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Walking the Talk – part two in a series

Walking the Talk – part two in a series

For Feedback Friday last week, we wanted to look at whether your characters are multi-dimensional.

We asked: does your character have physical sensations? Memories? Characteristic patterns of behaviour / speech / thought? Do they have real-seeming interactions with other characters, where those interactions honour the individuality of each person? Does the character have a sense of humour? And so on.

It’s a hard task, actually, because it would never make sense to cram every character dimension into a single 300-word passage. Quite the opposite. Those multiple dimensions are there to be called on as and when the story demands. If the story doesn’t demand (say) the character remembering stuff from their childhood, it would make no sense to try and insert some Interesting Recollection, just for the sake of it. My forthcoming novel might have, I don’t know, perhaps a dozen significant memories in the space of 10,000 words, and that feels plenty.

Also: although we tend to separate things like Character and Settings for the purposes of teaching people how to write, those things should always bleed into each other.

If you’re seeing an autumn wood through the eyes of your character, the reader should experience both wood and character. It’s always X’s experience of Y that the reader wants to encounter.

So – and again as part of my ‘walking the talk’ series of emails, I thought I’d take an extended chunk of my forthcoming book and talk through how I personally handle these challenges.

The point here isn’t so much “I’m a really great writer so you should do these things exactly like me.” It’s more that I feel queasy about lecturing about things if I don’t show some ability to exhibit those things in my own work – and, at the very least, I ought to try to do those things.

So here we go. Here’s a chunk from towards the end of The House at The End of the World. Fiona, a detective and my lead character, is walking in the grounds of a secure psychiatric hospital with one of its patients – Jared Coad, a former Special Forces soldier with severe mental health challenges. The situation she’s in should be acutely dangerous, but she doesn’t quite feel it that way. The passage follows, in italics. My comments are in square brackets and bold.

You might want to read the italicised passage first, before coming back to the comments.

There’s an outcrop of limestone at the tip of the headland. Glittering and pink. Orange lichen. Moss. A hardy little mat of stonecrop, a few whitish flowers still holding on.

[It looks like this paragraph is pure description, albeit voiced in Fiona’s characteristically terse manner. And, OK, it mostly is pure description. But when you really look at it, the description echoes the title and the elevator pitch. The “tip of the headland” – that is, the very outermost point of this strip of land, which itself lies ‘at the end of the world’. And that thing about the hardy mat of stonecrop and its flowers is an observation about survival – about life and death. That is the deepest theme of the entire series.]

We scramble up the rock. I hardly need assistance, but Coad offers a hand and I take it. He lifts me with that startling physical ease. A power that finds it hard to calibrate itself against my sub-fifty kilo weight.

[Coad is a very strong, fit man, so this passage characterises him a bit, but it also brings Fiona’s own physical being into play. She’s a small woman. He’s a strong man. This tiny bit of action observes those physical facts – and does so in a way that’s totally consistent with the moment.]

‘I served with a girl once,’ Coad tells me. ‘Special Reconnaissance Regiment. Part of the set-up in Hereford. She was good. Very fit. Didn’t take any shit.’

I wait for anything further, but nothing more comes. But perhaps that’s all Coad needs by way of summary. Good. Fit. Takes no shit.

I score two out of three, then.

[This is Coad’s way of talking – and Fiona’s way of not talking. It also gives voice to Fiona’s interior observation – and the reader will know Fiona well enough to know that she is good, doesn’t take any shit, but isn’t especially fit.]

‘Have you thought what you’ll do?’ I ask.

‘What? After you fuck off to whatever you fuck off to next?’


‘Yes. As in: yes, I’ve thought about it.’


‘Fuck knows. Staying here was never in the plan.’


[In fact, what happens is that Jared Coad decides to swim out to sea and drown himself. This bit of dialogue is setting up that future. But again, I hope the dialogue feels realistic, or realistic enough, and has the personality of the two participants in it: Coad’s sweary military directness, Fiona’s intelligent but economical language.]

We look at the sea for a while. There are rolls of wire out here too, but we’re on the highest point of the headland here and the wire lies below us, not out of sight exactly, but almost. Enough that it doesn’t have to bother us.

We watch for a while. The gulls. The waves. The rolling print of the wind on the water. Stippling squalls that turn the sea’s smooth watercolour into something jumpy and agitated, like the surface has been rubbed with gorse.

[Jumpy and agitated? We are approaching the climax of the book, so the sea here is providing a visual image for the mood of the story itself. And there’s something else here too. This bit of land is beautiful – a lovely part of coastal Wales – but is also, effectively, a prison with more-than-Supermax levels of security. Is it hell or heaven? It hovers between the two, but here, the wire is out of sight which means that the heaven version tends to dominate. Again, there are shades of the ‘house of the end of the world’ theme here, and the ambiguity in what the end of the world might signify.]

Coad: ‘You know, you think, if you could get out, you could just stay away from trouble. You know, like you live on some remote Scottish island or something like that. You’d be OK.’

I nod. ‘Yes. I can see why you’d think that.’

‘But then, you know, you’d meet other people. Someone would do something to piss you off. Not even a big thing. Just, you know, something.’

I think of Rashford and Edwards. Or the two builders he assaulted. The guy with his head in a cement mixer. The other tossed into a roll of razor wire.

I say, ‘Yes. Something would come along.’

‘So …’

He says nothing further, and I nudge him.

[More dialogue. Coad is worried that he wouldn’t be safe out in the world, so, for him, leaving this hospital is probably not an option. Fiona agrees with that opinion, but here a little fragment of memory comes into play – remembering the violent incidents that brought him here as patient – and her here as detective.]

‘I should get going. It’s almost twenty to seven.’

‘OK. Yeah. OK.’

We walk back to the hospital, taking a looping route to stay clear of the admin wing, the view from their windows. Coad says that before seven o’clock, there won’t be any staff activity on A-Wing itself. That we’ll be in the clear.

That’s all very well, but as we arrive back, the patients are still at their windows. There’s more clapping. Also, a few mimed suggestions as to what we might have been doing out on the headland.

[The other patients – also psychiatric inpatients with a history of violence – can observe Fiona and Coad on their walk. The ‘mimed suggestions’ are obviously crude and, given the men involved, probably very crude. Fiona is conscious of the sexual chemistry between her and Coad but she’s also a woman with an appropriate sense of her personal boundaries. That phrase picks through those issues as well as she can – but in doing so acknowledges herself as a sexual being – yet another dimension of character.]

Coad says, ‘Don’t worry about those arseholes. I’ll deal with them.’

‘Does “deal with them” mean “beat them senseless”? If so, maybe you could just leave it.’

‘Sure?’ he asks, as though querying a takeaway order.

‘Yes, Jared. I’m sure.’

‘OK. That’s good. Swinford’s a big fucker.’

That makes me laugh. I’m not an unqualified admirer of all of Coad’s choices, but he has a basic integrity that I like.

I say, ‘Oh, I bet you could take him.’

[There’s some authority here from Fiona – authority and wisdom. She understands what ‘deal with them’ is likely to mean and steps in to avert some unnecessary acts of violence. Also: we see Fiona here (and Coad) as moral creatures: each operating according to their own code of integrity. The moral dimension is pretty much essential to any deeply considered character.]

I butt his upper arm with my head and reach for his hand. We walk hand in hand to the hospital. I can’t quite look directly, but I have this sense that Coad is going red. But he clearly likes it. He holds my hand in a grip that’s too firm, but also gentle. We feel like a boy and a girl on their first date. Not a modern one, even. Like some pair from the fifties, where he’s come round to fetch me from my parents, calling my father sir, and bringing a little gift for my mother. I’m the same. I’m in my flared skirt with a short-sleeved blouse and bobby socks and hairband. I am a thing of pastel prettiness and line-dried cotton, and Coad is a young man of seventeen, with short hair, meticulously gelled, and a smart jacket, and an ironed shirt, and no injuries, no damage, no war, no history.

[This is pure fantasy, of course. Coad is about to die and Fiona’s life too is about to be in serious danger. Also, Fiona is about as far from a thing of ‘pastel prettiness and line-dried cotton’ as you can get. She knows that perfectly well too. So what is this passage about? I think it has to do with a yearning for a simplicity greater than either of these two can manage. And yes, there’s some sexual desire going on here, but the desire for a world without violent complication is even more prominent than that. It’s like the whole ‘house at the end of the world’ idea has been scrubbed away and replaced by this lovely – and utterly impossible – fantasy.]

I’m acutely self-conscious, saved only by the belief that he’s the same. He squeezes my hand in an on-off-on rhythm that’s meant for my reassurance, I think, but is also for his.

We march stiffly to the door at the base of A-Wing. He opens the door – with his keycard, of course. Except for my presence here, this is all within normal hospital limits. He holds it open for me, a good boy, attentive and courteous.

I go through. My card, the regular one, permits me to exit any red-zoned area. It gives me access to my staircase and my tower and my room and my safety.

I am on the threshold of my parents’ house again. There are moths fluttering in the porchlight. My hair-gelled beau has delivered me safely home and I have a decision to make.

I stand on tip-toe and kiss Coad on the mouth, again. Privately, just for him, no one watching, no public display.

More than a sister. Less than a lover.

As I pull away, I give him real eye contact too. His grey-blue eyes fix on mine. The intensity is there. The troubled quality. But something else too. A softness. Gratitude maybe, although I have as many reasons to be grateful to him.

[And we’ve returned to the world of the hospital with its keycards and red-zones and all of that. The kiss seals some kind of deal that they have. Some kind of sexual/romantic agreement, but also an agreement that has to do with the remaining action in the story. The gratitude they feel to each other is another character dimension in operation.]

Doing this exercise surprised me, in fact. I was startled to see how deeply and repetitively the themes of the novel emerge in the text: that hardy stonecrop and its flowers that just about manage to survive. I didn’t put that in because I was thinking about my elevator pitch. But I’ve so deeply absorbed and understood that pitch, it just pops up whether I’m thinking about it or not. That’s nice to see.

And when I started this, I thought, “Oh gosh, I’m not going to find that many character dimensions in any one bit of text.” But this chunk (about 900 words in total) has physical observation of the landscape, thinks of Fiona as a physical being, as a sexual one, as one with memories and gratitude and humour and authority and morality and desire. Now, OK, this is an important passage between the book’s two most important characters. It needed to be fairly rich. Other passages of equal length might be significantly less rich in dimensionality.

But that, roughly, is what character multi-dimensionality should look like. Not something to be forced into the text, but something that arises naturally when you write well and know your character intimately.

Feedback Friday

Write with Jericho Week #6 / Dialogue

If you’ve registered for the course, you’ll already have received the course material.

If you’re a Premium Member and you haven’t registered, you can find the course material here. You can register yourself, for free, to get the same material by email.

If you’re not a Premium Member, and want to be, here’s what you need to do next.

Whether or not you are a Premium Member, I’d love you to participate.

Whether or not you are a Premium Member, I’d love you to participate.

A really brilliant task this week.

I want you to choose a scene (max 300 words) between two different characters in which each wants something from the other and are trying to get what they want (eg: money, information, intimacy, etc).

The key here will be not just the conflict, but some sense of subtext heaving under the surface. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

I want:



A line or two of context for the scene & characters

The scene itself, max 300 words

That’s it from me. Share yours here as a ‘New Discussion’ and include a sensible title, eg: ‘Voice Task, Option X, [Title of your WIP]’. Also, if you’re looking for some top tips to help you search Townhouse better, take a look at this thread.

Til soon.


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