Using Real, Historical People in Fiction by Michael Pryor

October 25, 2013

Writers have many challenges. Getting a pencil to a perfect sharp point. Coming up with alternatives to ‘Once upon a time’ to start a story. Finding time to count our enormous sacks of money. Things like that. With The Extraordinaires, my most recently released series I encountered a challenge that I hadn’t confronted before: the intricacies of using a real life character in a work of fiction.

One of the joys of writing fiction is being allowed to make up stuff. It’s fun, and when you’re a Fantasy writer, you get to make up huge bucketloads of stuff, which is extra fun. So when, for a change, I decided to set a book in the real world and include some real, famous people as characters, I had to do something different. I had to stick to the facts.

The main character of my story – Kingsley Ward – is totally made up, but in the course of the novel he runs into the real life author Rudyard Kipling, who is fascinated by Kingsley because Kingsley was raised by wolves.

The connection, of course, comes about because of one of Kipling’s most famous creations –  Mowgli, the hero of Kipling’s hugely successful ‘The Jungle Book’, who was also raised by wolves.

Naturally, I’m playing around with this connection between imagination and real life in my story as well as in my planning for the story, so to speak, but that’s another post for another day – as is the whole matter of children being raised by wild animals, something that I uncovered some fascinating material for during my research.

Once Kipling was part of my story, I had to find out as much as I could about him. He was probably the most famous writer of his time, widely read and respected, and a celebrity both in literary circles and the wider community. I could find plenty about his work, and his influences, and his interests, and details of his life were well documented. I needed something more concrete however – and this was a real sticking point. I could find out intriguing stuff such as his being an early motoring enthusiast, but I needed to something more basic.  I need to know what he looked like.

It’s obvious, really, that writers need to know what their characters look like, and when we make them up this is a straightforward task. For real people, however, I had to stick to the facts. I had plenty of photos of Kipling, which were helpful, but I had trouble with one important detail, one that was vital for constructing a scene where Kipling is talking to someone. I needed to know how tall he was.

I sifted through book after book and found nothing. It’s funny, but Kipling’s friends and family didn’t really mention his stature, and Kipling didn’t bother to give us his height in any of his autobiographical material. I suppose it was mostly taken for granted, or considered unimportant. I was able to pick up little details about his mannerisms (priceless) and his speech patterns (equally priceless) but his height was elusive.

Finally, in a battered library copy of Kingsley Amis’s biography of Kipling, I found the following: ‘Physically, Rudyard Kipling was a small man. Five foot six inches is the official estimate.’ Eureka!

This just shows the power of research. Because as well as finding what I needed in order to present a faithful, authentic version of Rudyard Kipling, I stumbled across the name for my main character. Research. I love it because you can find what you need, but you also find the unexpected. Serendipity.


To find out more information on Micheal Pryor and his work, please visit his website.


Character Vs. Characterisation by Michael Pryor

September 26, 2013

I’m about to make a distinction that is bound to be argued with, disagreed with and flat out rejected but, nevertheless, I’m going ahead because I think it’s useful, especially for beginning writers.

Character is one of the vital aspects of storytelling – this isn’t the controversial bit, by the way, that comes later – and without engaging characters a story is in trouble. That’s why so many writing workshops recommend spending time on compiling character profiles before starting a story.

I’m not going to disagree with this practice. Thinking about a character’s attributes, personality and back story is extremely useful, but there comes a point when a writer asks: ‘How do I let a reader know all this stuff that I know about this character?’

And that’s where we get to the important distinction I want to make. Character is all that stuff you, the writer, know. Characterisation, on the other hand, is how you sneakily, subtly, artfully get it into your story so your reader can learn about your character.

See the difference?

The most straightforward way of characterisation would be to insert your character profile/dossier into your story, perhaps as an introduction or a compulsory appendix. Straightforward, perhaps, but an eye-glazingly bad idea. Doing so would kill any narrative.

I suggest that there are six major ways to do characterisation, to weave details of character into your story without weighing it down. If you use these methods, your reader will gradually accumulate an understanding of your character, almost without knowing she/he is doing it. Some (most?) of these are obvious, but others might take more explanation.

  1. Characterisation through Physical Description
  2. Characterisation through Action
  3. Characterisation through Reaction
  4. Characterisation through Interaction
  5. Characterisation through Dialogue
  6. Characterisation through Thoughts.

Characterisation through Physical Description

This is, perhaps, one of the more obvious methods of characterisation. When done ham-fistedly, it descends into cliché or, even worse, becomes a lazy shortcut. Think of all the evil-looking villains with their black hair, moustaches and goatees, the heroic-looking heroes with their noble jaws and mighty thews, the intelligent-looking scientists with their bald eggheads and glasses. With more thought, though, small physical details can be priceless aspects of  characterisation. A mason’s hands, especially the nails. A dancer’s high-arched feet. A weather beaten face.

Characterisation through Action

characters3This one is sometimes overlooked, particularly in more contemplative writing, but this is the essence of the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ dictum. ‘By their deeds, ye shall know them’ is something worth taking to heart. And, naturally, by ‘action’ I don’t necessarily mean Big Screen CGI Enhanced Action, although a reader can learn a great deal about a character who risks herself while in a hostage situation to disarm the bomb and save people she really doesn’t like.

Actions can be small, character defining actions like the way someone drives a car, or perpetual fidgets, or the characteristic(!) way someone answers the phone. Actions, and particularly spontaneous actions, can and should reveal details about a character.

Characterisation through Reaction

There’s a good reason for much of what Hollywood does, although after sitting through The Lone Ranger I do wonder. One thing that Hollywood does get right is the Reaction Shot. When something significant happens (an explosion in a shopping mall, a major statement about the status of a relationship) the camera always cuts to a reaction shot. We’re shown the effect that the significant event has.

As in Hollywood, so in your story (sometimes). When something important/significant/moving happens, spend some time focussing on your character and exploring the effect it has had on her/him. Your reader will gain insight when the mother is told that the baby isn’t hers – if the readers get the Reaction Shot.

Characterisation through Interaction

How your character treats people or relates to people can help define her/him. If he/she is kind, overbearing, oblivious or manipulative, this provides the reader with a look into what’s inside. Of course, your character’s external interactions can be in conflict with her/his internal desires, but that’s not a bad thing, either.

Characterisation through Dialogue

Dialogue is good, because that’s what people do – they talk.

Dialogue is a vital part of characterisation. Characterisation through dialogue works in three ways: through what is said, through how it’s said and through the way the character’s conversation works with the other people involved.

What is being said (the content) is fairly straightforward. Your character is always asking for favours. Your character always speaks about him/herself. Your character is constantly making empty threats. All these are a giveaway as to the sort of person she/he is.

How your character talks is a classic and can be vital in characterisation: the tone, phrases that belong just to him/her, the length of sentences, the rhythm of utterances. Consider all these and you’ll be on the way to deft characterisation through dialogue.

Conversation. This, really, is another aspect of Characterisation through Interaction (above). Does your character interrupt? Does your character ask open questions? Is your character hesitant to speak up in a group?

Characterisation through Thoughts

Readers often learn about a character through their internal monologue. First person narratives are full of this, but third person narratives can also use this technique. What a character thinks, or questions, in the privacy of her/his own skull let us understand their motivations, desires and wishes.

Two words of warning, though. Firstly, watch out that you don’t get too obvious here and start telling your reader all sorts of things. Lead your reader, don’t hit him/her on the head with a hammer. Secondly, I get tired of extended internal monologues that are actually thinly disguised author intrusions where the writer is making damn sure that the readers don’t miss something. It’s clumsy, and it’s also unnatural. People don’t think like that! Rarely do we construct long, uninterrupted, philosophical/political/mystical internal ponderings. Thoughts are fleeting, wandering, fragmentary and distracted – not really the stuff of coherent storytelling.

Of course, all of the above is advice and, like all writing advice it isn’t meant to be comprehensive. Many other characterisation techniques are available. And, equally obviously, this advice needs to be implemented judiciously. If you try to do all of this you’ll overburden your reader – and you’ll slow your story down until it grinds to a halt. Be clever, be adroit, be nimble and your characters will be better off for it.


To find out more information on Micheal Pryor and his work, please visit his website.


Measuring Your Fantasy World by Michael Pryor

November 6, 2013

A writer has many challengesold measurements france when creating a consistent, self-sustaining fantasy world for a story. Some are easy to anticipate, but others sneak up on you. After months of preparation, mapping, outlining and imagining, many a Fantasy writer has leaped into the first draft intoxicated by the joy of the world she has created, only to be brought up short by something apparently minor which results in some ceiling gazing and mumbling things like, ‘I really hadn’t thought of that.’

One of these insidious little aspects of world-building often overlooked is the business of measurement – distances, lengths, weights, volumes and so on. Once you start writing your epic, you’ll be surprised to find how often we need to refer to such things. How far away is the enemy? How can you give some indication that your hero is lifting something really heavy? In your fully imaginary world, how do the residents measure their surroundings? And when they do, how do they refer to them?

You can try using comparisons – ‘She was as tall as a house and she could throw a stone twice as far as three big houses lined up one after another’ – but these quickly get tedious, and reader will soon feel like you’re avoiding something. If your fantasy world is going to be convincing (and that should be a fundamental aim) then your inhabitants won’t go around their everyday lives looking to compare things to elephants. Or wagons. Or dinner plates.

One can simply ignore this issue and have your plucky goatherd tell the barbarian warrior that the castle of his lord is ‘about six or seven kilometres down the road’ or note that your wise sorceress adds ‘fourteen milligrams of eye of newt’ to her potion. Some writers do just that, but I have trouble with this approach. I’m a supporter of the metric system, but when it always strikes me as too ‘this world’ and it tends to jerk me out of the narrative. It sounds too modern and scientific for a quasi-mediaeval, low tech Fantasy world. And that’s even though I know that the metric system is a good two hundred years old.

Another approach is to use an older system, one more rooted in tradition – the Imperial system of weights and measures. Having your knights talk in pounds and ounces, while your peasants measure their height in feet and inches has an in-built consistency and fits neatly. It all sounds wonderfully old-fashioned and authentic – to some of us. The trouble is that the Imperial system isn’t as out-dated and outmoded as we might think. The USA uses it today and so, to USA based readers, the Imperial system might not have the cosy ring of antiquity that sets a narrative in a land far-off and long ago.

Some writers advocate going to all the trouble of inventing new units of measurement, terms that sound exotic and other worldly. I’d advise against this. Partly because it’s a lot of work, and partly because it can be utterly baffling for the reader. It can lead to such things as ‘Krognor was a good six m’mmbeths tall and weighed 12 systlas while Jeezra was as well built as a forty-one garleth barrel.’

Even worse, we get convoluted efforts to try to explain these units. ‘The farm was four hagronds away, which was a day’s walk for a strong warrior or two day’s walk for a weakling, or a quarter of a day for a mail carrier on a horse.’

It’s a pity that this approach is fraught with difficulty, for the judicious dropping in of created words is a useful way of reminding a reader that they aren’t in the ordinary world any more – they’re in a Fantasy world where normal rules may not necessarily apply. Exotica can contribute to the background texture that is part of the joy of reading Fantasy.

I do have a suggestion, a way that combines the best of the approaches above and avoids most of their disadvantages: use obsolete, traditional measurements. These have the beauty of being somewhat familiar but are obviously the creation of a long-ago time. When a reader comes across them they are immediately taken out of the here and now. And they are often based on the physical world and so are easy to relate to.

Here’s a bunch of obsolete and outmoded units of measurement that might be useful. Some of them are splendidly evocative of other times. Drop them in appropriately and your readers will be transported, in a good way.

Distance and length

League – about three miles (nearly 5 kilometres).

Chain – about 20 metres.

Furlong – about 200 metres.

Rod – about 5 metres.

Fathom – about 1.8 metres.

Ell – about 1.1 metres.

Cubit – about half a metre (the measurement from fingertips to elbow).

Armspan – a bit less than two metres.

Hand – about 10 centimetres

Barleycorn – about 8 millimetres


Hundredweight – about 50 kilograms.

Stone – about 6 kilograms

Dram – about 2 milligrams

Pennyweight – about 1.5 grams.

Scruple – about 1.2 grams.


Season  – a quarter of a year (four winters had gone by …).


Tun – about 900 litres.

Perch (for masonry) – about 700 litres.

Hogshead – about 300 litres.

Barrel – about 160 litres.

Bushel (for dry goods) – about 35 litres.

Peck (for dry goods) – about 9 litres.

Dram – about 3 millilitres.


Rood – about 1000 square metres.


To find out more information on Micheal Pryor and his work, please visit his website.


Writing Advice from C.S. Lewis by Michael Pryor

November 22, 2013

On this fiftieth anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, I thought I’d bring some of his writing advice to you. This comes from a letter that Lewis sent to a young correspondent in 1956, but the suggestions are eternal.

  1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure y[ou]r. sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
  2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
  3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
  4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me.”
  5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Source: C.S. Lewis Letters to Children, ed. Lyle W Dorsett and Marjorie Lampmead, Collins London 1985.


To find out more information on Micheal Pryor and his work, please visit his website.


The Series Question by Michael Pryor

June 21, 2013

Look around the bookshops and the libraries and you’ll see series all over the place. On some stretches of shelves, you could be forgiven for thinking that EVERYTHING is part of a series.

And, as an aside, don’t you hate browsing in a library, spotting a book that looks interesting, then flipping it over to reveal it’s ‘Book 3 of the seven book Snurgurupiad Saga’ and Books 1 and 2 are nowhere to be seen?

Fantasy seems to be the home of series. Much of it seems to be in homage to Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, the original trilogy. Those with a sense of history (and those who are at all curious) know that LoTR wasn’t designed to be a trilogy. Tolkien wrote it as a single book, but Allen and Unwin (the original publishers) thought it was simply too bulky to release in one whomping great volume.

But once the pattern was set, it seems as if fantasy readers have come to enjoy and even expect a trilogy – or more. There’s something comforting about a series, where you know the characters, the setting and you can revel in the unfolding story. Of course, some series outstay their welcome. Sometimes you get up to Book Four and the characters are still rattling around and you just want to shake them and yell, ‘GET ON WITH IT! YOU’VE GOT A WHOLE DAMN PROPHECY TO FULFIL AND YOU’VE ONLY GOT THREE BOOKS LEFT TO DO IT IN!’

As a writer of fantasy, a series is often a natural thing. Once you’ve gone to all the trouble of creating your fantasy world, it seems as if there is more than one story to tell.

Some questions. The paradigmatical series, the trilogy. Is it one story split into three, or is it three stories glued together into one? LoTR, as mentioned above, is one story chopped up into three volumes for practical reasons. It reads like that, too.

And what about the problem of the second book? The first book sets up the theme, characters, sets the story in motion. The last book brings it all to a conclusion – often with a massive battle. The second book is a challenge. It must have its own integrity. It can’t simply mark time. It shouldn’t be simply a bridge. It’s a challenge for a writer.

And what do you call your series? ‘The XXX Trilogy’ has been done to death. We have plenty of Sagas, Tapestries, Chronicles, Sequences, Songs, Volumes, Cycles etc etc. What’s left? ‘The XXX Directory’? ‘The XXX Wall Hanging’? ‘The XXX Oratorio’?

I maintain that there are two different sorts of series. One is the classic serial – each book ends on a cliffhanger and isn’t ‘complete’ without the other books in the series. The other sort of series is what I’m trying to do with The Laws of Magic. Each book is complete, comes to a whole and satisfying conclusion. The characters and setting remain the same, however, and with each book they have another set of adventures. Blaze of Glory, the first book, comes to a conclusion. The second book – Heart of Gold – doesn’t take up where Blaze of Glory left off. There is a six month time lapse, then a whole and complete adventure takes off. And so with, Word of Honour, Time of Trial and so on – complete, standalone adventures, each coming to a self- contained conclusion at the end of the book, but united by the overall story arc that extends across what will be six books when the series is completed. In this sense, The Laws of Magic and my new series, The Extraordinaires, are more like novel sequences than a series, something like Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books. Or – and I hesitate to raise the name of The Master – something like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books. Although I do wonder about how applicable the notion of story arc across the Famous Five sequence is …

Series, serial, novel sequence. In the end this is all just hair-splitting. Series are here to stay. Some people roll their eyes whenever a series is mentioned, but for a writer a series can be the expansive canvas that large ideas and large stories need.


To find out more information on Micheal Pryor and his work, please visit his website.


Five Tips for Revising and Editing by Michael Pryor

January 17th, 2013

Tip 1: Use Word’s ‘Find’ feature (or ‘Advanced Find’ in Word 2010) to highlight words you use too often. Plug in the word, click on ‘Reading Highlight’ and then skim through your ms to get a stark visual overview of how often the word appears. An abundance of yellow might mean you need to vary your vocab a little.

Tip 2: Try editing from back to front. After working through my ms a number of times, I get the feeling that the first chapters get the most attention. I know my attention shouldn’t flag but I’m sure it does. The chapters toward the end probably don’t get the same scrutiny. Therefore, near the end of the process, I do a backward edit – I start with the last chapter, then when I’ve finished with it I go to the second last chapter and so on. It re-frames my revising and it’s remarkable what I pick up.

Tip 3: Use Word Lists. I have a number that I use when revising/editing. One is a list of words I tend to overuse (see Tip 2). Others are lists of contextual vocabulary – historical slang, technical jargon, foreign words – that can be added while revising.

Tip 4: If your habit is to revise/edit on a print out, try one pass through on screen. And vice-versa. If your practice is to revise/edit on screen, try a pass through using a print out. Working in a format you’re not comfortable with or accustomed to can put you on your mettle.

Tip 5: Read your dialogue out loud. There’s nothing like this to highlight whether your characters are talking naturally or not. If you find yourself reading in one character’s voice, uninterrupted, for five minutes – you might have a mouthpiece instead of a character.


To find out more information on Micheal Pryor and his work, please visit his website.