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Notes from the Winchester Writers' Conference - The Importance of Character by Debby Holt

Here's the first of my notes from Winchester - I thought I'd share them in case anyone finds them helpful. Debby Holt is the author of five novels published by Pocket Books, and she met her agent Teresa Chris at the Conference. I found Debby to be a very bubbly, enthusiastic tutor and there was a lot of laughter during the session!

* Debby started by reading us the opening scene from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - the author cleverly makes the blackly-painted Thomas Cromwell sympathetic by showing him being attacked by his father and refusing to fight back. The reader is engaged with him from the start.
* Read, read, read! (This was also the advice of Terry Pratchett and I suspect most writers - if it's not, it should be.)
* Debby keeps a reading diary and makes a note of what she learns from each book she reads. She uses this to kick-start her own writing.
* Empathy - the reader must be able to engage with the character, even if they are horrible. What draws you to characters in the books you like? Even villains should have sparkle!
* Every main character needs flaws - for examples, look at Jane Austen's heroines. We don't like perfect people! We love losers like Nick Hornby's main characters.
* But don't be afraid of having characters who are really nice.
* Show, don't tell. How can you show character? You can use their clothes or appearance, their home, eg what's on the mantlepiece, their speech patterns - dialogue should be distinctive for that person - even their name.
(NB: My favourite authors for brilliant character names would have to be Dickens, JK Rowling and Derek Landy - the dark underworld tailor in the Skulduggery Pleasant books named Ghastly Bespoke is a favourite!)
* The five Ws - who, what, why, when and where? Ground your character in reality or they won't be believable. Use a convincing setting. Interview friends and family about their jobs. (Debby has run out of jobs for her characters as she has used all her friends and family up!) For locations, look on estate agents' websites and do virtual tours. Your research will be in your head as you are writing even if you don't use everything you find out.
(NB: the virtual tours idea is a great one - I did some research on private schools yesterday and was able to get a good look at the type of building I wanted to use by watching a prospective parents' video.)
* Be careful if your characters come too easily - they may be someone you know! This happened to Debby, but luckily, she told us, they were dead so no offense was caused!
* The non-sequitur or Ulysses factor. I had never heard of this expression, but apparently the latin translation is 'it does not follow' (see wikipedia entry). Debby explained that novelists like the wonderful Kate Atkinson will have their characters going off on trains of thought that allow the author to fill in some background detail, eg a sudden memory. We all see things in different ways and characters will pick different things out of a scene that will spark off their own thought processes.
* The importance of anecdote - this is a good way to reveal information about other characters in short bursts - but make sure they are interesting anecdotes!
* If a character doesn't serve the plot in some way, remove them.
* Ambiguity is good. Keep the reader guessing. We are fascinated by people we don't understand. And we love to be surprised!
* Credibility factor - be consistent otherwise the plot won't work. If a character is known to be a liar, don't have her believed at a crucial point.
* Viewpoint - different viewpoints can be effective as characters will see the same thing in different ways and this will reveal information about them.
* Where can you get ideas for characters? Try films, fairytales, other books, adverts, magazines. Or go and do some exercise and your brain will loosen up and give you some ideas!
* When you read your work back, do you find your characters interesting? You should do!


  • thanks.Lou, lots and masses of good advice here!
  • Good points.
  • You certainly got a lot out of that. Thanks for sharing.
  • Thanks, Lou, that's all really useful stuff. Especially 'read, read, read' - that's the best advice of all :)
  • Making a note of what you read from each book seems sensible advice.

    Thanks Lou for sharing.
  • Thanks for this Lou - I'm hoping to go to Winchester next year, it sounds great.
  • Smashing stuff, Lou.

    Yes, Dora. I use just about every book I read (about one a month, I'm so slo-o-o-ooooow) and glean what appealed to me from it: writing notes, and sometimes doing an analysis of how he/she did such-and-such. Most useful so far: Anthony Horowitz for 'showing not telling' with Alex Ryder and Rachel Caine for teen narrative voice in Glass Houses.
  • That must have taken ages to post - thanks, Lou
  • Thanks for this, it is very helpful.
  • Thanks Lou, for a very helpful post.
  • Thankyou Lou. :-)
  • Glad it's of help to people - more notes coming soon!
  • Thanks, really helpful and has given me a new way of looking at things
  • I didn't go to Winchester this year, but tried the first conference at York University. It was well attended and I met several who also go to Winchester. I was pleased they had copied (for me) the raison d'etre of Winchester: the one to one with authors, agents and publishers. Their mistake was only allowing 9 minutes, stupid really when you consider most were late getting there. Some gems were given...mostly depondent about the chances of publication! So I won't be another J.K.Rowling this year. 2011 perhaps?
  • I would just like to clarify, as per Lou's 10th point, my main character Dorothy is not at all based upon our own beloved Dorothyd...at least, for her sake, I hope not.

    I must also say that this is highly useful stuff, so thanks Lou.
  • Fantastic notes Lou - thank you. I shall bookmark these to come back to again - and again.
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