This week I’m working at the Canadian Film Centre with some truly awesome screenwriters – Ellen Vanstone @ellenvanstone, Noelle Carbone @noelcarbs and Tara Armstrong.
One of the things that has come up at this stage of this pilot script is character layers. Now thankfully, everyone agrees that Portia has a lot of layers and a lot going on both on the page and hopefully, someday on the screen. We even agreed that Annie’s backstory with her twin brothers, travelling father, fighting for a foothold in the London press provided a strongly layered character.
The character that seemed to have less going on, literally, was Brian Dawes.
Brian is just the prototypical nice guy in my books. He doesn’t have a lot of conflict and he doesn’t change much between book one and book three. He supports Portia (because it’s right), he does his job well (because he’s good) and he loves his parents (because you should). I remember when I was writing him that I wanted there to be one character who was totally normal, but I think he might be TOO normal. Like, uninterestingly so.
So, I’m going to spend the rest of January thinking about Brian’s layers and the journey he should make over the course of the books/series:
What motivates him?
What stymies him?
What is his ultimate goal?
What scares him?
Where does he see himself in 10 years? 20 years?
My next blog post will answer some of those questions and more and hopefully, feed into this script!
“I couldn’t help but notice just how many heads my attractive escort turned his way as we walked. His height and the breadth of his shoulders set him apart from many of the men on the street, but I believe it was the confidence that fairly smoldered out of his very being – from his walk to the set of his jaw – that brought the female eye his way.
He acknowledged none of them, even the more obvious, and seemed content to walk in silence the rest of the journey to the café, whereupon my companion shook off his dour mood and debated politics with me for the better part of an hour over scones and tea. “
On the advice of my lovely new agent, I went back and really thought out the motivations for all the characters in Jewel of the Thames. It was a very useful exercise, revealing a couple of potholes that I would fix if I were to do it all over again. BUT the good news is I have lots of other books to apply this new policy to.
So for book 2 (currently called ‘Thrice Burned’) I’ve been pulling apart the characters and doing an outline of their actions and motivations through each chapter in the book. In doing so, I’ve <I think> strengthened the plot and made it that much more believable that my characters are capable of doing the things I write about them doing. Here’s an example:
Chapter 1: Portia is feeling alone and betrayed in her new knowledge of just who her family really is so she isolates herself from people and throws herself into a series of arsons plaguing London. ACTION: Avoiding Baker Street, walking the arson scenes all over London.
Chapter 1: Feeling guilty for her part in deceiving Portia and angry at her former-lover’s exposure of their secrets, Irene Jones plots her next steps in regaining her granddaughter’s trust. ACTION: Avoiding Baker Street, licking her wounds in Edinburg.
Chapter 1: Able to separate the emotion from the action, Sherlock Holmes gives Portia the space and time to absorb everything she has learned, choosing to not worry about the development in their relationship, and instead planning how to help his granddaughter become the best consulting detective Baker Street has ever had. ACTION: Avoiding Baker Street, going about his usual business.
Chapter 1: Unaware of what has transpired over the holidays in Edinburg, Brian Dawes has missed his beautiful landlord and wants to catch up with her, and perhaps take their relationship to the next level as he’s been working up the courage to ask her out. He senses that something has happened, but can’t get Portia to open up and tell him about it, which is frustrating and does nothing to add to his courage. ACTION: Waiting for Portia, trying to get a moment alone with her, at Baker Street.
As part of making a more fulsome description of Portia’s guardian in Casebook 1, I thought it was time to give a little more detail (but not too much – Irene is after all a secretive woman ; ).
The full list of Character Profiles can be found here.
FULL NAME: Irene Jones (one of several aliases she has used over the years).
AGE: in 1929 she is 71-years-old, born in April 1858.
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: Hazel eyes, steel grey hair shot with her original black, high cheekbones, beautiful skin despite her age, tall with a womanly figure. She uses a cane because of bad knees.
LOCATION: Unknown though she has homes in several European countries including the UK.
EDUCATION: Unknown, but probably a girls college and a finishing school.
PREFERENCES: Adores the finer things in life from food to wine to fashion to residences.
SOCIALLY: In every iteration of her aliases she has maintained a strong socialite presence.
Well, I’ve learned a lot of things while writing the Portia Adams Adventures:
How to write a ransom note in Italian
How to write a note in code
How to write a story where there is no dialogue because my detective has lost her ability to hear or speak
But now, I have to write a note as if I cannot spell. More specifically, one of my characters needs to write the note and he cannot spell. The character is an unnamed member of Portia’s Baker Street Irregulars – a street child of London who has minimal education. My idea is that this poor child was thrown out on the streets after at least a few years of public education (since at this point we are well within the years of the Great Depression, this is viable), and has minimal writing and reading skills.
So what words do you misspell? Do you write phonetically? Do you drop all silent letters from words? How far do you go before what you’ve written is not actually readable or understandable?
Here is what I’ve come up with so far, let me know in the comments what you think the “boy’s” note says:
Ruby waved at me, and then elbowed one of the boys who had accompanied her, who to my surprise, handed me a dirty piece of newsprint he had written the words: “we fownd your bom persun.”
I blinked at this note rapidly, and then, spying the outdoor furniture for the café stacked in the alley, led the children over there to right a table and a few chairs so that we might sit in the relative protection between two buildings.
Handing the pastry to Ruby, I pulled out my own notebook to write a response while she carefully divided the treat into three. I waited for the boy to scarf down his portion, and then handed him the notebook with my pencil.
He looked down at it, scratched his head, and then answered a question from Ruby, who was looking down at the note curiously. She nodded and said something back to him, which he leaned over the table to carefully write, my pencil hesitant over the paper in his hand.
I had asked two simple one word questions: “Who?” and “How?”
“Dont no her name,” his note answered, “but we braut you the ting.”
I tapped on the word ‘ting,’ – not understanding, and in answer, Ruby barked something at her other companion, who reached into her voluminous winter coat (probably an adult size, but I know chosen for its warmth) and pulled out a bunch of wires and a metal cover.
My eyes widened, and found Ruby’s. She was nodding back at me with a smile I rarely saw on her face.
“The person whose name you don’t know. Take me to her now.” I wrote, handing the note to the boy, and handing a bill to Ruby.
FULL NAME: Asher ‘Bruiser’ Jenkins is a retired professional boxer, and semi-retired thief. Bruiser was his name in the ring.
AGE: in 1929 he is 76-years-old, born in September, 1853.
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: Of African descent, though born and raised in England. Big, close to 200lbs, about 6’2″ tall, with developed muscles, even for his age. He has cataracts, and has fractured the bones in his hands so much over the years that they cause him constant pain.
LOCATION: Brixton, London. In the downstairs apartment of a three-story house.
EDUCATION: Grade school in London, dropped out before grade 9.
PREFERENCES: Prefers beer, smokes copiously, eats well, and enjoys food. Good with his hands, and therefore takes off jobs in construction and building. Likes dogs, racing, gambling and women. His prize possession is a gramophone and his growing record collection.
SOCIALLY: Parents both dead, no spouse or children,very loyal to former partner (and perhaps paramour, that is yet unclear) Irene Jones (nee Adler), and protective of her granddaughter Portia Adams. He has spent some time in prison, probably in his twenties, and has many friends from his old life.
FULL NAME: Henry Aldwin Beanstine, nicknamed ‘Beans’ by his friends, Coroner with the Metropolitan Police of London, more colloquially known as Scotland Yard.
AGE: in 1929 he is 27-years-old, born in January 1902.
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: Wide brown eyes, black unruly hair, thick eyebrows, 5’8″ tall, slim but well built, handsome in a boyish way, wears very thick glasses for his poor eyesight.
LOCATION: London. Lives in Piccadilly.
EDUCATION: Attended Eton College and then Cambridge.
PREFERENCES: Deferential and kind, Beans enjoys spending time with his friends, and the students at Kings College he teaches. He prefers not to spend a lot of time with his family as he is generally held in low regard because of his choice to have a profession.
SOCIALLY: Beans is the 5th son of Lord Beanstine, and Irish noble who now has a seat in the House of Lords. His mother and brothers are all still alive, his eldest brothers all holding political seats, and he being the only one who has chosen (against his family’s wishes) to ‘work’ for a living. Beans developed a crush on Portia in the ‘Thrice Burned’ that is not reciprocated. He is engaged to Lady Grace by the end of ‘No Matter How Improbable.’
On to Miss Elaine Barclay in my list of Character Profiles (the full list here):
FULL NAME: Elaine Caroline Barclay (eventually Elaine Caroline Ridley after she gets married)
AGE: in 1929 she is 22-years-old, therefore born in 1908.
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: Green eyes, very slim (almost emaciated when Portia first meets her) and tall, long brown hair, high cheekbones, an aristocratic bearing.
LOCATION: London, lives with her father and brother. Moves in with her husband after their wedding.
EDUCATION: Farlington School for Girls, and then Somerville College for Law.
PREFERENCES: Being brought up as the daughter of an influential and rich Judge, Elaine Barclay enjoys the finer things in life, and upon her father’s death becomes the sole heir to his considerable fortune. She’s a clothes horse and leads the fashionistas in London, travels to the rest of Europe a lot, and has many connections with the Royal family in the UK, Italy and Germany.
SOCIALLY: Mother has died, father is alive at the beginning of ‘A Case of Darkness’, has a younger brother named James Barclay who has aspirations to the theatre. Marries Dr. Ridley at the beginning of ‘Truth be Told.”