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I read this brilliant book over my Christmas break in Europe, and wanted to share what I learned from it in terms of character-based writing.
‘A Week In December' is my favourite Sebastian Faulks so far, which is saying something as he has written some fantastic books. Here are my lessons learned.
- Use extreme detail. The book takes place over 1 week in the lives of 7 characters, each of whom are portrayed in incredible detail in terms of their appearance, what they like, where they live and how they interact with other people. There is also a lot of back story and internal narrative, where the characters inner lives are explored. This is not “show, don't tell”, but it works nonetheless. The description of the 16 year old druggie Finbar's bedroom is perfect (Faulks does have teens!)
- Plot is character arc. Not much happens in terms of actual events in the book, but the plot is less important than the experiences of the characters, known as the character arc. As someone who reads a lot of thrillers where action is paramount, I loved the slow pace of the book but I was still desperate to know what happened to each person by the end. There is a resolution for all of them, and not what you expect (or hope for) in some cases. Faulks can obviously do fast-paced thrillers too as he is the author of the next Bond book. Luckily, “Bond doesn't have an inner life”!
- Use dialogue to break up narrative. There are sections of narrative about each character that include back story and interior thought. This is broken up by dialogue that re-anchors the reader in that specific time and place so you don't get lost in pure narrative.
- Use external events to react to. The looming global financial crisis becomes an opportunity for great riches, a reality TV program goes too far, suicide bombers threaten the UK, the political landscape is fraught and the internet and life online is a continuing theme. These are events we are all aware of and can therefore understand the reactions of the people involved. It makes the book immediate and rooted in time and space (which might not help the longevity of the novel perhaps).
- Research the character. John Veals is a hedge-fund manager and trader. The book tracks his plans to use the looming crash of a bank and the subsequent financial crisis to make squillions of pounds. I learnt a lot about hedge funds reading those sections, and also the mind of someone who is consumed by money. Faulks can presumably write the frustrated book reviewer R Tranter easily, but he had to do his research to portray John Veals. Unfortunately, his research into Islam has got Faulks into hot water in the British press.
- Make them believable and real. Hassan is the young man who gets recruited for a suicide bomb attack. If you have been to Londonistan, you will know how multi-cultural it is and how this could easily happen. However, the Islamic suicide bomber is now an archetype with little reality or humanity and is always portrayed as the villain. But Hassan's Dad is up for an OBE for services to catering with his Indian lime pickle business, and his friend is a modern Muslim woman and we see his world through his eyes. Hassan is therefore believable and real.
Setting as a character. I was in London when I bought the book so I was already overcome with nostalgia and love for my home country. It was in my basket after the very first page where Faulks nails a winter's day in London. The stories here could exist only in London because it is so pivotal to the book itself, almost as another character. I loved this about the book as it grounds the characters in a reality I know. (If you haven't been to London, it is still a fantastic book!) For another writer who uses setting to great effect, listen to Mur Lafferty interviewing China Mieville about ‘The City and the City' here.
- Linking the stories of the characters. The people in the book are linked by people they know, but also devices in the book that intertwine the stories. A TV show several are watching, a dinner party they will attend, a website or a bike with no lights on almost knocking them over. I found this extremely clever as Faulks must have had a hell of an outline or meta-document to make all those links throughout the book. Impressive!
As a newbie fiction writer, I love to share my lessons learned. Here are some extra ones from Holly Lisle on characters:
- Don't start with a name or physical description as you bring too many preconceptions to the table. (Of course, I have already done this and am finding the name of my protagonist is now possibly a problem!)
- Give the character a problem or situation to start off with, and that will get you going
- Empathize with your characters, even the evil ones.