Part Nine: The Four C’s of Creative Writing
The four C’s of creative writing are Character, Charisma, Contrast, and Conflict—so here’s what you need to know about them…
Every human being on this planet is the sum of all their past experiences. From princes to paupers and everyone in between, the way they were treated as a child, their birth position in their family, education, health, work (or lack of it) and every other life experience comes together to create a unique person. We’re all works in progress!
Your past is what makes you, you. It’s the same with fictional characters. To make the life they live between the pages of your book feel real, give each of them a past. The very best characters capture the imagination of readers so well, it feels as though they will have a life beyond the end of the story.
Kate Walker provides a great template for developing your characters in her 12-Point Guide to Writing Romance. I adapt her idea by adding some questions of my own about background and circumstances each time I start a new writing project. This creates a database for every new fictional character, tailored to the story I’m writing.
Some of the most interesting questions to ask yourself about your characters concern their childhood. The position of children within their family is a fascinating subject, and important. The upbringing of an only child will be very different from the life of a youngster who is the middle one of three (potentially bossed around by the eldest child, and invisible if their younger sibling needs attention). And what about twins? How much of their character depends on nature, and how much on nurture? Perhaps their mother saw one as “good” and the other as “attention seeking”. The treatment you get as a child has a lasting effect.
I’ve never been a believer in horoscopes but when the poet Paul Groves gave me a book on Zodiac Types, I had to admit that there were eerie similarities between my own character, and those of my birth sign. After that, I compared the personality types of all my family members and friends with the book. It scored more hits than misses, so I’ve used it ever since to help me create characters. Whether or not astrology actually affects our day-to-day life, the way this book lists linked traits of personality, body type, suggestions for ideal careers (or jobs to avoid!) and other details provides exactly the sort of information to kick-start anyone’s imagination.
Whether they are heroes or villains, the best fictional characters have charisma. This is much more than simple charm. It’s almost indefinable, but it’s obvious when you see it, or read about a character who has it.
Charisma is a combination of confidence and determination, together with an ability to communicate, and inspire. Charismatic people aren’t always “nice”. Some of the most charismatic people in real life aren’t liked by everyone. Eva Perón and Donald Trump are both examples of charisma in action, but that doesn’t mean you’d automatically vote for either of them.
In fiction, Pride and Prejudice’s Fitzwilliam Darcy is charismatic: George Wickham is charming. Darcy gets the job done: Wickham basks in admiring glances. The best type of fictional hero combines drive and determination with charm and intelligence. Create characters your readers can recognise, then tune their individual facets up or down to make them either more or less heroic, depending on the part they will play in your story.
Keep contrast in mind whenever you are writing. If all your characters think, speak, dress and act in similar ways, it will be difficult for the reader to see them as individuals.
Use different types of setting—interiors, exteriors, town, and country, to add variety to your work and keep your audience interested. Use the weather as shorthand, but avoid slipping into cliché.
Shakespeare set the standard for using weather—imagine how different the opening scene of Macbeth would be if he met the witches on a sun-warmed beach at midsummer! Play with the idea of weather setting the scene by turning the idea around— contrast the furious revelations that end a marriage with the beautiful peace of a summer evening, to highlight how poignant relationships can be. Alternatively, have your lovers brought together by a thunderstorm rather than being torn apart. That idea worked beautifully for Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in the Isn’t is a lovely day? routine in the film Top Hat.
Within your story, vary the length of your scenes and chapters. Contrast is also useful in pacing your story. Follow some languid scene-setting with lines of punchy dialogue, or let a violent incident result in a tender love scene, for example when Jack slips away in Titanic.
Once you’ve created a great character, give them something to kick against. In the memorable image first used by an anonymous nineteenth-century theatre critic, you need to chase your protagonist(s) up a tree, then throw rocks at them. There’s a time and place for introspective fiction, but at times of stress or boredom most people don’t want to read about Jo Dull from Beigeville. They’ll grab an Ian Fleming, ready to follow James Bond across oceans to exotic locations.
If your hero chases villains around the world leaving a trail of destruction behind them, that’s what is known as external conflict. Plenty of successful books and films rely on little more than that, but including an element of internal conflict adds depth to both characters and storyline.
External conflict is the sort you see in news bulletins (or Bond films)—war, natural disasters, accidents, fights, financial panics, and so on. Internal conflict is the struggle within a character to reconcile their opposing emotions. They may feel inadequate while trying to live up to the expectations of others, or struggle with the contrast between their public image and private reality.
Internal conflict is the engine driving your character to act in the way they do—guilt, shame, fear, and secret love are some good starting points.
This isn’t the place to discuss the contrast between our contemporary liberal values and the moral strictures of Victorian England, but Holman Hunt’s painting The Awakening Conscience is the perfect example of inner conflict. The painting is packed with the popular imagery of its time and repays careful study, but here’s a quick 101—this unmarried couple are living outside of society (like Lydia and Wickham in Pride and Prejudice). He has been playing the sentimental tune Oft in the Stilly Night. The lyrics of that popular Victorian song are chock-full of longing for the past, and memories of friends and family who have been lost.
She leaps to her feet in a torment of inner conflict: the life of a mistress at this time was shameful and short. It almost always ended with pregnancy, a sexually-transmitted disease, a descent into prostitution, or a combination of all three. Brought up at a time when everything not permitted was forbidden, this woman’s childhood would have been spent listening to Sunday sermons about wickedness, and veiled hints about the fate of adulterous relationships (don’t get me started on A.L. Egg’s Past and Present, Numbers 1, 2, and 3 or we’ll be here all day!) Her family will either have disowned her when she ran away, or she has been too ashamed to make contact.
Holman Hunt has caught her Will I ever see my family again? moment of inner conflict. Should she stay, or should she go? As with all the best internal conflicts, there’s no easy answer. Should this woman continue her life of present comfort with its almost guaranteed future pain, or abandon it in favour of possible humiliation and rejection if she tries to be reconciled with her family?
To return to the work of Jane Austen: think how much shorter and less captivating Pride and Prejudice would be if the first time George Wickham’s name was mentioned Darcy announced, “He’s a rogue who should be horsewhipped!”. Wickham would be cut from polite society in an instant — end of story.
Instead, Darcy struggles with concealing what he knows about the man. Despite his charisma, Darcy has already been shown to be a judgemental stuffed shirt. If he exposes Wickham as a shallow rogue and compulsive gambler who tried to elope with Georgiana Darcy, he would seem bitter, vengeful, and as big a snob as Mr Collins. More importantly, it would wreck the good name of Darcy’s sister.
The four C’s of Creative Writing will help you put in place the scaffolding that a great story needs. Next time I’ll be writing about how writers can help readers find solutions to problems in their own lives by examining popular themes in their work.
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