ISBN-10: 0857301179 ISBN-13: 978-0857301178
Well, it’s been while (again) since I posted so, as I have just finished Lucy’s book on writing diverse characters, I thought it was a good opportunity to get a post up on the old page.
Despite recent (slow) changes with films like Wonderwoman (2017), Get Out (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018), the majority of mainstream media product is designed around white, middle-class males who are also most likely able-bodied and most definitely not gay. As Lucy opines in her introduction, this is frustrating, and inaccurate, when you consider a world where the majority of the population are not white, where up to 10% identify with the LGBT community, 51% are women and nearly 20% of people are living with a disability.
Changes are coming, but progress is slow. Writers and creatives have a responsibility to tell stories that are truthful (whether they are pure fiction, fact, fantasy or reality) and that can’t happen if the image of the white, middle-class, able-bodied, hetero, male hero persists. He will always have a place, hell, who doesn’t love a good Tom Cruise actioner or a bit of Bourne? But the world is a huge, mixed-bag of people, all waiting for THEIR story to be told; and audiences want to see themselves reflected on screen or in the pages of a novel. And this is what Lucy’s book is about; thinking about diversity (whether you like that word or not – read the book, you’ll see what I (Lucy) is getting at) and how we can all write better characters and stories by thinking about the norm and how we can shake it up. It’s like the process of subverting tropes – so much of the stuff we write has been done before (white male leads) but how can we shake things up and put a fresh coat of paint on it by simply thinking more about diversity?
The book itself is split into 6 sections, with the majority of the “good stuff” in the central 4 chapters (not that the rest of it is bad or anything):
- What is Diversity?
- Heroes, Sheroes and Vile Villains: The Protagonist and Antagonist
- Secondaries, Sidekicks and Subordinates
- Peripheral Pointers
And, as you can see, the structure is all about exploring what diversity means and then looking at how that can be applied across your characters . This is not just about a token effort to make your lead diverse; it is not called a “range” of characters for the fun of it!
The advice within works equally well if you are working on a novel, or a screenplay (or any kind of writing that requires character development) and explores the current “white standard” characters that we are all very familiar with, promoting consideration of how those characters can be traded up to embrace more diversity, or, if you like, more reality, when considering the make-up of the world around us.
However, this book is not just a primer for discussing diversity, although it does a very good job at that. It is, actually, a great introduction to the art of writing in itself. It may not go into the detail of structure and concept like Vogler, Field or McKee (all men!) do, but it does provide a good grounding in what is definitely one of (if not the) most important components of a good story – Character. If you have never read a screenwriting book before, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. While understanding structure is vital, understanding your audience and how your characters affect story and create sympathy and empathy with your audience is just as important, and Lucy gives you a crash course in how to do this in her book.
*may not actually be true
When India falls to her death from a bridge over a railway, her sister Poppy returns home to Brighton for the first time in years. Unconvinced by official explanations, Poppy begins her own investigation into India’s death. But the deeper she digs, the closer she comes to uncovering deeply buried secrets. Could Matthew Temple, the boyfriend she abandoned, be involved? And what of his powerful and wealthy parents, and his twin sister, Ana? Enter the mysterious and ethereal Jenny: the girl Poppy discovers after hacking into India’s laptop. What is exactly is she hiding, and what did India find out about her?
I should start with being honest; I have never read a Dostoevsky novel. I did once start ‘Crime and Punishment’ but I found it a little hard going and, dare I say it, a little boring. So that is one thing Lucy V Hay’s debut novel, The Other Twin, has on Dostoevsky; I actually finished reading it! Today in fact, so I thought I would break my duck of posting here for a while and write a little review.
I’m not normally one for crime/thriller novels, I tend to veer more towards Horror and Sci-Fi (although I guess there are potential parallels and cross-overs, as with any genre) so I wasn’t really sure what I was letting myself in for. The last similar novel I read was the Girl on the Train, which I read more or less because of promotion for the film and some hype around the book so thought I would give it a go. I enjoyed it. I didn’t find it particularly challenging, but it was a good, if occasionally predictable, read.
So why The Other Twin? Well, I follow Lucy on Twitter and Facebook, particular through the Bang2Writers group where I hang around hoping to grab a few writing crumbs as they fall from real writers’ tables. On those pages, Lucy has obviously been promoting the hell out of her pending arrival so, on 3rd July, I placed my order and started reading a few days later.
So, is it any good?
Yep. It is.
So, there you go, you can go and buy it with confidence.
Lucy has produced a complex, tightly plotted story that revels in its setting (Brighton) and its characters. Anyone who knows even a little about Lucy will know that she is passionate about diversity, so it is no surprise that her story revolves around a very diverse group of characters. While diversity is important to the development of the plot, it is introduced so naturally it does not become a story ABOUT diversity, but simply a diverse story. So while we visit a world populated with a variety of cultures and sexualities, we get to concentrate on the strained relationships and dangerous secrets that seem to be held by every single character we meet along the way. Even incidental characters such as kitchen hands and bar workers feel like they probably have a few skeletons in their closets!
Lucy writes with a confident voice and immediately sweeps you up into the story world she has created. I am not going to discuss the plot in any great detail, as that would be to spoil the twisty-turny nature of her narrative, but the story gets going immediately, sweeping us along with Poppy as she searches for the truth behind her sister’s suicide… or is it murder? Unlike The Girl on the Train, which felt a little predictable, The Other Twin is full of surprises and shocks and at least one “Oh shit” moment. Some readers may feel there are, perhaps, one too many twists – they really do some thick and fast – but, ultimately, the story doesn’t suffer for it. The story builds and build to a rapid conclusion and the ending comes so quickly, you almost don’t have time to try to figure it all out as you read! You will find yourself thinking it over afterwards but this is by no means a bad thing. There are a few questions left unanswered, but I like that; I like to be challenged and I like to have things to think about after the fact. It really would be boring if every story wrapped up all its threads nice and neatly at the end.
The momentum of the book is reinforced by its short, sharp chapter structure, which has few chapters more than a couple of pages long. I don’t know whether this was deliberate or perhaps a reflection of Lucy’s experience with screenwriting (short sharp scenes) but it means the reader is never allowed to get bored and is an excellent way to keep you reading; ‘oh, just three more pages….okay then, just a couple more.’
Ultimately, The Other Twin is a deceptively simple story entwined with a complex plot that is elusive, but never overly complicated. It is fun to read and smartly written. I may not be a voracious consumer of crime fiction, but I will certainly keep an eye out for the next book from Lucy.
ISBN-10: 0995621276 ISBN-13: 978-0995621275
I have been trying my hand at writing some short stories recently, concentrating on the CREATE50 initiative and, more specifically, the TWISTED 50 competition. Twisted 50 is a collection of 50 twisted tales collected in a short story anthology and Volume 2 is currently open to submissions. Still time to have a go (although it closes at the end of the month) if you fancy trying your hand. If you do, let me know and I will happily have a read of your submissions.
Like any writing, it is worth immersing yourself in other works in a similar format to get a feel for writing style, format and rhythm. I’ve never tried writing short stories before having a crack at TWISTED 50, so this was even more important. I have read plenty of short stories in the past but, looking for something new, I was introduced to the Dark Minds collection via a couple of the featured authors (Lucy V Hay and Emma Pullar) so thought I would give it a go.
It is anthology of crime stories and, at just £8.99 is a bargain for the amount of material included. It is also a charity volume, the profits benefiting The Sophie Barringer Trust and Hospice UK (So what’s not to like!)
I am not going to review all 40 stories, but there is great variety of ideas and numerous themes throughout the collection and you really won’t get bored reading them. With all sorts of characters from hitmen to gangsters, city workers to murderers, there is something for everyone to get their teeth into. Emma’s story, London’s Crawling, is one of those that stands out from the rest as it pushes the brief as far as it can, being closer to horror than crime, but still being a fantastic read (if you can stomach a few spiders). Lucy’s story, Love you to Death, flirts with the supernatural and, while it is not the only one to do so, plenty of others are rooted firmly in the real world; there really is something for everyone.
There are some classic takes on stories, like ‘Slow Roast Pork’ by S.E. Lynes that made me nostalgic for Tales of the Unexpected, or others like Ron Nicholson’s, ‘You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Strangler’ that had me just with the title! Gangster tales with a twist such as Peter Best’s, ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ rub shoulders with non-linear mysteries like Paul Gitsam’s ‘A Stranger’s Eyes’. The anthology even ends with a bonus story from promising young write Jenna-Leigh Golding who certainly shows an eye for the macabre with ‘#1-6’.
All in all it is a great collection of stories, perfect for those short-sharp bursts of reading when you just don’t have time to sit for long, or when you want some quick inspiration for your own stories.
And it’s for charity, people, so why not grab yourself a copy and do some good at the same time?
While at work a few days ago (don’t tell the Boss) I was daydreaming about a script re-write I am working on when I came across the following tweet by Lucy V Hay highlighting advice from writer Julian Fellowes:
— Shouty Writing Tips (@Bang2write) 27 June 2016
(the full post is available HERE)
What caught my eye was Tip #7 which dismisses the expectation that all good characters must change over the course of their journey. Fellowes was more of the opinion that it is just as important to ensure the audience has empathy with your characters. This was timely as I am currently working on a script where the protagonist does not necessarily change that much during her story; she perhaps acts more as a catalyst for change among other characters. She changes a little, but not as drastically as many other movie characters who learn great lessons through the course of their arcs.
Now, change is a cornerstone of story-telling techniques as it informs the character arc, another common aspect of screenwriting teaching. Wikipedia describes it as:
“A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person, and during the story, things happen which gradually transforms him or her into a different sort of person.”
Character arc – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
and even more “respected” sources describe the importance of change:
“The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.”
Robert MCkee, “Story” (1999, p104).
“In a sense, stories are about change. And the measuring stick that tells us who succeeds and who doesn’t is seen in the ability to change. Good guys are those who willingly accept change and see it as a positive force. Bad guys are those who refuse to change, who curl up and die in their own juices, unable to move out of the rut their lives represent. To succeed in life is to be able to transform. That’s why it’s the basis of not only good storytelling but also of the world’s best known religions. Change is good because it represents re-birth, the promise of a fresh start.”
Blake Snyder, “Save the Cat” (2005, p136).
Which is exactly right – change makes for good-storytelling and fulfilling stories . The change in Michael Corleone in the Godfather (1972) is a perfect example of how a character can change. It might not be the most positive change, but he does change, and the audience is fascinated by this growth and how it affects the character and others around him. Want something more light-hearted? How about Lightning McQueen from Cars (2006)? He starts off pretty self-centred and selfish, but ends up changing through the course of the film, learning to slow down and be more considerate to those around him. Clearly more change. Indeed, grab a stone and throw it at the IMDB and you are very likely to hit a story that features interesting characters developed through change.
Despite this change, Michael and Lightning are two very different characters who also have something else in common; empathy. Regardless of what change they go through, audiences empathise with the characters. Even where that change is negative. We do so with Michael in the Godfather as he avenges his father and protects his family – a primal desire/urge within the vast majority of us.
However, what is also interesting about Cars is that Lightning’s change is catalysed by the characters around him. He gets to know the residents of Radiator Springs and their lifestyle and they affect him, helping him change. The characters around him don’t particularly change themselves (maybe Doc Hudson softens a little) but that doesn’t necessarily make them any less interesting. They all have a story and personality that creates empathy with the audience without the change that is considered vital.
So what’s going on here?
Well, perhaps characters DON’T have to go through change to lead an interesting story, as Julian Fellowes suggests. Perhaps interesting, empathetic characters are just as important, and they don’t have to change to generate an emotional connection with the audience. Put a character in a story that has conflict, that gives them a goal and a purpose that the audience can empathise with and you can still end up with an enjoyable and popular film.
Don’t believe me?
to name a few examples. The characters in these films don’t undergo any substantial change during their stories, but they are highly regarded and well-loved films. Why? Because of good characterisation, great conflict and drama, etc etc. Ripley doesn’t change during the film (apart from learning about xenomorphs VERY quickly) and starts and ends the story as a kick-ass, Nostromo crew member. When does James Bond EVER learn anything or change? Dumb and Dumber says it all – no learning here… move along please.
Interestingly, Forrest Gump is similar to the supporting cast in CARS in that the protagonist, Forrest, doesn’t change, but he does influence the people he touches throughout his life, helping them grow and change – think of Captain Dan!
This is a great revelation and another chance to “clarify” a screenwriting rule. While “change” is an important aspect of many films, it is just another Tool in our writing kit-bag, not the absolute Rule that many of us (myself included) learn about early in our careers and think we have to stick to. Characters can (and do) change, it’s a fact, we see it all the time. BUT, they don’t HAVE to change, there is just as much evidence for that. The common denominator, however, on both sides of the argument is strong, compelling and empathetic characters that an audience will get behind and root for.
So that gives us something to aim for.
How do you feel about character change as a Screenwriting Rule?
Have you ever written a story in which a character doesn’t change?
- Characters you Admire
- Know your Audience
- Conflict and Emotional Arc
- Know your Characters – part 1
- Know your Characters – part 2