In amongst the Christmas parties I’ve been trying to catch up with the course. Officially it’s finished now; I still have Weeks 7 & 8 to complete. But judging from the comments on the Future Learn site, I’m not the only one. I was concerned that my slow progress would mean I would get no feedback from some of the longer pieces of writing towards the end of the course, but it seems plenty of people are in the same boat. Anyway, here are some of the highlights from Weeks 5 & 6.
Challenging expectations: Having been encouraged to think on ideas for unconventional characters (in attempt to avoid stereotypes), I decided to write about a man who was an experienced hunter, but was also scared of blood. It seemed like an almost laughable situation but I had a lot of fun writing him into a situation and thinking about why he would put himself into these situations.
Walking slowly and treading lightly amongst the trees, Darron kept his eyes to the sky. He had seen the pheasants land near here. They should be grounded, less than two hundred metres away. He needed to get closer. His companion skulked behind. Sparky was a Springer Spaniel, young, enthusiastic – but inexperienced. He had only accompanied Darron on two hunts prior to this one. He knew he needed to be quiet, but he didn’t understand why. Darron could sense the eagerness in the pup to bark and run and enjoy this time outside with his owner.
There was a flutter of wings to his right; he turned his head and saw Sparky had already begun bounding through the undergrowth. “Good boy” he muttered under his breath as he followed. The dog had reacted just as quickly, if not quicker, than Darron himself; a hunter of twenty-five years no less. He was still learning, but there was potential for him to be much more than just a house-dog.
The commotion caused by Sparky, now barking wildly, inevitably caused the flush; around a dozen pheasants sprang up suddenly from between the trees and began to flap desperately to freedom. Darron brought his shotgun effortlessly up to his shoulder, took a deep breath, and fired. A good connection, at least two pheasants dropped like lead weights. Another had been winged, and spiralled more slowly towards the ground. He had noticed some spray of blood…blood, but he forced that from his mind.
As he entered a clearing in the trees, he could see the two pheasants that had been killed instantly, but no sign of the third. “Spark!” he yelled. He heard a muffled growl, and knew that Sparky was currently finishing off the third pheasant. “Sparky!” he cried, louder and more desperate than before. The spaniel emerged from the bush, along with what was left of the pheasant.
He tried to shout again, for Sparky to drop his prize, but his voice cracked and sounded weak. The dog cantered over with the pheasants neck clamped between his teeth. Blood covered the dog’s snout and paws. Darron tried to look away but he had already seen the blood. The dog was at his feet now, but Darron looked straight up at the sky, inhaling deeply. The dog licked his hand, and he knew instantly that there was now blood on his hand, and if he touched his face with that hand there would be blood on his face. He looked down to try and reassure Sparky, who wasn’t happy at being ignored. His bark was distant, and echoing. All Darron could see was a red patch of blood, with eyes and teeth.
He stumbled backwards. There were flashes of previous hunts; a buck being struck in the neck, throwing a burst of arterial spray into the air. A knife plunged deep into the throat of a charging wild boar. The blood. There was always blood, and when Darron came back around he was face down in the mud and leaves of the wintery earth.
Character sketch: A more detailed attempt to construct a character. This time we were permitted to submit a passage of around 500 words and receive feedback, as well as giving constructive criticism on a number of other pieces of writing from others on the course. Having been shown a number of examples of how to convey character (appearance, behaviour, habit etc), we were asked to test these and introduce a character from a third person perspective. The passage below was a scene I had pictured earlier in the week of a meeting taking place in the near future, where medicine and biotechnology has allowed longer lifespans and age prevention. It’s something that fascinates me, and I’d love to write a story in more depth based on the (very vague) premise I have begun to explore in the character below.
His appearance was that of artificial youth. At the age of sixty-seven, he had a thick head of dark hair, not a hint of grey. An audacious smile accompanied his flawless complexion. “Ahhhh! You are here! Please, come in”, he gesticulated with enthusiasm and vigour, ushering us into the building. It was his voice that made me weary. It had been altered, certainly, but it could not completely mask the wisdom and weariness contained within a man who was appeared younger than he was.
After twisting and turning down a narrow hallway we entered a long, dimly lit space, sparsely furnished. The ceiling was high, and as I craned by neck up I noticed several skylights sending in the last of the dusky sunlight. Many of them were missing glass panes and it was cold in here. Litter was scattered between breeze blocks and building materials. There was heavy machinery reverberating somewhere within the complex. Two worn sofas sandwiched a wood stove in the corner, and as the groups footsteps echoed around the room, it seemed this was where the interview would take place.
He gestured for us to take a seat, and an apparently young girl offered us refreshments. As we were waiting, he began to speak. “You don’t mind the surroundings, I hope?” he looked, suddenly concerned and aware of the dilapidation. The group looked uneasily at each other, then around the room, then back towards him. I shook my head. “Of course not. We are guests. Wherever you feel comfortable is just fine by us.”
He appeared relieved, and exhaled deeply. “Good. Excellent! It’s my rec room.” he paused, looking in turn at all three of us. “Do you know this term? Rec room? Like a room for…activities, for lack of a better word. I want a pool table, a couple of plasma screens, ambient lighting, the works.” He paused again and smiled, sensing our apprehension. A grin broke out across his face. “Hey! Come on, relax. This will be fun!”
He proceeded to small talk us until the young girl brought us our drinks. He kept the conversation light, and was eager to ask us about ourselves. For me at least, it was deeply uncomfortable. I made several attempts to change the tone, to discuss why we were really here and every time I was shot down. He was stalling, deflecting the attention from himself.
He had once feared the medical revolution I realised. There was an act in play here, and this man had practised it to perfection. He had been weak and scared. He had been forced to embrace the changes, to adapt with science and technology, and it had seemingly worked. He was successful, he was rejuvenated; but as the fire died and the glint in his surgically engineered corneas began to fade, I wondered at what cost.
I was really pleased with Jane’s review, particularly how she picked up on the contrast in the character’s appearance and his surroundings. It was a fantastic feeling to receive some praise and encouragement for a piece of writing I was really happy with.
This review from Mike was a little more grounded. There was some (constructive) criticism which was noted and I was appreciative. I agree that it could have done with further editing. However, some points (wanting to know as much as the narrator did about this man) felt a little unreasonable. In a passage of around 500 words, my hands were tied. I wanted to focus on the character’s appearance and behaviour, while merely hinting at his importance at this point.
Building a new character: Several methods of character profiling were shown to us, to help us get to know potential characters in more detail. They ranged from writing several pages and thousands of words, detailing every single piece of information about a character, to a more rigid set of guidelines (shown below) that we could almost ‘tick off’ as if it were a character checklist.
- Physical/biological: age, height, size, state of health, assets, flaws, sexuality, gait, voice.
- Psychological: intelligence, temperament, happiness/unhappiness, attitudes, self-knowledge, unconscious aspects.
- Interpersonal/cultural: family, friends, colleagues, birthplace, education, hobbies, beliefs, values, lifestyle.
- Personal history: major events in their life, including the best and the most traumatic times.
I was drawn to a middle ground between the two methods. Simply writing pages and pages about a character seemed a little intimidating and too much like hard work, but I found myself wanting to write more than just a few simple words. So short sentences, bits and pieces scattered around to paint a picture of my character, worked best for me. Below is my thought process for a new character.
Physical/biological: 86. 5ft10. Lean, thin. Usual ailments due to old age but generally in fantastic condition. Still has some hair, grey. Deep creases and wrinkles in face, age beginning to show after a very graceful ageing process. Owns farm. Beginning to lose his faculties/Alzheimer’s. Widower, has been alone for 10 years. Strong voice that is beginning to quaver. Walks tall, but slowly, surprisingly strong for his age but beginning to weaken.
Psychological: Intelligent – has a mind for details, certain memories that he likes to recall and repeat. It comforts him. He does not like how the world has changed in the years since the war. Calm and likes to keep himself to himself, but enjoys the company of his family. Wary of strangers and people he doesn’t know. Happy when around family. Unhappy of his age, his failing body, his failing mind. Is reminded of his wife constantly which is bittersweet. Self knowledge, unconscious aspects.
Interpersonal/cultural: He has a strong interest in cricket/football and other sports, and was excellent at several sports in his youth. He was born in the UK and still resides there but in a much quieter area, farmland. No friends – many have died, moved or has lost contact with them. only family. he is hard working and honest. he cannot farm anymore as he is too old, so is starting to feel like this is it. bored at times? conflicted relationship with religion. was devout christian before war, then through his experiences of horror had a crisis of faith. as he has forgotten certain aspects, his faith has returned. but it is extremely traumatic when he has flashbacks, as this further causes him to question his faith.
Personal History: Fought in the/a war. Remembers incredible details about these days but not so much these days. Best – wife, children, war hero. Worst – the war, losing friends, losing wife. Losing respect of family as he gets older. Struggles to find worth in this new world.
I have written some extended passages of this character; both in first and third person, as I tend to avoid writing in first. However, I feel a little uncomfortable sharing it. Mainly as it was a bit of free writing, and in its current state is completely unedited and a bit all over the place. But this character is also very loosely based on someone I know, albeit a far more exaggerated version. It feels far more personal than other characters I have written about, as they have all come from other sources rather than being a copy of an actual person. Perhaps I’ll clean it up a bit and post it at a later date.
Starting to write your story: The rest of Week 6 was devoted to making a start on our short story – this story will be the main emphasis of the final two weeks of the course. I have a few ideas, but with a word limit of 1000 words, I may have to downscale some of my ideas or use something slightly less ambitious. The course has said we can submit a passage which is the start of a larger story, but I like the challenge of creating something self-containing, that stands up on its own. But as the course has officially finished, I’ll need to get these next two weeks done ASAP, or I’ll still be thinking about it well into 2015.
Which reminds me…Happy New Year.