Turning Readers Into Writers

070 - The Craft Of Character with Mark Boutros

July 08, 2021 Emma Dhesi Season 1 Episode 70
Turning Readers Into Writers
070 - The Craft Of Character with Mark Boutros
Show Notes Transcript

After university, Mark applied to be a runner with Talkback Television. Later, in 2012 he went back to university to study an MA at the University of East Anglia, one of the best programmes in Britain.

He shares with me some of his key takeaways from his time at UEA, the principle one being that the degree took away any excuses for him to hide behind. He wasn't busy doing other things. He was there solely to write, and so he had to write.

The other benefit was meeting other writers. It was wonderful to be part of a community or everyone was learning new skills and having a shared experience.

He also learned a lot about himself as a writer, the habits and tricks he used in his fiction, that he had learnt whilst writing TV scripts.

Later in our conversation Mark delves a little deeper and tells me what he feels are the key differences between writing for TV and writing a novel.

Mark tells me about his fantasy comedy series, Heroes of Histovia. He shares came easily and what came with a lot more difficulty. And he also explains the key themes behind each of the trilogy.

One of the things Mark Boutros learned whilst completing his MA was that until then structure had dictated his characters, not the other way around. What he discovered through studying was that his characters were the ones who should dictate the stoked structure of the story. 

This is one of the things that prompted him to write his book, The Craft Of Character.

He says that there isn't a story until the character wants something. Then it's up to you as the writer to find out why they want it and what about it feeds the characters' needs.

Mark talks through why it’s important to flesh out the bones of your character. Their worldview and their background inform how the respond to the character around them and the action that takes place.

It's very easy to make the decision that your character will do something, simply because it sounds good. But is it an integral part of their personality?

Mark also talks about how you get your character moving and playing an active role in the story, not just sitting back and letting the story happen to them. It's very important not to protect your principal character, says Boutros. 

By doing that, you give them the opportunity to get into real trouble and therefore real redemption.

He emphasises that the more time you spend on understanding your character, the more unique your work will be.

I asked Mark to share one of the most common mistakes he sees new writers make and he explains that it's that new writers write very passive characters, or spend spend enough time looking for the unique spin on that character. 

For example, he says, you can base a character on Joey from Friends, but what is it that makes them unique from Joey, or anybody else.

Mark Boutros rounds off the conversation by telling me what he's working on now, and where you can find out more about him online.


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Emma Dhesi:

Hello, I'm Emma Dhesi and welcome to another episode of turning readers into writers. If you're brand new here, welcome. And here's what you need to know. This is a community that believes you are never too old to write your first novel, no matter what you've been up to until now, if you're ready to write your book, I'm ready to help you reach the end, I focus on helping you find the time and confidence to begin your writing journey, as well as the craft and skills you need to finish the book. Each week I interview debut authors, editors and industry experts to keep you motivated, inspired, and educated on all things writing, editing, and publishing. If you want to catch up, head on over to emmadhesi.com, where you'll find a wealth of information and tools to help you get started. Before we dive in, this week's episode is brought to you by my free cheat sheet 30 Top Tips to find time to write. In this guide, I give you 30 ways that you can find time to write in the small gaps that appear between the various errands and tasks and responsibilities that you have in your day to day life. Now, you might be thinking that you don't have any time to spare, but I can guarantee these top tips will give you writing time you didn't think you had. If you thought writing always involved a pen and paper or a keyboard. Think again. If you thought you needed at least an hour at a time to write your manuscript. I help you reframe that, you won't be disappointed. Get your free copy of 30 Top Tips to find time to write by going to emmadhesi.com/30 Top Tips. Okay, let's dive in to today's episode. Mark Boutros is an International Emmy nominated screenwriter, independent author of nonfiction and fantasy fiction. He's a creative writing teacher, a mentor, a ghost writer, and an editor. And I had a wonderful conversation with him not so long ago, where he talked me through how we got to start in television, why he decided to make a switch into creative writing and go back to university. He talks me through his trilogy heroes of dystopia. And then he talks about the craft of character, his book, helping you to flesh out the bones of your character, get to the core of them, and then ultimately bring them to life and hang on to the end. And you'll find out how you can either win a copy of his nonfiction book, the craft of character, or even his first book in his fantasy series. So keep listening. Well, Mark, thank you so much for being with me today. I'm really thrilled to speak to you.

Mark Boutros:

Thanks for having me, it's lovely to be here.

Emma Dhesi:

It's a joy. It's a joy. Now, like many authors, you've kind of taken a scenic route to get to your fiction writing your novel writing. But your journey is perhaps being a little bit more interesting than some of ours than mine, for example, because you've started out in TV, and you've done a lot of TV over the last, I'd say nearly 20 years now. And so how long? What's experience? How you get started in TV, tell us about that.

Mark Boutros:

I finished university and in that same way a lot of people find themselves will go what what do I do now then sort of cut adrift from three years of, of feeling like everything was okay. I applied for a job as a runner company called talkback, who made me things like both selector algae panel shows that I loved and I was like, I want to do that. I emailed them got completely ignored, and then tried again six months later, and three people were leaving. So they said come in and have a chat. We need three runners. And then the next day I was working there. So it's quite bizarre. It's one of those examples of timing works out. And then that's when I started and I worked my way up through paddle shows like QI Never Mind the Buzzcocks, ar 10 cats, A League of Their Own and worked on various roles in those for what feels like an eternity now.

Emma Dhesi:

And I was looking at your website, you've done a few different types of roles. What's been your kind of favorite rule to date.

Mark Boutros:

My favorite, I'd say I had two favorites. One was the researcher because that meant I was looking for content for the show. So one like Never Mind the Buzzcocks. I was looking for stories of musicians injuring themselves in weird ways, which sounds dark but it's not. It's fun a lot of the time. And I was also responsible for the ID parade where I would get then go well, I'm going to go and get the person who sang this one hit wonder I love and get them on the show and I'd get to meet them. It was amazing. I got john paul, who did I think said Elmos fire than some songs from the Transformers cartoon movie which was amazing. And then edit producing because producing fun but it's mostly putting out fires. Edit producing is when the show is filmed. And you get to sit in the edit and watch it as a whole and with an editor cut it down from say two hours to 22 minutes or whatever the running time is. So you're less involved in the politics, which is, that's what I started to enjoy it and your hours feel a little bit more normal. Yeah, so definitely those two roles with my favorite.

Emma Dhesi:

Oh, interesting you and I was we were talking before we started recording and you've, you've certainly worked on a few of my favorite shows. So exciting. But then in 2012, you decided to go back to education and you started your MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, which is certainly, I don't know if it still is, but it certainly has been one of the best programs in the UK. So what made you decide to take that sidestep to the more kind of prose writing rather than TV writing,

Mark Boutros:

I'd always wanted to, to do writing, you know, it was what in the MA I did was a mixed side it was screen and a bit that, so but I always wanted to, to write so I was doing that while working my way up in the TV industry. But I found as the hours got more and more kind of barbaric, I couldn't find time to write I do like, here's an hour here is 10 minutes there, but it was all low quality, it was top of the head stuff. So as the kind of frustration bill and the itch got, you know, each year, I thought it's time to do it. You know, I had a few things happen, where I went, it's kind of I need to stop putting it off, I'd been accepted. And I deferred it. And I was getting to that point, and I was approaching 30. Whereas I need to make serious decision about it. Now, you know, I'm getting tired working constantly on the shows. So I did that. And and it was the best decision I ever made. Like I I don't regret a second of it. I loved it. And I got to meet loads of other writers who I'm still in touch with now. And it just it bought me a year to write which is, you know, yeah, which I don't have now, a lot of the time. It was brilliant.

Emma Dhesi:

Oh, yeah, I think it's something a lot of us would love to do. And when I do interview people who have done an MA or an MFA, I love to it's kind of mind your brain and say, Well, what were the kind of one or two things that you really benefited from, or the kind of biggest takeaways from that year of study?

Mark Boutros:

The biggest benefit was, I didn't have excuses to hide behind was one of them. Because, you know, fear makes us kind of go, Oh, well, you know, it would be going better if it wasn't No, this was no, I'm writing now. And I have no choice. But to either throw into it any any excuses don't really stack up. It's not like oh, I was busy doing a 16 hour day. It's not I was lazy. And I got to meet other writers, because in various jobs, like people will say, Oh, you write what? What are you writing and you'll start talking about it. And then you'll see them glaze over. Because they said they care a bit, but not as much as other writers. So you don't get that critical eye on your work. Like now I have people I'll always send scripts to. And I learned a bit more about myself as a writer, you know, I was always chasing the joke head of the narrative. And I had my tutor who probably hated me, just absolutely drummed out of me. And it helped a lot. You know, now the focus is on the character and the story. And the jokes are kind of icing on the cake, as opposed to the thing I chase first, when I write anything comedic. It taught me a lot of a theory as well, which I didn't think was useful until I was in the industry, and then realized how useful it was. And, you know, it gives you kind of a toolkit for getting over problems you find as well.

Emma Dhesi:

Okay, oh, you, would you mind expanding on that just a little bit?

Mark Boutros:

At all. You know, there's so there's, like, even I didn't understand what the notion of a story weld was before, you know, just everything that that that your story is about, essentially, the people, your character interacts with the settings all of it. So it made me think about that before jumping into a script, where as I just go, here, a few characters, you know, where I'll stick them, I'll stick them in a bar, that's fine without thinking about those places a bit more in the significance and how they actually tie into your character, how they can mirror their internal struggles and their emotional struggles. Like location is a powerful tool, as well as the minor characters you inhabit your world with and develop and the best. Kind of the best bit of advice I was given was, it's something I kind of echo is don't protect your main character, because I used to write very, like, I don't like the term they call it the kind of the straight man is what they, they refer to that character as which I think that term will probably get changed to just your normal character, which again, normal is weird. And they'd be they would do nothing apart from react to what was going on around them. And then all the secondary characters were far more interesting and far more enjoyable. And I used to do that a lot because I was very protective of that character. And well, they can't make bad decisions because then people will go, I don't like them. Now I wrote I have write horrifically unlikable characters, because I know that it's about making people understand what someone is doing so they engage with the journey. They don't have to you don't have to like someone you have to want to spend time with them. Or give them some redemption to some degree. But yeah, don't protect your main character was the greatest tip I ever got. And it made me see a different way of telling stories. It wasn't about someone having loads of things happen to them, it was someone generating those things, that person happened to the story. You know, it's that whole thing of not writing passive protagonists, essentially.

Emma Dhesi:

That's quite scary. I just listening to you talking there and I'm thinking about my own fiction and going here, I've definitely had one or two secondary characters who are more interesting or more over the top more exuberant characters, and the thought of making my own character do risky things that would make them unpopular does make me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Mark Boutros:

Protective, you know, we don't we, we spend so much time thinking about and obviously, I don't know if it's the same with you, but those main characters are often the ones closest to us, ourselves, or people to like, but, you know, it's that thing of, it's engaging to see someone make the wrong decision, sometimes, you know, as long as you pull them back from it, or show the consequences. It's, it's, it still happens, I still sometimes drift into it and have to go no, remember, don't protect your character. So difficult.

Emma Dhesi:

Yeah. Oh, goodness advice there. And I was going to ask, you know, does your TV writing kind of bleed into your fiction writing and vice versa? I think you may have kind of, you may have answered that a little bit, that there is a particular character, there's a bit of difference that in fiction is about the whole picture, the whole setting, and not protecting your character, that maybe in TV, it is about making that main character look good on the telly, what, what are your thoughts?

Mark Boutros:

Yeah, because with, with TV, it's about, a lot of it is about the name that will be attached to your project, as well as to whether it will get sold or not. So you're trying to write a character that is really different and really stands out. And, and it will get shaped any way through production companies you work with. So you know, you'll you'll send us a script in to a company and they'll go, we love it, and then they'll option it. So they'll buy the rights to it for six months to a year to then try and sell it to a broadcaster. And optioning money is not great. So you're kind of working quite hard, until someone actually picks it up the broadcaster, but at that point, it will get changed the lots of fit of particular broadcaster as well. So you know, I think the same principles of character really apply, the main differences are, you know, in fiction writing, you can get into their heads a lot better, because a script is quite a boring document to look at, you know, there's no, it's not as sensory as a novel will be. And a lot is bare bones, like, they like seeing whitespace on the page in the format, like they don't like to see long descriptions at all. It's something you know it and also it's, it's something a director then takes an active and takes and they all all get, it's a blueprint, essentially. Whereas, you know, a novel, you are more directly holding someone's hands and leading them through, they'll still interpret a lot of things themselves, but you are the controller of that experience. Whereas on in a, in a TV script, you're you're handing that over for other people to interpret and lead someone on so you know, it's very much directors and producers will then and performers will take your work and, and make it a lot better a lot of the time. Whereas, you know, a novel is, it's more I think you're more closely connected to, to to your audience in that way, where you are influencing so much more than you would in a script, I think.

Emma Dhesi:

So sounds like actually, you get a lot more freedom as a fiction writer, because this is it's it's a more solitary world. And so it's it's you and what you're writing rather than perhaps a team of people.

Mark Boutros:

Yeah, yeah, definitely, you know, with with fiction I, I work with an editor. And that's kind of it because it's because I'm not traditionally publisher, I think there may be more input there, I'm not sure. Whereas TV, for example, I'll write a script and you'll have a script editor, producer, one or two exec producers, maybe one or two commissioning editors, sometimes if it's someone else's project, you'll get their inputs, you're looking at six to seven sets of notes, sometimes that will all be collated, but that's a lot of opinions to take on and to make something work and you know, it's not, it's not necessarily your vision that always shines through. And it's fine because it's, it's what will work for that channel genre. So it's, it's a highly collaborative process. A very difficult one, but also very rewarding at the same time. You know, I've met some brilliant people and learn so much by having so many people involved in the work, not always perfect, but everyone's trying to do something good within it. So yeah, I, I find fiction I get to unleash a bit more of my own creativity in that way. And actually, I have, you know, good good editors that stop me from doing anything too bad?

Emma Dhesi:

Well, talking of your creativity, I'd love it if you could tell us about your your series, the heroes of the studio when I said that, right?

Mark Boutros:

Yeah, yeah. I regret that title so much. It used to be called, like Carl's kingdom. But then I thought, well, no, I want to have something where I can explore different aspects of that world. And it wasn't really about him anymore, because he was that main character that was going, actually it's not as interesting as, but it's really about it's, it's a fantasy, comedy, or lighthearted fantasy, as I prefer to call it. And it's basically about the young man who's failed, everything essentially never really left the kingdom he's lived in pretty useless, but he tries he just fails and then one day, a tyrant comes in invades the castle lived in the only place he's ever known as home, he decides having failed everything else, you know, what I'm gonna do, I'm going to actually try and fight back, he's the only person who's silly enough to do that fails miserably, can add that to his list of failures and is imprisoned. He's been good friends with the princess, she, she frees him sets him off into the world and then he receives a message from her when he's a little bit away from the castle into the world. He's never known telling him. He's not actually from that world at all parents, he thinks his parents weren't and he needs to find the portal home to find his little parents before he's captured and killed. And so his journey kind of begins. So it's about identity, what home really is and I initially wrote it as a one off, and then I found that I love so many of the characters that it was worth the second book and I've just finished the third, it's off with the editor now. So yeah, and then that's done. And I may explore some other characters within that world, but I think his journey is coming to a natural end.

Emma Dhesi:

Okay. It sounds like it's been fun, a fun true trilogy to raise.

Mark Boutros:

Yeah, has it it was initially it was a very, very silly comedy. And I actually went back and thought the narrative is being pushed away by that. So I reframed it, which was a very difficult process, it was probably three or four years in the making that first book, second book flowed wonderfully, the third book has been tough. It's, it's been very rewarding to get to the other side of it and it's been so much fun to write like, I'm sad to leave those characters behind now for a bit, but I think they need to rest for a little while but yeah, it's been an absolute joy to write, and I've loved it.

Emma Dhesi:

So it's a trilogy? Are they and are they sequential? Do you have to read one before the other? Can you read them as a standalone?

Mark Boutros:

You can't I mean, I, I'd say they are sequential Book Two you could possibly read without the book one, but you would lose some of the, the joy of a few of the characters. So I would say one is the most standalone, you know, because it was initially written as that like, you could you could read one of them never read another and feel like you've had a complete story. They're all their own stories. But there are references that might get missed. Yeah, so that one is the main standalone one. And then I've got like, a book x, which is a story about some of the villains in in book one, which is something I give away on my website to people. It's a short story, and I'm working on.

Emma Dhesi:

Ok, let people know about it that afterwards.

Mark Boutros:

Thank you. Yeah. And I'm working on some origin stories as well. Just when, when when it takes my fancy, because yeah, I feel like the main characters have had enough of the kicking for a while that they need some time away from me.

Emma Dhesi:

Now, because I write standalone, I don't write series, it's and it's always something that fascinates me. So I know that book, one was intended to be a standalone, but then you decided to add in the two and three. So did you kind of take a step back and think, Okay, I need to have an overriding arch here. And what is that going to be? So that book three finishes off the whole trilogy? Or was it again, kind of book by book basis? How did you work work around that?

Mark Boutros:

I did, I did have to think about well, what's now if I'm doing this as a trilogy, there needs to be an overall arc for this, this protagonist. So I thought about what that would be. And based on some of the things that happened in book one, because I do a lot of planning, and then once that, like I normally know my ending, I know my beginning, I know some key beats. And then when the characters start interacting, a lot of that goes out the window, and I get frustrated by the amount of time I spent outlining. But some relationships emerged in that story that made me go well, this is really about, about these two characters more than who I thought it was about. So I use that as the arc. It's really a redemptive arc. And, and that's what led me to book three essentially, you know, it's really about this, this this, this, this hero and the villain, and the impact they have on each other's lives, weirdly. And, yeah, so I had that overarching arc. And then I thought about each individual book too, and the individual Book Three, how they might work.

Emma Dhesi:

Okay. Yeah, a lot of planning involved.

Mark Boutros:

Yeah, yeah. But you know, it's, it's, I sort of see it as a, you put a destination into the GPS spot. The routes you can take go over the place, you know, let the characters lead you as long as as long as I know where I'm focusing on, they can go as many directions as they like.

Emma Dhesi:

And that Yeah, nice freedom. I like that kind of hybrid approach almost. Yeah. Now what it's going to ask, so did you start the first book when you were doing your MA, when you have that year? Is that what you were kind of focusing on for your project, then?

Mark Boutros:

No, no, I wrote a, because I've written in television, I still script write for TV shows. I, I did a film, and it was awful. But it taught me a lot, because it helped me tell because I've always, I've always written for television, it helped me to tell a complete narrative in one script, because while TV episodes still have stories, the overarching narrative takes place over a series, right, you know, over many, many episodes. So it showed me that and it made me go, I could I want to do this and it actually started life as a radio script, a 30 minute radio play. But it was so kind of vivid that I thought this I actually want to make, I want to spend time, you know, elaborating on this world and these people, I want to do this as a book and I you know, and it was tough, because it was like learning an entirely new skill because sometimes feedback I get is, I want more description here is quite cynical. This means like a script sometimes put more in here and more in here, when I said it to my editor. And it's true, because I've always been taught to write very lean, which is what script writing is, it's ripping everything out, because you've got to get in and out as quickly as possible. But I turned it into a book. And I loved every second of doing that, I found it very freeing process. Because you don't have to consider budgets, either. You can have weird creatures and a whole world whereas for TV, it's like, could you set it just down the road is fine. You know, we've just got park there. They don't have to be weird hybrid creatures in there, just, you know, just have an angry dog.

Emma Dhesi:

And the reason I asked that question was and because you're still working in tallies, you still got long hours, you're still busy. And you've got a family, you've got friends, you want to have a social life, all of that thing. So how would you find that you're able to make space and fiction writing, as well as all the other jobs and responsibilities that you've got?

Mark Boutros:

It is very difficult. I, I tried nano writing Month. Yeah, my plan was to write Book Three over that I managed to do 10,000 words, I was I was I failed miserably. Because I was doing a TV script at the same time, because there's no there's no structure. So I don't, I don't produce or edit produce anymore. But I write for like, I just finished writing for a kid series that took up five months, three days a week, I teach once or twice a week. And I freelance write chatbots. Yeah, I do a lot of things. But when I what I do with my writing, like I started writing a dark comedy thriller last week. And I do it first thing in the morning, if I have the headspace, I get up at like six, I get the laptop, whether I'm in bed or at the desk, and I'll try and do an hour or two before I eat breakfast. So the frustration doesn't seep in. Because it is what I am most passionate about is the writing fiction. And I find you know, as soon as the world wakes up, you're getting emails, you can't help but check them you're getting whatsapps you can't help but check them. So I figure if it's six in the morning, the world's asleep, mostly, apart from people who have kids. I just get up and do it. And I don't check emails, I don't pay any music on I just write in complete silence. And it's wonderful. And weirdly, on weekends is when I do that best I did a bit this morning. I'll do it tomorrow. But there are days where I have so much on that have to get up and just start doing the other thing. So it does sometimes suffer for a few days on end, which is upsetting. Because, you know, I mean, I don't know how you find it as well. It's just balancing it is very tricky. You have to I have to say no to stuff I gave up drinking about seven years ago, because I found trying to do that with a hangover. It was a disaster. So I had to make a serious decision about what happened. You know, I kept saying, you know, I want to put that time in I don't want to look back and be resentful that I didn't try. So that's how I do it now.

Emma Dhesi:

Yes, I think that is a big thing. That was a big thing for me as well. I got to a point where it was okay. I don't want to get later on in life and say I didn't try. Yeah, that was a big, but thank you for answering that because I and when I've asked my audience you know, what are the things that you struggle with to get your book written and time is one of the big things balancing all the things in life is something with so it's always great to hear from other people who are also busy and how they get it done. So yeah,

Mark Boutros:

I think you can also be one of the it's very easy to to disregard right in time. So I used to put in my calendar, right six till seven in the evening, and then it would come up and I'd be like I've already made plans there. So I think it's it's about carving out time that is uninterrupted and, and you know your loved ones will want you to do well, they want you to be happy and they know you're happy when you're doing the thing you really care about. So factor in some time, so that it's also consider them so that when you do have free time you can spend with them, you know, okay. Can I just quickly do three hours of this, even though they are incredibly understanding, and when I was very busy, and I had to commute, what helps was having, I don't know if it's useful to anyone listening, but I had Google Docs because you can use them offline and online. So I was on the tube. And I'd be able to type notes on the tube and things like that, I just found those little bits helped. And if you find times hard, just say you'll do 15 minutes, and you'll find you do a lot longer. Because you can always find 15 minutes is when you try and go any two hours that you can possibly see other little things you can try. But yeah, I find mornings is the thing that worked for me.

Emma Dhesi:

Thank you. So you have you devoted that time to writing your fiction. But that's not all you've been writing, you have been writing some nonfiction as well. And you've written a book called The craft of character. So you did mention character a little bit earlier on that that was something that was a big learning moment for you. Yeah, is that what prompted you to write this particular book?

Mark Boutros:

it was an I love reading screenwriting and story and fiction writing books, you know, I think I save the cat, the various versions of it and Jonny Wilkinson, the words and loads of others. And it made me become a bit obsessed with structure. And one thing I noticed is, structure became something that dictated what characters did, as opposed to emerging organically through character. As weird as that sounds, I found it was a weakness in my work where I was going, Okay, I've got a character who, for example, a 35 year old woman who has a heart attack has to change the way she lives. She's cynical, or she won't make it to 40. That was a comedy idea. And I found that I go, Okay, now I've got that. I know how she'll approach things. I'll put that into, here's the inciting incident, the heart attack. Here's what she has to do. Here's some, she'll do that in this episode. And off we go. I didn't spend any moment thinking about her worldview beyond cynicism, what significance her job played any of that stuff, I found, I was always just tagging that stuff on. I'll make them I'll make them a writer or a teacher. And I was like, how lazy Have I been getting. And I figured it, the more time actually spend on character, the more unique the script comes across as because the more anecdotes seep out in a, in the storytelling, you know, you get to add, you feel like you actually know someone. And that's what I was lacking in my own work. And in a lot of scripts I read, I read a lot of scripts for, for places, where, you know, it's perfectly what a fashionable phrase in the TV industry now is to say something is functional. So you go when it works, but I don't get a sense of who this person is. And, and that was my weakness, I found I thought I wanted to write something that me five years ago would have found incredibly useful. And isn't just a copy of another structure book, I wanted to do something I felt would be useful to writers who were probably struggling with just seemed like I was.

Emma Dhesi:

yeah, yeah, no, it's definitely something I get questions about. So I knew that our listeners will, will find it very useful. So could you take us through the kind of three main areas that you you talk about in the book, you talk about the core of character, yeah, putting flesh on the bones, and then bringing that character to life that they're loving, just to get a little bit more insight into those three areas and how you see them?

Mark Boutros:

Yeah, so the core is really about how there isn't a story until a character wants something. You know, because, and one thing I want to say as well quickly is backstory is incredibly important. But it's called backstory, because it stays in the back, you know, informs a lot of forward motion and bits a bit will come through, but don't think that everything you put in backstory needs to come out, you know, it's serious, never killed. It's just helped you get to where you are. And yes, so the core is really about the things you need in order to have a story begin, and your character needs a goal or an intention or a desire, you know, but what they need something. So whether it's, I want to find a portal home, I want to get better. I want to win that trophy, you know, I want to win this race. I want to be the most powerful person in the world, whatever it is, they want something that we go, Okay, I know what is motivating what you're doing. And, and then it's about understanding is sort of turning into a two year old that likes to ask the question, why a lot. So you start to think, Well, why do they want that. And that's when you start to get deeper. So you then go, oh, it comes from an emotion. You know, it comes from something they feel they need to fulfill. So if I want to, if I want to win a competition, it's because maybe I've never felt like a winner in the eyes of my parents or peers. And this for me is the ultimate validation. And we all know every good story requires a lesson a lot of time and it's actually that, you know, I actually need to just appreciate myself it's not about winning this thing. It's about understanding that you know, loving myself enough to not have to seek validation in other people, you know, in that stuff. I'll probably lose that race, or, you know, lose that competition. So it's understanding what your character wants, why they want it, and what perhaps informs that desperation that they need to overcome. Because, you know, they need to be desperate for this thing in order to make bad decisions to try and get towards it. And if that makes sense, in a very wofully way, that's the kind of thing I'm going for and because people talk about just writing that first draft, but I think that's fine. But you need to be informed when you do that, you know, that the story doesn't begin to your character, till we meet them, and then see that they want something. There's no story without a pursuit, right. You know, otherwise, it's just a lovely conversation, probably. Which is still nice. But that's what I think is thinking for your reader. Yeah, no, exactly. But I think that that's the kind of core and the flesh on the bones is everything else about your character from their voice, how they project themselves in the world. And that's all informed by you know, their their worldview, which is informed by how they grew up, probably, you know, what, how does what class they are, inform how they feel about themselves, and other classes, their race, their religion, way, everything, you know, everything about us my height, or, you know, I'm quite skinny. So that informs how confident I am in certain situations, or when I was growing up how I couldn't speak to anyone I fancied. Because I was like, I'm just getting ready to go to the gym loans. You know, everything about us informs how we behave in certain situations. And that's the flesh on the bones. Because it helps you to fully to turn that character because while the core is essential, it's still quite in the construct of a structure, it's, it's the functional stuff, you know, the flesh on the bones is what helps that character to stand out a little bit further. And it helps you inform the world around them a little bit more, you start to go Okay, then this is their friend who and you start to see the dynamics between them because of their worldviews because you don't want characters that will have the same worldview or reinforce the same things. This helps you to create that difference.

Emma Dhesi:

Okay. And, and and then bringing the character to life. Yes, flesh the bones out, how do we bring them to life?

Mark Boutros:

So bring them to life is getting them running, you know, getting them in there, and, and getting them getting them moving in your story and, and I and there's a load of kind of how to write character descriptions, something I've been appalling at. So it's just to kind of help, you know, it's that thing of help us to create that image of them as well. I think it was the example of the dude in The Big Lebowski that I love, the description of which is sort of a 50 ish man in Bermuda shorts. Is that the dairy case, looking at the labels, so you get a sense of who he is. And they say, his rumpled look suggests a manner, in which casualness runs deep. And I was like, that's great. You've not told me his face size, or his eye color or anything, but you've helped me project this image brilliantly. And of this person based on a description of, you know, his rumpled, looking fine, and what that suggests emotionally about him. And also in that bring your character life, it's about putting them in situations in your story. So I get people to put their characters and situations such as with three other characters, where maybe there's been a car accident, or they're stuck in a lift, so you can see how they all act, essentially, just getting them moving, really that savoring life and thinking about, you know, thinking about how they might behave in certain situations. So it's before you before you set them off into the story. Let them have a little mini story with some people. We can see...

Emma Dhesi:

I love that I love that third one, actually the you know, bringing them to life and getting them moving, and kind of highlighting how you can do that without saying they had grown here and bro nine, yeah, description, but that essence of the person excitedly going underneath. And I really like that.

Mark Boutros:

Yeah, it tells you so much about someone. It's like, I love that. And it really stuck with me. And you know, I think describing things like hair and eyes and all that's fine slowly through something. And also in context, like, if I'm a character, for example, looking on a dating website, then that's where in the point of view of your character, that stuff would make sense. Perhaps because you're looking at those physical attributes you're not, you're not going to tell that someone has a casual baby. We're not going to see them in action doing something, perhaps. But yeah, that's that's kind of what I like to try and do with my character descriptions now is to give them that the essence ultimately, as you put it, so I might have to update my book and put essence

Emma Dhesi:

I'd like an acknowledgement, of course. So for your own work, and when you're helping your students do you do you? Do you want them? Do you want yourself and your students to have all of this information up front to know this before they start writing? or do some of these things come about as as you're writing and getting to know the story and the character better.

Mark Boutros:

I think I try and tailor my approach to be bespoke to their kind of needs, which is hard in a class of 20. But I have some groups of four. But really I say, like, start with the, what's your idea? Because your idea is either I want to write a sitcom set on a space station, and you go, all right, well, you've got no characters there. So we've got to get into that or you go, I want to write about someone who accidentally run someone over and is now experiencing grief and you go, well, then you've got a character. So I will always bring it to character wherever they start, and start drilling into those questions. So I'll get them to the core. Before they write anything, some people want to rush and write, but I genuinely won't let them until they can tell me enough about their characters such as, what's their goal? What emotionally is driving them towards this? And why? And what what do you think? Is the floor stopping them from achieving this? What do they need to overcome in themselves? And what's at stake is very important. If there are no stakes and a story, why did we, you know, if your character doesn't feel the pressure, Why will we won't either, so I make sure they have those things in place and, and sometimes some of the, the flesh on the bone stuff will that, you know, they might want to write quickly, I'll let them go a little bit, and then go, Okay, now, I don't really know this character at all, we need to do some more time on their backstory. So I try and get him to do everything. But people get agitated. And some people learn through writing a little bit. So sometimes it's a process that works in tandem. But it really is each to the each individual. But sometimes you'll think they want to rush because they're scared to do that development. So if it's out of fear, that's one thing, if it's out of excitement, maybe I'll let it run a little bit, then pull them back. At least they'll know there's a safe, there's some safe space to come back to if they know they need to do more work. They know it's prepared, as well. But everyone's a bit different. Like I've done it where I've had a very clear character with my head, and no story in mind in terms of where it might go at the end. And then I've run with it a little bit just to get a sense of it. So it's, it's, it's kind of chicken and egg sometimes. But I think you need to know what your characters what your characters goal is, before you send them any wax. Otherwise, where are they going? They're just yeah, so I do try and drum that into people. But they don't always want to do that. Because it's not as fun as writing writings to fund it.

Emma Dhesi:

Yeah, yeah. Yes, I think I'm one of the ones who just jumps in with a bit much excitement. And then there's a lot to go back. fill in the gaps along the way. So yeah, I'm definitely one of those. Gosh, I'm just watching the tanks. I think keeping keeping you talking. Before we kind of move towards wrapping up, I'd love it if you could share with us. Some of them are common mistakes you see new writers in particular making when it comes to creating their characters.

Mark Boutros:

Yeah, of course, it will be that the character is too passive. So they won't be driving any of the narrative, their goal. You know, there's, there's no threat to them, either, is one, there's nothing at stake for them. They're not, they're just I mean, I'm trying to find the right word for it, they're just not particularly original in any way, you know, I have not get a sense that the voice isn't coming through in them. They feel like a stock type essentially. So somewhat, because a common thing that happens is people go Okay, we, it familiarity helps people, but it's also a danger, where they go Okay, so that's sort of Joey from friends, and you go fine. But now what's the fresh thing we're going to put on that? So you know, is have I seen this character before is a weakness. And then I'll suggest things like what have you thought about flipping the gender of this character, or exploring what this character might be like, if they're from a different background, trying to see, you know, trying to basically broaden the horizons of that biter, essentially and sometimes it helps if they do a bit more research, research is a beautiful thing that I used to hate but it can help a lot.

Emma Dhesi:

How do you how do you encourage your students to research character?

Mark Boutros:

Amm I find out what they're writing about? So for example, someone I, I, one of my students is writing about a drag artists and but they have no experience in that world knows that. Well. Authenticity is important today, if you're representing a group you're not part of, you need to talk to that person. So they'll approach some people who are probably on ripples, drag race, and I'm sure they'll be willing to chat and then they can talk about talk to them and say, I'm writing a story about this kind of thing. What were your experiences, like, because we all have our own biases, you know, it's everything is based on what we've been exposed to, and what we've read about. So by talking to someone who lives that life, it's wonderful a TV project I'm working on at the minute is based on a true story. And we're talking to the son of one of the people were writing about to find out about his life and what growing up in that area was like, you'll find it enriches your character so much more and the story by doing that. So take the time to The research but I understand you know, we're all in a rush to get something done and out there, so that it can hopefully help us towards the next thing but yeah, fine, you know it's another because it's just all these things I'm saying I'm sure people they're going. So that's more time and more time and more time.

Emma Dhesi:

I think that I can imagine as well a number of listeners kind of thing. Because a lot of writers are introverts. And so that kind of idea of putting yourself out and saying to someone, I'm a writer, this is what I'm writing, would you be willing to help me? Yeah. People will say no, often people will say yes, but it's many writers.

Mark Boutros:

A lot of people like sharing their experience and kind of flattered to be approached, I approached someone who worked on a body farm to ask him about how decomposing worked, which is grim. And yeah. But you know, is it some people will say, No, or some people will, will will, we'll ignore the email. But I mean, part of being a writer is rejection, isn't it, we get used to it. And also, you're just putting yourself out to one person in a way, it's not like you're putting it out into the entire world. So I'd say, Be brave be, you know, put yourself on the line with that stuff. Because the benefits that the positive that can happen is far better than the negative, which is someone saying, No, ultimately, I say go, No, and I don't want you writing this story. You know, just don't give that much information about what you're right. Did I just say, I'm writing about someone who works in this field, or I'm writing about someone who's been through this experience. And rather than going, here's my story, this is what it's about, unless I ask, then it's up to you. But you don't want to give too much away, because you also want them to talk freely, without having their minds framed in something in particular, you know, we don't have our questions, but let them speak freely is ultimately the the lesson there.

Emma Dhesi:

Oh, good advice. Thank you. That's really good advice. And I think your point about authenticity is very important that you're right in this day. And age is one of those key things that everyone's looking for. So doing your research. I love it. So tell us what you are working on. Now. You mentioned a couple of things. But what say what's kind of taking up your time right now.

Mark Boutros:

So I'm finishing the third book, with the editor. I'm writing this sort of dark comedy thriller about a married couple who decide they're going to get divorced, but then accidentally run someone over. And now they're stuck together, because they have to work on how to sort this out. So it's really about how shared experience may or may not bring them back together. So I don't I might, I might be doing that to see if if Kindle Vela emerges in the UK, I'm preparing that for that. So I'm thinking in terms of that one. And TV wise, I wrote on a children's sitcom that may be coming back for a second series, we don't know yet. They've been putting feelers out there. And I'm working on a true story, which I can't say a lot about, kind of NDA about it. But it's a true story. about something that happens in the 80s. That was a bit of a phenomenon. And I'm going we're going to go and meet the son in a couple of weeks. But that should be very exciting. I'm annoyed. I can't say more about it. Because then it just sounds really boring. I'm working on a thing. I can't say anything about great. Yeah, so that's, that's kind of what I'm doing. I don't really have time for much else. I'd like to write a standalone fantasy, at some point that I've been thinking about for about five years. But that'll, that'll be next year, if anything. Yeah. You know how it is? good intent on so many intentions of doing things but yeah, not not the time to do at all.

Emma Dhesi:

No, no. But listen, where can our listeners find out more about you online and learn more about how you how you help writers and your own fiction too.

Mark Boutros:

Thank you, this on on my my website, which is www.mark-boutros.com. I have a blog there and people can contact me that easily. I'm not on Twitter. It got to shouty for me. I'm on Instagram, I think at Mark Boutros rights or en boutrous rights. And that's pretty much it. I mean, I don't I'm not big on Facebook. I'm not very active on Facebook. But those are the two places really, if you like pictures of pigeons, that's Instagram. Otherwise, my websites are the best place.

Emma Dhesi:

Fantastic. I'll link to both. Well, Mark, thank you so much for your time, I could have chatted for a lot longer as just time constraints done it. Thank you very much for your time.

Mark Boutros:

Thank you for having me. It's been lovely chatting to you.

Emma Dhesi:

Pleasure. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I hope you find that helpful and inspirational. Now don't forget to come on over to facebook and join my group, Turning readers into writers. It is especially for you if you are a beginner writer who is looking to write their first novel. If you join the group, you will also find a free cheat sheet there called three secret hacks to write with consistency. So go to emmadhesi.com/turning readers into writers. Hit join. I can't wait to see you in there. All right. Thank you. Bye bye