Winchester Writers’ Conference, 2011, Part One: Characters

7 Jul 2011 | Fiction

As you might have seen in my last post, or on Twitter (I’m @aliventures), I was away last weekend at the annual Winchester Writers’ Conference here in the UK. Run by the energetic, lovely and irrepressible Barbara Large, it’s a great festival of all things writing-related.

So … I figured you’d like to hear about what I learned.

I’m going to start with characters:

Mini Course: Building Characters (with Lorna Fergusson of

On the Friday, Lorna delivered a whole mini-course on building characters, and gave tons of specific advice, tips and exercises.

I have eighteen pages of notes from this course (!) so I’ll focus on just a few of the key points that I took away:

  • We’re interested in characters, and particularly fascinated by characters who grow. We don’t necessarily need to like them or admire them in order to identify with them. (Case in point: when Lorna asked us to write down our three favourite fictional characters, my top one was Hannibal Lector … read into that what you will!)
  • Stereotypes aren’t necessarily a bad thing. In some stories, or some situations, we just want to bring on a character who the reader will instantly recognise. In genre fiction, readers expect a stock hero/heroine, but you can give your character a unique angle. (Think Sherlock Holmes, with his violin-playing and cocaine habit.)
  • Find out your strengths as a writer, and use them. You don’t have to be all things to all people! With characterisation, you don’t have to use every method possible. For instance, you might be good at using dialogue to convey character.
  • Physical description is just one way to show a character, and it’s hard to do well. Be precise and focus on what’s important: don’t give the reader a top-to-toe description. Think about clothing, environment (the character’s home), where they shop, any totemic items, and so on.
  • You may or may not want to convey the character’s inner life. In some genres, like thrillers, readers aren’t expecting psychological insights. In others, like chick lit, the reader will expect to get inside the protagonist’s head. It can be particularly powerful to focus on a character whose viewpoint is limited – e.g. Christopher, with Aspergers, in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night Time or five-year-old Jack in Emma Donaghue’s Room.

Lorna is a fantastic teacher and writer, and if you’re in the UK, I highly recommend trying to attend one of her day courses in Oxford – you can get details on her website, fictionfire. She blogs at literascribe and you can find her on Twitter as @LornaFergusson.

A Writing Exercise

I’ve come across this exercise before, and it’s a great one for getting started on a piece of fiction. Lorna took us through it in the class (and it was fun to hear what objects other people had been given, and what they came up with!)

Write lots of different objects onto a sheet of paper: they can be completely mundane, or unusual. Cut it into slips and pick three at random. Write about a character who has all three objects.

When Lorna handed out her slips of paper, I ended up with “keyring”, “timetable” and “thong”… no, I won’t share the resulting story with you. 😉

If you want to try this exercise, here’s a list of objects that I’ve come up with:

  • Hat
  • Reading spectacles
  • Teddy bear
  • Spade
  • Clothes peg
  • Business card
  • Wig
  • Racy novel
  • Flashlight
  • iPhone
  • Inflatable beach ball
  • Nose ring

Great Quotes

One of the (many!) things that I love about Lorna is that she produces comprehensive handouts for her courses. She gave us two pages of fantastic quotes about characters. I particularly loved these two, debunking the myth that characters “run away” from their authors:

The legend that characters run away from their authors … implies that the writer is a fool with no knowledge or mastery of his craft. … the idea of authors running around helplessly behind their cretinous inventions is contemptible. (John Cheever)

My characters run away but not far. (Bernard Malamud)

(For full effect on the second one, read it in a kinda sinister tone…)

Recommended Resources

Lorna mentioned a couple of books, and a web page:

The Book of Tells ( /, by Peter Collett

This is a guide to body language – how we express ourselves physically. It looks like a fascinating book for anyone interested in deeper characterisation, and I’ve ordered a copy from Amazon.

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers ( /, by Christopher Vogler

I’ve heard this book recommended multiple times, so I’ve ordered this one too. It breaks down stories into key elements, and characters into key archetypes. (Note that several reviews mention the small print of the current UK edition – you may want to go for an older, second-hand version.)

Look out for some book reviews here on Aliventures in a few weeks… 😉

100 Favourite Fictional Characters … as Chosen by 100 Literary Luminaries

This series, from The Independent, goes through a bunch of favourite characters. I’m particularly pleased to see that my personal favourite makes the list:

Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter has exquisite taste, is well read, surrounds himself with utter beauty and is the meanest killing machine on the face of the literary earth. I wouldn’t mind him eating my kidneys as long as he fed me an excellent bottle of red wine beforehand. (Pauline McLynn, comedian and author)


Hope that provides plenty to think about! If you’ve got any questions about creating and depicting characters, pop a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer. 🙂

In my next post, I’ll be going through some more great advice gleaned from the Winchester Writer’s Conference: make sure you grab the RSS feed or pop your email address in the box below to have my posts sent straight to your inbox:

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I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.

Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.

My Novels

My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.

You can buy them all from Amazon, or read them FREE in Kindle Unlimited.


  1. Lorna Fergusson

    Hi Ali,
    Thanks so much for this! It was lovely to see you – and the class as a whole were a delight to teach. The random choice of objects exercise is one of my favourites too!
    Lorna x

    • Ali

      Thanks Lorna! I really enjoyed the class – lovely bunch of people, as you say. 🙂 Roll on next year..!

  2. McKenzie McCann

    That writing exercise sounds like a lot of fun. I smell the makings of a good short story.

    Thanks for sharing what you learned. I don’t have the opportunity to make it to many conferences, so I really appreciate it.

    • Ali

      Thanks McKenzie – it’s great to know that this is useful!

  3. Cinette

    I have The Writer’s Journey, but The Book of Tells sounds like an interesting read. I’ll have to check it out.
    Very informative post, by the way!

    • Ali

      Cheers! I might well blog about The Book of Tells (possibly in combination with some writing tips) in the future…

  4. Ace

    Heyy嶸召禾. I enjoy your whimsical and affective lessons and I enjoy your interesting blog on writers philosophy. It is helpful, and definitely not the most quintessential blog of it’s kind. Your élan personality lights up a room. 🙂
    ~Ace Louraine Widow~

    • Ali

      Thanks Ace, glad you’re enjoying it. 🙂

  5. Archan Mehta


    Thank You.

    Great that you are attending such seminars, convocations and conferences. More power to you.

    Yes, Sherlock Holmes: wow, what a character. His cocaine habit and playing of the violin–that makes him unique. Apart from reading his works, I have also watched the TV series: Holmes is played by the British actor, Jeremy Brett, if memory serves. Brett: what a terrific actor. The romance of Holmes lives on.

    Have you seen the movie, “The Silence of the Lambs?” Amazing actor, Anthony Hopkins. British, I believe.
    It was a terrific movie, one of the most memorable in recent memory. Your post served as a reminder. Cheers.

    • Ali

      I haven’t actually seen the movie (I probably should!) I read the book, because when Silence of the Lambs was big, I was about 15 and too young to see it. There’s (rightly or wrongly…) no age rating on books, however…

      I did see Silence! (a sort of musical spoof/homage to Silence of the Lambs) in London a couple of years back, though…

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