Friday, 27 January 2012


How do you get your character into focus?

How do you create a character? Do they spring forth from your imagination like Athena, fully formed from the forehead of Zeus? Do you start with one aspect, say “this character has a weakness for gambling” and let their tale unfold? Or are characters simply ciphers to drive your plot along?

I do not believe any character has ever arrived fully formed. Here are some of the techniques I use to develop characters:

o THE IMPORTANCE OF BACKGROUND: If you cannot see the world your story is set in how can you expect to convince others it is real? I am not just talking about science fiction, and building strange alien worlds, but any point in history or geography. For example, did you research what it was like to grow up in Liverpool in the 1950’s before you wrote about it? How different was that to your own childhood experience of growing up in San Francisco in the 1960’s? What aspects of your own childhood can you transfer to another place or time? How do the actions of the past affected the world of today? How does the present economic situation affect your character? How do they get the money they need to pay their bills? You may write pages and pages about this that never make it into your story, there is a saying in the army: “Time spent on reconnaissance is rarely wasted.” Time so spent will enable you to write with fluency and be believed by your readers.

o GIVE THEM A CV/RESUME: This may sound like I am gilding the lilly but the more you know about a characters life the easier it is for that character to make believable decisions. It can be as detailed or as vague as you want it to be, but we have all read stories where a characters behaviour seems more driven by the plot than by their own internal weather-that is because not enough work was done to anchor them in their reality. You can also use this timeline to sort out the chronology of your story. You dovetail the character life into the events of the story.

o LIKES/DISLIKES: What does your character like? Why do they like it? This may grow out of their back story, but are we formed simply by our environment? The old Nature v Nurture debate rears its head here and you as the author must decide where you stand on it. One thing I do early on when I am forming a character is look through some magazines and ask myself what would they like on this page? I then cut out those items, let’s say a wristwatch, shoes, a colour-whatever. I past these on to some paper-I have a book, then I ask myself what is the importance of those things to the character? I write down my thoughts. I also ask myself “if this person was a...” car/table/colour-whatever; what kind of car/table/colour would they be. I then try and describe them as that object.

o WHAT DO THEY LOOK LIKE: I know that some skilled authors exclusively use dialog to describe their characters. We build up a mental portrait of the person via the words they speak, Evelyn Waugh is an excellent example of this style. Most of us are not that skilled, at least I am not. I need to use words to paint a picture of my character-even in a graphic novel, where the real work is done by the artist. As I leaf through magazines looking for items they would like, I am also looking for their face, their shape, how they move. I am not saying that one photograph, or drawing will provide me with the complete character, usually they are a composite of a number of images.

o RELATIONSHIPS: Are you influenced by your family, by your friends, do you have different relationships with different people? I know I am, so is your character. I use an old technique I learnt as a social worker, genograms (for a more detailed description: Basically this is a diagram of the people involved, in a family, a situation and symbols are used to denote the relationships between them. You can use this to chart the development of your story, you could draw a genogram at the start, another half way through to map the changes in the story/relations. Also if you are stuck you can scribble a quick genogram to orientate yourself or to track what the characters would be doing at that point.

One last thing, outside of a Victorian melodrama, people have reasons for the actions they take, people think they are acting for the best of reasons, however terrible those actions are, it is just that their perspective on the world may not be yours or mine. The techniques I've outlined above can help you develop those reasons.

So how do you create your characters?

Friday, 20 January 2012


So says Leonard Cohen in a rare interview in today’s Guardian ( As I walked back from the newsagents, this morning, reading the interview, the majority of which simply described his career, that line struck a chord with me.

The full quote was: “Some people work out of a great abundance, I’d love to be one of them, but I’m not. You just work with what you’ve got.”

Is this what you do? As I say it resonated with me. I think am a sponge, I absorb a lot, more than I think at times, but you have to write what you can write. I remember someone saying to me when they read my first poetry book Burning Music that it was “all pretty straightforward stuff.” It was for him simple, he wanted more complexity. I had to laugh, I can only do what I can do. Knowing that is a strength, a starting point.

First Book Blues

-discussing my poetry

He says to me “It’s all accessible,

Straightforward, one dimensional,

No ambiguity or esoteric turn of phrase”.

He likes his poetry dense,

Something to sink his teeth into.

Well mine is not” I tell him,

“I’m not that clever,

Let others write complex lines,

I’m just not that together,

Anyway I have to strain to get it to rhyme

This poem came out of that encounter. We have to work with what we’ve got.

This week I was reading Public Enemies by Bryan Burrows, the 2009 film with Johnny Depp was based on it. I was struck by how the public reacted to the death of John Dillinger and wrote this:

Dead Bang

John Dillinger’s Blues

People came to gawp,

To dip hankies in his blood,

The colour of coffee grounds.

The radio had told them

And they had come.

Six shots did for him,

Sunk him to his knees,

He hit the floor face first.

Before this he had:

Liked to dance the carioca;

Always wore a grey suit;

And robbed banks with

More than half an eye to the publicity.

I seem to have a habit of naming poems blues. Dead Bang is a slang term for “a bullseye, a perfect shot,” or “a perfectly appropriate phrase.” I’ll leave you to wonder what the perfect shot was.

I thought hard about this poem, it began as a series of notes jotted down as I read the book, what concerned me was that this man had killed people. I am not sure that anyone knows the exact number. Yet people came to see the spot where he was shot, to pay homage as if he were a saint.

There are no poems to his victims, or the ripples of grief and sadness caused by their untimely deaths. The FBI, apparently resorted to illegal acts themselves to fight the “War Against Crime”-illegal detentions, sleep deprivation, beatings and at least on one occasion harassing a man on his death bed. Now nearly eighty years later we can see Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Leonard DiCaprio as Hoover. I know that, especially in film, we use the past to describe the present, but it just doesn’t feel comfortable.

I also this week wrote another poem:


(seen through a window while doing Tai Chi)

Winter frost, inside for once.

Commence the form,

A car pulls up, green I note,

Focus on the breath

As they talk a lot.

It seems heated,

I take off my fleece,

They are more intense,

I play with waves,

Their hands underline their words.

I assume an affair,

Press palms, calm the Chi

They are still arguing

I go in search of a cuppa.

This is a work in progress more than the Dillinger poem. I’m not sure it works, as I moved through my Tai Chi sequence I could see the car across the road and the people in heated discussion. I wanted to counterpoint my moves with their discussion/argument-you just work with what you’ve got.

I am ending with another new poem, the bones of which arrived on Christmas Day, I jotted it down and have been playing about with it since.


For one time only, here in this universe, now, you are reading these words, at no other point in time or space, are you doing so. Relax, this is no better, or worse, than any of the many lives you are living. When you sleep, let the multiple you’s merge, for a time you will be at peace. So enjoy, whatever, you will never be here like this again.

Friday, 13 January 2012


Poetry this week, an autobiographical poem to begin with that is based on someone as the title implies that I knew in the late 1970’s. It also captures the time in which it was written, when we used to borrow a friend’s house in Falmouth for long weekends. As you will realise, if you haven’t already, I am the type of person who can spend happy hours in record shops, shifting through the racks.


He told me that Blonde on Blonde would be

His 60th birthday epiphany

Unplayed, sellotape sealed he showed me

A non-descript standard double lp

Its untouchableness strangely appealing

Fast forward nearly thirty years,

I shift dog eared records,

So much musical dreck,

Washed up in this Falmouth shop.

I turn to scan the cds,

As Blonde on Blonde begins.

The record players arm,

Matches the ocean swell.

Suddenly in this mausoleum

I think of you.

I am fifty now that makes you?

A footnote

Then In Falmouth the moment was gone,

The stacked shelves appalled,

My children called

“Come on. Dad. Come on.”

What strikes me now, if fact seems almost touching, is our belief in the 1970’s that vinyl was the ultimate medium for music. I know some people still maintain this, but I am not one, partly this is due to hearing loss, I wear a hearing aid and partly to the convenience of the I-Pod and docking station.

Sidetracking for a moment, what is your favourite Bob Dylan album? Perhaps you do not have one? A musical anorak like me would offer the following:

  • Blood on the Tracks
  • Highway 61 Revisited
  • Freewheeling

With the 1966 Manchester Free Trade Hall recording as the runner up, I find it impossible to come closer than three albums.

This is another older poem and it too was based on a real incident. It took place as the first Iraq war was starting.


In the pub with my mate Jon,

Drinking red wine and soda.

Overhearing the biased tones

Of three armchair soldiers,

Discuss the merits of each

Gun, bomb and plane.

Laughing at the enemy,

Mispronouncing every name.

My drink seems blood,

Bubbles burst and ripple,

There is no talk of brotherhood,

Only of the dead and crippled

I think it was Samuel Johnson who said that “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” a view I have always shared, but the three blokes we could hear that night were even more offensive if such a thing is possible. If I remember correctly it took place in the Wheatsheaf in Frome, and the three men were getting really excited about all the technology of death, horrid.

This last one I tend to read every time I perform. I wrote it on holiday in Greece about ten years ago. It says as much about my dislike of football (I am the odd boy who doesn’t like sport – can you name that song?) as it does about anything else.


1. It’s your name on the back and you have to wear it at work

2. You hope to be mistaken for the person whose name is on the back (possibly some of their fame will be bestowed on you as you wear it)

3. Its match day and you hope (against reason) to be asked to replace the person named on the back of the shirt as they cannot play, naturally your goal will win the match

4. To show solidarity with your chosen team, especially if yours is a rare edition shirt


Have a very good week and I leave you with a link to the new Leonard Cohen album, it will be out very soon. If you read this blog on a regular basis you will know of my love of the writings and music of Mr. Cohen and it will allow you to listen to a new song off the album.

Friday, 6 January 2012


This is the cover of the preview book of CO2. Do you like the artwork? David, the artist, has done an excellent job of bringing my words to life. I have never worked with another person before, usually I am sat in a small room typing away, but I am really enjoying working with such a talented individual. Can you tell what the photograph of the building is on the cover? Those of you who have never been to Liverpool will be at a disadvantage, it is the Liver Building. Liverpool features in one of the books that make up the first CO2 quartet: The Maplin Heresy.

Over the coming weeks I shall write about the characters and the history of the world in more detail. On the front of the book as well as the Liver Building are Shaj and her opposite Ernesto Mendoza, a Balancer, officer of The Church of The Holy Footprint. It is Mendoza’s job to ensure that the world is balanced, he is not an evil man, most people are not. He is a sincere man who believes in his faith and wants to see the whole of the world returned to a state of grace. How do you write characters? How do you give them credible motivation? The reader has to believe the actions of the character for the character to come alive, in fact, for the story to work.

There is always a tension for me when I write between developing the plot and letting the characters “live”. I think for a story to work the motivation of the characters must be believable as must their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses. Usually I have a rough idea of where I want to get to but let the characters find their own way there. How does it work for you? Are you plot or character driven?

As I write the preview of CO2 is being sent to the printers, it will soon be available from Corvus Press ( We shall be launching the book at the Cardiff International Comic Expo ( which is happening on the 25th and 26th of February. It will be a great weekend, even better than the one last year. I am really looking forward to promoting CO2 why don’t you come to the show and say hello, I'd love the chance to talk to you. Just a word of warning, it is an all ticket event and there will be no tickets available on the door. 35% of the tickets are already sold so you’ll have to get your skates on if you want a ticket. This is the second year of the Cardiff show and it is fast becoming the premier comic and small press event in the UK.

The weekend before I shall be at the Exeter Comic Expo, which is on Sunday 19th February, ( at the Rougemont Thistle Hotel and it promises to be a good day out, I am looking forward to meeting some of the artists. I've never been to the show before and I am sure it will be really good fun. Why not come and join me.