Sunday, August 7, 2011

Fibro Q&A: How to create characters (and give each their own voice)

I first met Kylie Ladd on Twitter about 18 months ago. At that stage, I was unaware she was a novelist - I just had a girl-crush on her ability to be funny, witty and personable in 140 characters. When I heard she had a book - After The Fall - I simply had to buy it, to see how she went over a longer format. 

She went well. In fact, After The Fall was easily one of my favourite books of 2010. With four main characters, multiple viewpoints and a plot about tangled relationships, the possibility was there for it all to go horribly wrong but, instead, it was an absorbing and insightful read. Not surprising, I guess, considering Kylie's background in neuropsychology.

Her new book, Last Summer, takes the multiple viewpoints of After The Fall and raises the bar even further. Told from the points of view of nine people mourning the loss of one man, it explores loss, marriage, Liberally sprinkled with sexual references. 

One of the things I love about Kylie's writing are the tiny composite pieces that make up her characters. The smallest details are often the most telling. It's not surprising then that Kylie Ladd's time in the Fibro  should centre around character. Specifically, how she creates such three-dimensional characters - and how she keeps all those voices straight!

In both After the Fall and Last Summer, you worked with multiple viewpoints. What is the key to keeping all those different voices straight?
Kylie Ladd: "Planning! I'm a bit of a planning addict, as you know, and I certainly love a spreadsheet or two. I use notes to keep track of character attributes, but I also keep a fairly detailed running spreadsheet that summarises what's happened in each chapter (whose point of view (POV) it was, what happened but also any particular themes and emotions I wanted to convey or develop) and I can also use to look ahead and sketch particular developments for particular characters. Sometimes with all those spreadsheets open my laptop makes me look like an accountant rather than a novelist, but whatever works... "

I know that you do a lot of work on your characters before you even begin. How do you build them?
KL: "Actually I'm not sure I do, or that I do enough... I think that while I often have ideas for characters and sketch them down before I start the novel, the character only really evolves and becomes clear to me as I get into the writing. As a result I find that the bulk of my edits are usually in the first third of the book, where I'm still figuring out exactly who I'm writing about. 

Kelly in Last Summer is one example... I had planned her first chapter, where she gives Rory's eulogy, and thought it - and she - were fairly straightforward. But then I got almost to the end, where she returns to her seat in the congregation next to her husband Joe:

"Joe reached for her as she shuffled down the pew, the arm that went around her shoulders as solid as marble. She squeezed her eyes shut and breathed in his scent: timber, sweat. Girls were supposed to marry someone who reminded them of their fathers, weren't they? Yet here she was holding on for dear life to someone who smelled just like her brother."

That bit just came to me as I was writing, but once it did it made Kelly, and her relationship with Rory, so much clearer to me. I went back and re-wrote the chapter, but after that Kelly was set in my mind, and her subsequent scenes were far easier. 

Something I also want to mention briefly is character names. I agonise over choosing these, but to me (rightly or wrongly) names are important, and can define a character, can give you a start on getting to grips with them. Sometimes names are attached to an important personal history, as in Trinity's case, but even if the name is as straightforward as Joe's I still think (or hope) that that conveys something - in this case a lack of pretension, of frills; a straight-shooter. That said, I have never, ever liked my own Christian name... maybe I'm trying compensate when I name my characters."

How do you get into the right mindset to write your male characters? What are the keys to keeping a man 'real' (so to speak)?
KL: "To be honest, I don't approach or even think about writing male characters any differently than I do my female ones. Maybe I should, but to me gender is secondary- we're all people first, we all have fears and hopes, regrets and ambitions, and that's the stuff that really interests me. I don't believe that deep down men and women are really that different, so I don't approach writing them any differently.  OK, men talk about cricket more - but that wasn't hard to bring to life in Last Summer because I live with one like that!"

Do you find that everyone you know looks for themselves in the characters you create? Do you ever use tics and foibles of people that you know?
KL: "Of course I do. Any writer that says they don't is lying! How can you not, even if only subconsciously? I would never model an entire character on someone I knew - that feels like cheating, somehow, as well as being bound to play havoc with your personal relationships - but I'm not at all averse to picking up the odd tic or foible, as you say. 

As a literary device, they're useful for delineating characters, but more importantly I think they also
say a lot about who a character is - in Last Summer, Kelly's habit of driving through roundabouts in third gear, too impatient to change down, or Anita fretting about letting her only child eat junk food. And yes, I'm sure people I know look for themselves in my characters... but that's the danger of being friendly with a novelist. As Nora Ephron once said "Everything is copy." She's damn right. They've been warned."

Are you working on a new novel? What was the 'spark' for it?
KL: "I am about 1000 words off finishing my (fingers crossed) next novel. After near-drowning in a sea of my own words for the last 18 months or so it's a huge relief to finally see land. Of course, this is only a first draft, so there's heaps of pain to go yet - nonetheless, I'm pleased that (until I see my editor's report, of course) I think I've achieved what I wanted to. 

I am hideously superstitious about talking about work that isn't contracted to be published, so sorry, but I can't say much... I will say though that this novel is about the different ways we make - or find - family, and whether or not blood matters. At this point it's called Into My Arms. I hope Nick Cave doesn't mind."

You can buy Last Summer here at Booktopia. Visit Kylie Ladd at her website, or go say hello on Twitter (she's worth it!).


  1. Thanks for an informative post. It's always fascinating to hear how a writer balances writing into the unknown vs mapping out their journey methodically.

    Spreadsheets do sound sensible. I always end up with a notebook full of scribbles and funny little grids. Not very efficient!

  2. Been away from the Fibro too long! That was a great post to read... Thanks to you for the interview which provided me with many insights into Kylie's processes. Loved the planning. Thanks A!

  3. Absolutely fascinating. I love this sort of insight. Would love to read this - stupid UK Amazon doesn't stock it - hopefully it will be on Kindle.

    I've tried writing in multiple viewpoints and found it really hard. Especially the male voice, so have real respect for you Kylie.

    Lots of things resonated on here for me - currently re-reading some Nora Ephron and love Nick Cave. He lives in my city - whenever I see him, he's always doing something really mundane. He was seen waving one of those giant foam hands about at the theatre - somewhat ruined his street cred there.

    Great interview. Have you two ever met in real life?

  4. Hard not to develop a girl crush on Kylie. Her methodical approach to her writing fascinates me - a little bit art, a little bit science. These are on my must read list.
    Great post.

  5. Oh thank you Al, Kylie is one of my favourite authors and Twitterers! I absolutely loved After the Fall, and Last Summer was certainly a fantastic read.
    Kylie has an amazing talent of developing her characters and what an amazing insight into her brilliant mind.
    ♥ you both x

  6. I love Kylie's characters, so this was really insightful. I am always amazed that anyone even finishes a whole book, let alone does it so beautifully. To finish more than one... well... x

  7. I'm even more dying to read it, if that's possible! Must finish "Claudia's Big Break" SOON!

    Loved the interview. xx

  8. I just finished reading Last Summer last night so this post has perfect timing for me :-) (otherwise I wouldn't have read it - I hate even the tiniest trace of a spoiler - I don't even read back covers). Anyway yes I was totally enthralled with how Kylie created so many characters that I could actually keep track of and keep wondering and thinking about - it really is a fantastic book - and now I know it's all about using spreadsheets! Who knew?!

  9. I simply devoured every word of this post - Kylie Ladd, you are a gem for sharing these wise and wonderful words! Now, off to find copies of your books to lose myself in...

  10. Hey thanks for sharing the interview. I'm keen to get my hands on both Kylie's books now!

  11. Intriguing! Love to read about a writer's method. I must get a copy of this book. It seems to be the book everyone is talking about.

    Coincidentally we are doing "characters" for this week's WoW. I'm going to add this timely post as a link for a little extra reading!


  12. Great questions Ali! Love these insights into Kylie's writing. Must get my hands on After the Fall :)

  13. Al, I LOVED reading this. Great questions! It was particularly interesting for me having finished Last Summer and loving it.

    Kylie - you know you're one of my fave authors now, and just reading that short little piece of info there about your next novel...I'm all excited! :)

    I have def found, having started a recurring story for InkPaperPen's Write on Weds, that my characters have really formed each week - almost taken on a life of their own - and now I have a pretty clear idea as to who they are. Altho I'm not quite writing on the same level (!), it's what I find interesting and exciting about writing a little fiction. Seeing characters emerge and take on a life of their own. ;)

    Great stuff, thank you both! xxxx

  14. Thanks so much for this Allison & Kylie.
    I'm always fascinated by the different process writers have, particularly the approach to character. And I definitely agree it takes awhile to work out who they are - no matter how much work you do before you start writing, once the story starts they react in some unexpected ways!
    Last Summer is a wonderful book, very moving.


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