Thursday, 23 February 2012

Using Attitude for Characters

Attitude - that is, your character's attitude to life - is an important component in writing, but one that is sometimes overlooked.

‘I can’t do it,’ Abigail said, doing that stupid soppy thing with her eyes that makes her look like a pug about to be sick. Pathetic.

‘Give it to me,’ I said, grabbing the jam jar from her. I’d show her.


‘I can’t do it,’ Abigail said, looking at me with big eyes shining like stars, so fragile, so helpless, for a moment I could hardly speak.

‘Give it to me,’ I finally managed, gently taking the jam jar from her delicate fingers, hoping that this time I’d get the lid off.


The dialogue is the same, the actions are the same. The only difference is the narrator’s attitude. When I read I like to know how the characters are feeling about the situation, otherwise I might as well be reading a script. I want to feel I am in the scene, experiencing it through their eyes. Their attitudes to life might not be mine, but this is how I’m going to understand them and, in understanding, get involved with their story.

As a writer I find attitude is a useful tool, especially if I’m finding a scene difficult to write. I stop for a minute and ask What is my viewpoint character’s attitude to this situation or these people? How do they feel about what they can see? Then I write the scene using character attitude to drive it, and the scene almost writes itself.

Some people advise that you spend hours and weeks preparing detailed character backgrounds before you start writing but that's not how I work. I don't need to know where a character went to school or what his first pet was. All I need to know is my character's attitude to life.


Shauna said...

Good post Sarah. I recall being told about character attitude a long time ago, and especially not to forget it for your antagonist.

The person said that even if we don't agree with the actions, if the antagonist has a good reason for acting in that way they will be believable, and that no-one wakes up in the morning thinking, today I'm going to be evil and do lots of nasty things to people. Though sometimes after reading the paper I'm not so sure on that last point!

Philip C James said...

Interesting lesson, Sarah. I'd assumed it was better to let the reader deduce how characters were feeling from their actions and utterances but maybe life's too short and I should try it this way.

Sheila said...

You've hit it bang on there, Sarah.
Brilliant post. As always.

Sarah Duncan said...

Shauna - absolutely. Everyone has reasons for behaving in the way they do. Sometimes I look at clothes in shops and think 'who on earth would wear that?' But they do, and also someone else designed them thinking someone else would wear them. Same with our actions, and as readers we need to know.

Phil - if you leave out all the attitude you might as well be writing a script. The great thing about prose is that it's the only creative art form where we know what people are thinking. So why not use it?

Sheila - Thanks!