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Virginia Woolf's Advice On Creating Memorable Characters

We’re celebrating the 101st anniversary of Woolf delivering her first book to its publisher with a breakdown of her essay Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.

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On March 9, 1913 — 101 years ago yesterday — Virginia Woolf delivered her first novel,The Voyage Out, to her first publisher, Duckworth. Throughout her career, Woolf was the master of revealing characters’ most intimate judgements, longings and insecurities through stream-of-conscious narratives. She gave readers access to all of her characters’ thoughts whether they were reflecting, looking at others from a distance, coming together for dinner parties or running into people on the street. You cannot read Woolf without knowing just how everything affects each of her characters.

In Woolf’s classic essay Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, she responds to an article by English writer Arnold Bennett, in which he argued that early 20th century authors were failing to write great novels because they failed to create tangible characters: “The foundation of good fiction is character-creating and nothing else.” Woolf weighs Bennett’s literary theories and speculations against her own experience and argues that every person, anyone who’s lived, is a natural judge of character, but that a true skill for character-reading (Woolf’s term for people-watching for the sake of constructing fictional characters) requires practice. Woolf illustrates how she goes about character-reading by recalling a woman she became fascinated with while riding the train from Richmond to Waterloo. This “Mrs. Brown” gives readers a glimpse into Woolf’s process of writing and, more specifically, creating characters. In the essay, Woolf argues, “I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite.”

Woolf’s essay is somewhat dated. These days, literary writers aren’t divided in two camps, being Edwardians and Georgians, but there still are so many great points to take from Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown. These are 10 solid rules from Woolf’s famous essay:

1. Practice character-reading until you can “live a single year of life without disaster.”

This is perhaps the most gutsy advice Woolf offers. So many writers will advise you to live wildly, to fail, to suffer and bleed for your art — anything for a great life story that will give you the inspiration to write from. But Woolf makes a great point: finding inspiration doesn’t always have to be so hard on writers. It can be done simply, day by day, in trying to understand the people around you and having the courage to have a little empathy.

2. Observe strangers. Let your own version of their life story shoot through your head — how they got where they are now, where they might be going — and fill in the blanks for yourself.

When Woolf describes taking a seat across from Mrs. Brown, she describes her attire, her tidiness and her facial expression, but Woolf also lets her mind wander beyond what she sees. She lets traits serve as clues to what could be fictionalized:

"There was something pinched about her — a look of suffering, of apprehension, and, in addition, she was extremely small. Her feet, in their clean little boots, scarcely touched the floor. I felt she had nobody to support her; that she had made up her mind for herself; that, having been deserted, or left a widow, years ago, she had led an anxious, harried life, bringing up an only son, perhaps, who as likely as not, was by this time beginning to go to the bad."

3. Eavesdrop. Listen to the way people speak, but pay special attention to their silence.

Eavesdropping is the oldest trick in the book in terms of learning to craft believable dialogue, but it can be just as helpful in understanding how to create generally believable characters. Of course, Woolf doesn’t dismiss silence, especially as far as conversations are involved. Silence can lead to uneasiness, as it does in Mrs. Brown’s conversation, and be revealing not only about a relationship, but each individual’s ability — or inability — to deal with uncertainty. Do they fidget? Do they quiet their voice or try to make it brighter to stir up conversation again? Do they do as Mrs. Brown finds herself doing to break the silence with non-sequiturs? One should be so lucky to get a non-sequitur like Mrs. Brown’s: “Can you tell me if an oak-tree dies when the leaves have been eaten for two years in succession by caterpillars?”

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