However, my fantasies tend to be adult fairytales in an urban setting. Little Picture: You might call it Urban Fantasy, or Magic Realism, or Feminist Fairytales. I wouldn’t.

I don’t like to be pigeonholed, as it restricts what I can or can’t do. However, if I was going to market such a book to a publisher, I would pick one of those genres so that the publisher has some idea of my style. And booksellers will know to put it in the Fantasy bookcases in their stores.

But what if I wanted to write a science fact book, when I am known as a fantasy author? If I am a popular fantasy writer, publishers may reject this out-of-genre book, as my fan base might be unhappy. Ditto if I write young adult, and then I write a book aimed at an older audience. Of course, I can change to another pen name…but why should any author be so restricted creatively?

There are any number of good books that can help with an understanding of genre. This note is just a starting point, to get you thinking.


Dear Pouting Pen,


Who the heck is an unreliable narrator?


Yours Sincerely,

This is not for an assignment, honest.



Dear Honest,

Erm.  Instead of giving you an outright definition of an unreliable narrator, I will share with you my personal views on unreliable narration.  You can then make up your own mind who or what an unreliable narrator is.

There is a perception in our society that some texts are reliable, and some texts are not. I would argue that no text can be constructed as completely reliable, as it is human nature to pick and choose what facts will be represented. The presentation of the facts, what order they are in, what has been left out, are all constructs of the author of a text.

The news story reported by a respected journalist; the critique of a historical event by an academic; and the article presented by a scientist; all these texts are just as unreliable as the authors. Each individual has chosen their topic, which means they have ignored other topics. They have decided how to represent the topic, highlighting some issues and ignoring others. No matter how unbiased the text may appear, there will be gaps and ambiguities – because the authors are not omniscient and are only human.

As well, truth can not be set in stone. What is consider only right and normal in one time and place, will be seen as strange or criminal somewhere and somewhen else. The truth itself may change. This means that a reader should never passively accept a text on face value. The reader should remain alert and question the text. She should look for gaps in the meaning, for what is left out is often as telling as what has been included in the text. What is the context? What was the author of the text trying to achieve? What constraints are their on the author and the text?

Of course, the author of a text may be deliberately setting out to misinform or mislead the reader. However, most authors of a text have attempted to supply the text in good faith. It is up to the reader to stay open-minded, and try to avoid accepting any text as the complete and utter truth of the matter.

Sorry, Honest.  I’m aware that I haven’t given you a straight forward answer…so am I a reliable narrator?  Or not?


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Poetry – Seasonal Haiku

Rain in the gutter

Turns bright Autumn leaves into

Bitter Winter tea

Black branches of trees

Tatting a stark lace to drape

A cold Winter sky…

Rain makes the frogs sing

Joyful songs for the Summer

Season, wet and hot.

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Why you should be proud of your Fanfic Juvenilia.

The Doctor and the Master

The Doctor and the Master

When I was eleven, I wrote this fanfic based on The Silver Brumby series by Elyne Mitchell. I copied Mitchell’s style, settings, plot lines, and just about anything else to do with Thowra (who I visualized as a snow-white gray and not a palomino).  It was my very first attempt at writing a novel, because up until that point I had been writing short stories. I was so into the Silver Brumby series that I overlooked the purple prose; to be truthful, I was rather taken with the lyrical overwriting and copied that too.

My next attempt at a novel was in the Science Fiction genre, as Fantasy and Science Fiction was my favourite genre for any form of entertainment. I was a huge fan of Doctor Who – and still am. This second narrative was much less derivative on any one author’s work. It was written in snatches between studying and caring for my horse in Grade Twelve, and in the end of year break before I went to university for my first round of tertiary studies. It was quite dreadful, but it was an enormous improvement over my brumby book, as I had made attempted to have an original plot, setting and characters.

When I started my second round of tertiary studies, I wrote a little more fanfic, usually to experiment with the characters in these universes. It helped me to find the confidence to use my own voice.

Writing fanfic gave me practice in all the skills I needed as a writer. It taught me the discipline to sit down and write thousands of words. It taught me about the interwoven relationships between characterization, setting and plot. It taught about how to give a character a voice of their own. It wasn’t a waste of time.

So, I applaud all those individuals brave enough to put their fanfics online for others to read. You need passion to write such fiction, and it is a good way to discover your own talents as a writer.

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Stereotypes – Pros and Cons


Writers have a love/hate relationship with stereotypes. Beginning writers are told to avoid stereotypes at all cost, as it is lazy characterization. This is true. A stereotype is flat and uninteresting. You certainly want avoid having a main character who is nothing but a cipher.

I work better with examples. Let us examine the stereotype of the mad scientist. Oh, the issues I have with this stereotype! Scientists are meant to be rational and logical, but for some reason Doctor Frankenstein has become the model for every scientist in fiction, as he is the classic mad scientist who has meddled with forces that ‘humankind should know not what of’ and has been turned mad. The subgenre of this stereotype is the absent-minded or muddled scientist … too interested in her/his work to keep contact with the realities of day-to-day life. Writers – who have often been characterized as airy-fairy and out-of-touch-with reality as absent-minded professors – should know better than to buy into the hype.

On a tangent: an absent-minded scientist in academia would have the survival value of an ice cube in hell. The concept was the invented by the Disney corporation, the same people who brought to the world the ‘lemmings jumping off cliffs’ scenario.

Back on topic: If I write about a scientist who is a main character, like my main protagonist in my Steampunk novel, I do not depend on the stereotype as a part of process. I try to ignore the stereotype and write a well-rounded character based on what I know of real-life scientists.The character will have flaws and foibles, but she (or he) certainly isn’t mad, insane or bewildered.

However, what if you writing about a ‘walk on’ character that might have just one or two sentences dedicated to their appearance in the Work-in-Progress (the WiP)? In a case like this, you can use a stereotype to help round out the incidental character without having to waste more words on their description than is necessary. You need a scientist to invent a new gizmo? Turn the stereotype on its head, and have her (or him) be focused and fun and completely sane. That is when you can make a stereotype work for you.

So, how does this relate back to the writing experiment? Currently, I am still working on the first draft, and I have several incidental characters. One of them is a diplomat. Instead of making him smoother than an oil slick, I am making him a gentle, almost shy man, with a warm smile. And all the scheming is being done by fathers who want the ‘best’ for their children.

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Leaving the Muse to do his Work


If men have female muses, it makes sense a woman would have a male muse. In the halls of my imagination, my muse resembles James McAvoy, shuffling through my files to come up with suggestions and solutions. Over the past five days, I’ve been giving my muse a chance to consider several writing-related issues. He is feeling a little stressed.

I’ve been shuffling ideas around for the Cake short story. I’ve been researching food allergies – which seems to be a rather fashionable topic on the internet. There is so much misinformation as well as nuggets of gold. I prefer to base my stories on real science, even when they are set in an alternative universe, and so I’ve been focussing on actual medical research.

As well, I’m still working my way through the editing of my two novels, and editing a story for Tiny Owl Workshop’s Lane of Unusual Traders anthology.

As well, I had a rather full weekend of social engagements. I can’t say that I am bored!

All of this means that  – even though I am not actually writing – I am doing a lot of writing-related activity. It is important to remember that writing is only part of a writing career. Still, I always try to find an hour every day to just sit and write in, even if nothing useful comes from the words I put down. To my mind, writers write. At the moment, I mostly am making notes about food poisoning in that hour. I’m sure my muse is working hard in that hour.

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The Writing Experiment: the Antagonist


 My antagonist is going to be the cake. I don’t want the cake to simply be a MacGuffin, an item that could be replaced in the plot with some other device. If I am going to write about cake, then dammit, the cake is the central pivot to the plot.

The World’s Most Expensive Cake will not be an anthropomorphic evil. However, its mere existence with fatally endanger one character and set in motion the possible fall of civilization as known in Foelddim. I am taking for my inspiration a couple stories I have come across over the years: ‘Fifi and the Chilean Truffle’ by Orson Welles and ‘The Secret Ingredient’ by Paul Gallico. Neither story is about cake, but both stories have the preparation of food as a central plot point.

Of course, the cake has no motivation. It just exists. And the people making and eating the cake are not targets of revenge or murder. But the cake will be a villain, all the same.

If I was writing this story with a human villain, I would be all about motivations and such. I prefer my villains to have real motivations, realistic personality flaws, and virtues to balance their vices. A rounded villain gives a plot a better balance. It is only in stories aimed a younger readers that you can get away with a cardboard cut-out of a villain, and even then I feel that is bad writing.

(The accompanying image is a Steampunk-themed cake.)

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I can see that I might need more than a week for the Writing Experiment.

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Writing Experiment: Getting into Character (Part Two)

I have been playing with some of the characters for the short story. I find it much easier to write if I can ‘hear’ how a character looks and speaks. Yesterday, I spoke of the Ambassador whose nickname was the Embarrass-ador. I see a genial and charming man, someone who has obtained his position through who he knows rather than what he knows, who was never meant to have a position in diplomacy. He isn’t even close to being an evil man, but he isn’t clever enough to be a force for good either. This makes him something of an embarrassment to both his staff and other diplomats.

Since this is a man with an absurd lack of common sense, I want him to have a name to reflect his nature. In Italian (such a beautifully descriptive language), I discovered the word ‘sciocco’, which means silly, foolish, stupid, daft, doltish, goofy. Isn’t that just the perfect name for the gentleman I just described? So now my character has a name: His Excellency, Sir Bozz (as in Bozo) Sciocco, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, of the fictional country of Foelddim, next to the country of Erewhon (in other words, the middle of nowhere).  


This is fairly close to how I imagine the Embarrass-ador looks, based on his name. He loves his slice of cake, and he’ll have another, thank you. Rotund. Old-fashioned. Well-mannered. Avuncular. Flustered by ‘modern’ ideas and technology. Not a mean bone in his body. Somewhat vague. Not a risk taker. Dependant on his staff. Loves the sound of his own voice, and sometimes speaks before thinking. Enjoys a tot of rum, a dram of whiskey, a snifter of brandy, a glass of gin … all in the one day.

Can you see this character coming together? When he talks, his voice resembles Wilford Brimley’s endearingly gruff voice, but with a very posh British accent (as English is not his first language). When he says jump to his staff, they don’t ask ‘How High?’, but ‘In which direction?’

What are his motivations? Mainly, he wants a quiet life. He took the diplomatic job because he thought it would be a doddle. He isn’t too worried about his own honour, but he is very loyal to his country; it is his greatest virtue and the main reason he was given the job. He is looking forward to retirement.

Now, this is probably ten times more information than will be revealed in the short story. But as one of the backbones of my story, I need a three-dimensional person. I quite like this gentleman, as he should be fun to write about, and he is complex enough to create surprises. A two-dimensional character, or a stereotype, can’t provide too much in the way of surprises, without breaking character. There is very little tension or pleasure in a ‘flat’ character.


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Reading into a Character

I know that some writers don’t spend as much time on characterization as I do. This is a personal choice issue, and those other writers aren’t doing it wrong, nor am I doing it wrong. I am a firm believer that characters should drive the plot along, and that your plot would be completely different with another set of characters. Conversely, if you have a specific plot in mind, you have to tailor your characters to that plot.

So, what kind of characters spring to mind when you think about the world’s most expensive cake? The Chef? The World’s Fattest Man? The Birthday Girl? The Dieter? The Woman Deathly Allergic to *whatever*?

I like the idea of the cake being some sort of surprise gift, while at the same time being completely inappropriate. Diplomatic bungles affected the personal lives of a few, and the lives of millions as well. This is a kernel of a plot. So who would be the actors in this little drama? An Ambassador, who is more like the Embarrass-dor, and his long-suffering staff. Our protagonist can be one of his staff members … efficient at her job but secretly kind-hearted. An arranged marriage between to feuding states (who doesn’t enjoy a story of thwarted love), with a couple of reluctant marriage prospects. A party planner with a hidden agenda…

The plot is just about writing itself!

So, these characters now have to be ‘filled’ out. I’m off to spend a couple of hours chatting with these characters and getting to know them. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to share them!


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