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Writing Workshop 1

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posted on Oct, 1 2005 @ 08:28 PM
The Importance of Good Characterisation

• Without characterisation there is no story, simple as that. You may have a plot and interesting scenes, but without good characters your story will never get off the ground

• Characters need challenges and conflict, if your character is easy going and doesn't suffer some kind of dilemma or problem, your reader will get bored

• Ask your character questions, why would XXX do this? What does XXX like to do? What does XXX sound like when they speak? The more questions you ask your character, the better developed they will be and the more informed you will be about who they are

• Your character's main personality traits should be clear in your mind when you give them dialogue. Don't make them speak the way you do, they should have their own voice, let the dialogue help you shape them

• Details, details, details - it will make characters come alive, we need to be able to see them in our mind. Don’t over describe but rather concentrate on little or important details.

• Readers need to empathize with your characters, even bad ones, if you aren't interested in your character, chances are we won't be either

Writing Exercise

Write a small scene - no more than 1000 words, minimum 500 - in which two of your characters are placed in a problematic relationship: trap them together in a place for the entire duration of the scene: a basement, an elevator, a supermarket, you get the point.

Think of the conflict but don't have them say it or talk about it: this can be a familial, friendship or a romantic relationship. The conflict can be anything you want. One character should know what is going on and is either hiding something or lying, the other one should react accordingly, DON'T HAVE them say anything about the problem or lies. Their nervous actions should say everything about their motivations. The dialogue should be convincing and should reflect the stress, tension, etc…


Feedback can take any form you like, but please be conscientious of other people’s feelings and try to point out any positive aspects in the story as well as any negative criticism. Also, when making a point, try to make suggestions rather than saying you SHOULD - for example: you should stop writing is not the thing to say.

You can use stories that have already been posted on this board (but not entries in a contest not yet judged) as examples of good and bad practice. I would advise trying to get the writer’s permission before you do that first, in case they mind.


Don't worry so much about plot and the story around it, just concentrate on developing your two characters. The point of the exercise is to try to develop an understanding and practice of the importance of characterisation. We should all remember that when making comments.

Have fun! You can post it when you want and we can read and comment your stories or exercises as come in. If you feel hesitant about your piece, you can save it for your writing notebook and just read along or comment on other people's writing until you feel more comfortable. OR you can submit something you have already written that fits the outline. There are a lot of stories posted on here already. If you want comments, pointers and suggestions on them, now is the time.

All pieces due by 14 October, which will be the last day to get any feedback on your writing.

posted on Oct, 3 2005 @ 03:48 AM
As an example of a good characterisation, I want to use portions of Jeremiah25's 'Strange Divinity' to show that intimate scene setting, details and believable dialogue, all contribute to the art of characterisation.

“Yes”, I replied softly. “This is my dream”.
She said nothing, but bent down and ran her fingers through the swiftly moving stream of rainwater that ran through the gutter. She looked across the street to where a mother was struggling with an upturned umbrella while her young daughter laughed and stamped with glee.
“Last year”, she said idly, her fingers swimming in the tiny river, “my husband was killed when a driver talking on their cell phone didn’t notice a stop sign. He was a good man, a good father and a good husband. Why did he have to die?”
“I don’t know”, I answered truthfully, although I knew that she would not understand.
Standing up, she shook the drops from her fingers and put her hands in the deep pockets of her coat. Her hands shook and I wanted desperately to believe that it was from the cold.

In this story, the author does an excellent job of conveying mood and tension in a very short space of time. While Jeremiah25 has achieved the tricky act of making it look simple, he had to first ensure the characters were compelling and believable - not only to his readers - but to one another. This only works because both the dreamer and the woman are two DISTINCT characters. I am stating the obvious, but it is amazing how many times I've read stories with 3 or 4 characters, and they ALL sounded and looked the same.

Make them sound, look and be different. The whole joy of inventing characters is what makes writing so much fun. Have a think about your favourite characters in books and films, they are invariabley those strange, quirky types that stay on your mind right? The bland, boring ones just fade into oblivion.

Leading us through a narrative

Here, we are immediately put in the position of wanting to know more about the two main protaganists, allowing the writer to unravel his story as he sees fit. Once he has hooked us with his intruiging woman and the strange dreamer, we will follow him along wherever he takes us.

This is what is known as 'Character Driven narrative.'


Another thing the writer does very well is provide little details to enhance his scene and add an air of realism to his writing.

Notice how his female character effectively uses the elements around her in her dialogue and descriptions:

She said nothing, but bent down and ran her fingers through the swiftly moving stream of rainwater that ran through the gutter. She looked across the street to where a mother was struggling with an upturned umbrella while her young daughter laughed and stamped with glee.

The little details make her stand out, rather than remain a 2 dimensional cut-out. Also, it allows the reader to start forming a visual image of the character, which is invaluable. The details are subtle and give just the right amount to make it memorable. Readers are more likely to 'buy' the woman as a real person, than if she had just appeared, parroted some dialogue and departed again.

Inner dialogue

This is another way in which to get your readers inside the head of your characters.

I was silent for a moment. Part of me was considering constructing some lie, some deception that would give her hope, give her meaning and purpose. But another part of me decided that she had earned the truth, or what I, in my own understanding, held to be the truth. It was this part of me that spoke.

All of a sudden, we understand the dreamer so much better. We understand what he is saying and what he is not saying. Sometimes being TOO subtle has its disadvantages and we don't comprehend what the characters are doing - sometimes a few well thought-out lines (as in this example) can help readers understand the motivations and desires of our characters.

To recap we have seen a good example of using details, believable characters and inner dialogue in the quest to make a good story.

I hope to next time bring you an example of ineffective characterisation. If anyone is brave enough to want to submit a piece to be critiqued, please U2 me. Otherwise, I will be forced to use one of my own non-working pieces which will be scary - so I'm warning you now (forewarned and all) please send something else for your own good.

Also, anyone wanting to elaborate or disagree about this story or the subject of characterisation, feel free to pitch in. The writer may also want to weigh in with some 'behind the scenes' type stuff about anything he specifically included or didn't.

[edit on 4-10-2005 by nikelbee]

posted on Oct, 4 2005 @ 01:47 AM
I am going to use the Da Vinci Code for this. Sorry any Da Vinci Code fans, but this book provides so many examples of how NOT to write.

Example 1 - Believable Dialogue AkA you gotta be kidding me, who speaks like this??

"The documents had long since been entrusted to the Templars' shadowy architects, whose veil of secrecy had kept them safely out of range of the Vatican's onslaught."

Would any normal person/character every utter this line? No. This stuff if what you usually put between dialogue. You don't insert it into a character's mouth unless you intentionally want to make your reader hoot with laughter.

Making your character say what you want

It sounds fake and forced. Again... who speaks like this? It also has the unpleasant side effect of making your readers feel stupid.

“These are photocopies of the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea scrolls, which I mentioned earlier,” Teabing said. “The earliest Christian records. Troublingly, they do not match up with the gospels in the Bible.” Flipping to the middle of the book, Teabing pointed to a passage. “The Gospel of Philip is always a good place to start.”

Too many more examples but you get the point. I would have liked the book more had Dan Brown taken the time to try to write more believable dialogue.

Using He Said

"Hello," Alex stated.
"Hello, to you," Jane smiled.
"Do you come here often?" he asked.
"Every week" she answered.
"Every week!" he grinned.
"What's wrong with that?" she replied.
"Place is a dump," he shouted
"My husband owns this dump!" she snarled.

Hmmm - just use He/She said. Go for the simple option and when it comes down to it, we will eventually forget about them. These stand out instead and force you to pay attention to them.

Really Boring Dialogue

'How are you,' said Hannah.
'I'm fine,' said Fred.
'That's nice,' said Hannah. 'How's your mother?'
'Not bad. She's feeling better thank you. And yours?'
'She is well. She and dad went on a cruise the other day.'
'Oh really? said Fred.
'Yes,' said Hannah, looking at her watch.
'I've always wanted to go on a cruise, said Fred.
'You should, they are fun, said Hannah, trying to stifle a yawn.
'I wonder what one costs.'
'Depends on the cruise.'
'I should give them a call...'
'You should...'

(please shoot me).

[edit on 4-10-2005 by nikelbee]

posted on Oct, 4 2005 @ 10:30 AM
Here is the basic story...
Two space travellers on an exploratory mission are stranded on a planet.
I've given some clues as to their looks and also, clearly, the planet is Earth after some world wide calamity has come.
I'd like to be able to expand on the story as well as touch up the 'alien' personality, if that's possible.

posted on Oct, 4 2005 @ 10:34 AM
Strong characterisation can add significantly to the richness and believability of a story. When a reader picks up your story (or clicks on your story link), they have chosen to invest their time in getting to know your characters. Needless to say, if your characters come across as too wooden, or boring, or unbelievable, the reader is not going to fell a connection with them and will probably stop reading. The points nikelbee has made concerning why good characterisation is an important element in writing are excellent and there really is no need to add to them.

In terms of characterisation in Strange Divinity there are a few points I would like to comment on. The first is that nikelbee is 100% correct in stating that, when you write dialogue for a character, you need to consider what that character would actually say. Sometimes this means taking an indirect route to get a particular point across. For example, when the woman in the story says

“Last year”, she said idly, her fingers swimming in the tiny river, “my husband was killed when a driver talking on their cell phone didn’t notice a stop sign. He was a good man, a good father and a good husband. Why did he have to die?”

She is making a point that the main character is cruel and arrogant and deals with his dream characters somewhat flippantly. Now, she could have said something more direct like "Why did you kill my husband?", but we learn so much more about her intentions by listening to her tell this little story. In the end, we wind up in the same place, but this way the dialogue is more believable and we find ourselves caring more for this character.

Another aspect of characterisation I'd like to touch on is the use of external elements to provide a window into your characters or to help the reader understand them and their conflicts better. In the story I wrote the following passage

She said nothing, but bent down and ran her fingers through the swiftly moving stream of rainwater that ran through the gutter. She looked across the street to where a mother was struggling with an upturned umbrella while her young daughter laughed and stamped with glee.

to specifically make the reader connect more with the woman. Whilst believable dialogue is an essential element of good characterisation, the way your characters react to external events can help to sculpt them and makes them seem more real to your reader. In this example, we empathise with this woman because we are aware of everything that she stands to lose when her world ends. In this way, believable dialogue combines with realistic reactions to situations and events to create characters that seem more lifelike and meaningful.

The documents had long since been entrusted to the Templars' shadowy architects, whose veil of secrecy had kept them safely out of range of the Vatican's onslaught.

Oh man, that's terrible. How much was he paid for this book?
Nikelbee is right - nobody talks like this. Trust me, your story will be better served by constructing believable dialogue and genuine characters then by treating your audience as though they were idiots. A key idea I always try to go by is "Show it, don't say it". This doesn't mean that you shouldn't use dialogue - you definitely should. What it means is that having a character say something like "I am scared" is kind of lazy. Your reader should be able to tell that they are scared by how they react and by what they say. You shouldn't have to beat your reader over the head with it and if you find you have to, then you have failed somewhere in constructing a good character.

So that's my opinion. I see that lots of people have viewed this thread but nobody seems to want to respond. I know that there are some extremely talented writers here at ATS whose opinions on good and bad characterisation I am sure we would love to hear. Just as I know that there are writers who feel that they need to work on this very aspect of their writing. Don't be afraid to submit your own piece for review. After all, the end goal is to help our talented little writing community become as good as we can by helping each other out. Alternatively, feel free to make comments regarding the characterisation in Strange Divinity, either what you felt was done well or what you felt should have been done better. I can take it. Let's get the ball rolling on this. We all stand to learn a great deal from one another.

posted on Oct, 4 2005 @ 11:11 AM
I have read the Da Vinci Code once. Usually, a book which resides for years as the #1 spot on the bestsellers list has my attention for, at least, 2 readings by me, but I was satisfied that I have seen what his purpose in writing it was.

The plot is secondary to the content of the book. The characters are lifeless because Brown had no interest in developing them. They are but a connecting thread, taking the reader from one mystery or conspiracy to the next and those mysteries are what the book is all about.

He knew what interest the occult holds for many people today. He used the work done by the authors of books like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, The Temple and the Lodge, The Templar Revelation, Fingerprints of the Gods and The sign and the Seal as the real basis of this book. His characters, as they flitted from one perceived danger to the next, were empty husks blown by the winds of revelation the readers of this book most likely had read about before (as I did). By the end of the story, I was kinda ticked at Brown for his methods. Basically, imo, he plaugerized Baigent, Leigh and Handcock for their attempt at non-fiction while he spun their work into a fictional fabric which he knew would be of great interest to those mutitudes who prefer books of fiction to the less popular speculative non-fiction.

As a study in how to NOT develop characters, this book is perfect because Brown did not even make a reasonably adept attempt to round them out. All the characters were mere shadows, wraiths winding around the litany of mysteries.

He has, imo, pushed back into fictional shadows whatever truths may have eventually been unearthed by his source materials. If I was Hancock, for instance, I would be hating him.

[edit on 4-10-2005 by masqua]

posted on Oct, 6 2005 @ 12:15 PM
Since the realease of the Da Vinci Code I had been pestered endlessly by friends who ranted about how great the book was. I read it and was at first dissapointed, then I began to be upset about all the people who believe this to be the greatest book ever. This book does in no way deserve to have recieved the acclaim it has, one of the main reasons for which is Dan Brown's inability to actually write. He has no tac for the art of novel writing, most of all, and this bothered me SO much while reading it, his complete lack of the ability to create, or portray, a personality on paper. All his characters are wafer thin and so appaling, its just... just very appaling.

The greatest novels I have read, and my favourites, all are solely character driven works as opose to plot motivated. I did not hate Dan Brown's book, but am dissapointed that it was written so badly, if we ignore the blatant plagiarism of the book, it would have been quite enjoyable with with well drawn characters and not stick-men.

My favourite book of all time is Zorba the Greek, a book which, in my opinion, displays the greatest ever portrayal of personality on paper. I recently read Moby Dick; upon picking it up I thought it would be an extravagant, swash-buckling tale spanning many years and covering countless continents and exotic shorelines. It only spans about a year and is all about the interesting characters involved, particularly Ahab (and a-Whaling! of course

Most members of ATS have great imaginations and have interesting stories to tell, the telling of which are often let down by poor dialogue and lack of characterisation. My advice is reading theatre; read some plays, or even movie transcripts. These deal almost solely with dialogue (or at least speach).

[edit on 6-10-2005 by The_Modulus]

posted on Oct, 6 2005 @ 02:47 PM
Hi Modulus

Very good suggestions. I agree about scripts and films being good tools to use in order to get a feel for dialogue, especially since writing styles nowadays are more dialogue than plot driven. Most of us who grew up on a steady diet of television, films, adverts and video games, are sophisticated media darlings; we have a great ear for what sounds corny or wooden. Moreso than writers did 100 years ago.

It can also be argued that the payoff is a reduction or loss of imaginative capabilities for people of our generation. As (primarily) film and television watchers, we seem to have no need to digest things if they are already chewed up for us and therefore we tend to be lacking in areas where we have to provide our own conclusions. Yes, we can interact, but can we create? Or do we just cling to whatever signed and sealed happy ending we are given? Did anyone see that Simpson's episode when Bart found the lost reel of Casablanca's new (and improved) ending?

I've had the opportunity to teach children and I find their knack for vocabulary and ear for dialogue superb. They understand the nuances of language, voice and also plot. By all intents and purposes, they are natural storytellers. But as they grow older, the barriers go up and the desire to be inquisitive and playful is no longer as important as being a 'grown-up'. Sadly, that is when imagination dies, so those that continue to persue story-telling despite living in a society where everything is visually enhanced, have my respect and admiration.

Anyway, I won't bore you with my JM Barrie musings.

Films are great for pacing, dialogue and the choreography that goes with it. Pay special attention to how people sit, walk, stand and hold things when they are talking. These subtle differences will make your story come alive. And try to stay away from the dramatic turning to face the wall (as in soap operas) the wide-eyes opening or closing in pain and my big pet peeve, the croc tears. If you have absolutely HAVE to have someone cry, please, please, please make it worth our while, or blend it into the scene.

As for Moby Dick, it was good, but I prefer Melville's short stories. Bartleby the Scrivener, is a good one. (I have a soft spot for down-trodden clerks).

Good luck and I hope everyone is writing.

[edit on 6-10-2005 by nikelbee]

posted on Oct, 16 2005 @ 04:35 AM
Well thanks everyone for participating in this 1st workshop. Good job and very brave for submitting your stories and letting them be critiqued. Now it is on to someone else. Worldwatcher, who will be leading the next one?

[edit on 16-10-2005 by nikelbee]

posted on Oct, 16 2005 @ 03:26 PM
Ooops I was late for class---I only realized yesterday that I needed writer statues to get over here where the actual thread was.

But I am still going to participate in this one--it's something I definitely need.

I also have got to get my workshop ready, on poetry, so I can't be next--hopefully after that, though.

posted on Oct, 17 2005 @ 01:27 AM

Tsk Tsk *taps foot*, where have you been young lady? Do you know what time it is? Is that gum in your mouth? Did you bring enough for the rest of the class?

I can't wait for your poetry workshop.

Meanwhile - you might want to try your bard-like prose on this dead 'horse' (read the thread, you'll get the joke). Scary Fridge poetry attempts.

ps: Any interesting 'horse' poems can be exchanged via U2.

posted on Oct, 22 2005 @ 06:07 PM

spyware ate my homework, Miss Nik,.

*spits gum out*
Watch your step.


I must forego my assignment in favor of preparing a palatable poetry pow-wow to please all participants.

(that's a lead-in to something fun I'm going to include in my workshop).

I've sent you a horse via U2U, Nik.

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