Creating complex characters: Bo in Exquisite

Creating complex characters: Bo in Exquisite

This A-Z of characters blog series is looking at memorable narrators in novels and what has made them stick in my mind. It’s all based on the three Cs of character that I teach in our online courses and at various events and writing festivals. The novel characters that people never forget are complex, contradictory and consistent, just like real people.

In the first of these blogs I looked at Adam in The Imposter from Damon Galgut. Today’s complex character is Bo in Exquisite by Sarah Stovell, who visited the blog to chat to Sophie a while ago about this novel and her writing. Read the interview here.

So who is Bo?

Bo is a novelist, living the dream writer’s life in her beautiful Lake District home with multiple bestsellers in her backlist. She’s got a lovely family and a happy marriage. Bo shares the narration of this beautifully written and compelling novel with Alice, an aspiring writer that she meets when teaching at a writing retreat. The two women instantly feel a connection and an intense relationship quickly develops, with Bo playing the part of the older, wiser mentor who sees traces of her younger self in Alice.

What makes Bo such a complex character?

It’s the different sides of her personality that contradict each other; and that she’s so difficult to suss out. Is she nice or is she nasty? I’m not going to reveal the answer to that but instead look at her character traits.

On the one hand she is caring, nurturing, supportive and on the other she is manipulative, dishonest and ruthless. She’s a great mother to her children and a popular member of her local community. She’s playing games with people’s emotions and twisting the truth to suit her own ends. She’s altruistic and donates to charity. Like the image above, different elements of of her personality were reflected on the surface but at the same time all the other sides of her were still there behind that reflection.

It was really hard to tell who the real Bo is. And this is true of humans in general. We never know what’s going on in other people’s minds and they often do and say things that are in direct contradiction to beliefs they have previously professed to hold. But at the same time they are usually consistent in how they go about things.

As writers it’s our job to decide what goes on in people’s minds, to share that with readers and show how that makes them act the way they do. One of the things I’ve learned through reading and writing a lot of fiction is that it’s the contradictions and the moments of inconsistency that make novel narrators stand out, make them memorable.

Which literary characters have you never forgotten and why? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll pick someone at random to win a free place on our online course, the Creating Complex Characters masterclass, in which I look at the using the three Cs in detail to write your own memorable characters. The winner will be picked on 27th June 2018.

Writing exercise:

Write a list of 3 positive character traits and 3 negative ones. Then create a new character for a short story that embodies them. Think about why they have these traits and how they manifest in their behaviour.


Up next in the A-Z of complex characters is Cassie in As Far As You Can Go by Lesley Glaister…

Guest post: Inky Lemons champions young female voices

Delighted to welcome Helen Irene Young back to the blog today. She first visited as part of our Indie Debuts series talking about her novel, The May Queen (read it here) and today’s she’s talking about a great new project she’s been involved in. The Inky Lemons anthology, recently published by Vanguard Editions.

New anthology, Inky Lemons champions young female voices
By Helen Young

Ask yourself when you first felt confident enough to pick up a pen and write. Who encouraged you? Was it a teacher? A parent? A friend? Hounslow Action for Youth (HAY) is all these things and more to the young women living in the West London borough.

In 2017, HAY’s Mash-Up Memoir writing project was born out of a need to support school-age women who felt voiceless and creatively underrepresented. Under the supervision of Jacqueline Crooks (lead workshop facilitator, fundraiser and project developer) they’ve just published their first anthology – Inky Lemons – a blisteringly bold and original compendium of poetry, short stories, flash fiction and illustration.

‘What we’ve learned from this project is that creative writing engages socially excluded young women who don’t take part in other activities,’ said Jacqueline. ‘There is something powerful about helping them find their voice through literature. The young women have gone from a point of not believing they could write, to seeing their writing published alongside award-winning authors. Thanks to Arts Council England for funding this project and others like it.’

To prepare the anthology, over 70 young women living and studying in Hounslow took part in arts workshops run by female writers. Work was also submitted for review as part of a remote mentoring program. I was fortunate enough to lead one of these sessions in Hounslow with a group of fifteen school girls. At times shy and funny, yet all remarkable – Inky Lemons is the culmination of all of their efforts.

The anthology also includes contributions from some of the country’s best poets and novelists, including:

Mona Arshi is a poet and lawyer. Her début collection of poems, Small Hands, won the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2015.

Helen Calcutt is a poet. Her pamphlet collection Sudden Rainfall was shortlisted for the PBS Pamphlet Choice Award.

Fran Lock is a poet. She is the author of three poetry collections, Dogtooth, The Mystic and the Pig Thief, and Flatrock. She won third prize in The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition 2014

Rose McGinty is a novelist. Electric Souk was published in March 2017.

Desiree Reynolds is a writer, DJ and workshop facilitator. Seduce was published in 2013 and she is working on a collection of short stories.

Kate Wakeling is a poet. Her first collection of poems for children, Moon Juice won the 2017 CLiPPA Prize and has been nominated for the 2018 Carnegie Medal.

Inky Lemons (edited by Richard Skinner and published by Vanguard Editions Social Action) is available for £7.99 at

Year of Indie Debuts : Magnetism – Ruth Figgest

Firstly an apology for the delay in posting the next in my series of Indie Debut blogs, I can only plead real life getting in the way, along with a healthy dose of snow!

But I’m back and this time speaking to Ruth Figgest about her novel, Magnetism, published by Myriad.

Hi Ruth, thanks for speaking to me about your book and your writing. Your story moved back and forth through time with ease, never losing the reader, so how do you manage to keep us on board? What techniques do you find helps in anchoring the narrative without being heavy handed?

Bearing in mind that it could potentially be frustrating for a reader, I tried to incorporate the real world into the story, in order for the reader to get references to historical events. In the first two chapters there are also references in the text to indicate the shift about to happen. I’ve  worked on ensuring that the voices of the characters remain in keeping with the times (in terms of terminology and what’s happening in the world) and their age at the time of the chapter. It’s all hugely helped by having the date of each chapter at the start, of course.

You kind of tell the story backward, so it to me it does have the sense of an autobiography, which lends a certain kind of veracity to the character’s stories. What strengths do you think starting with both an end and a beginning bring to your writing?

I think it’s really important to understand the story arc, that in writing a story you are constantly working toward the end. I’m pleased that it encouraged the sense of veracity about the characters by laying out the story of their lives through this structure. I had hoped that it would encourage interest in the material and create an satisfying tension for the reader, who (almost) always knows more about the future of the characters than they do.

I am very interested in playing around with time. We never remain fully in the present. We experience thoughts and associations constantly; our minds drift back to the past, and forward to the future. The inclusion of the past in this story allows the reader to understand the characters at a deeper level.

Having said that, it’s important for the writer to know the actual chronological experience of the characters, because otherwise it won’t make sense to the reader. The novel was written out of sequence. I came to understand the characters more and more in the process of creation and then I also added work that I thought would be useful for characterisation and plot development, but I always knew that Caroline would die, and that it would be a key dramatic development for Erica. 

The mother – daughter relationship, does it ever, can it ever run smoothly? I loved the way you write them, how the mother gives this impression on one hand of being laid back and not interfering in her daughter’s life and yet the second later is doing exactly that, attempting to control her in the same breath as protesting that she isn’t. I’m not going to ask if this is built on real life experience here, but is it based on real life observations?

I honestly don’t know what smoothly might look like because I think people are messy and imperfect and intimate relationships between messy and imperfect people are ripe with opportunities for misunderstandings and clashes as they each try to figure out what they want and who they want to be. Real life observations and personal experience tell me that a new mother is still in the process of becoming. She brings her fear, her immaturity and her baggage as well as her aspirations to parenting. 

Parents usually try their best to make their children feel secure and loved and confident, but their best might not be good enough or apt, because children are all different. It’s a fine line between supporting and stifling because it’s all too easy to fail to see a child as separate from yourself. It’s a formula for failure on both sides. Children have an idea of their parents which is incomplete; they fail to see their parents as individuals outside of their role. Parents can have issues with letting go, of allowing their children to be different, to want different things, to become grown-ups.

The plastic surgery in the book is such an interesting dynamic, and the sense that even though now we can ‘fix’ everything we don’t like about ourselves, we still remain unsatisfied. Was that something you wanted to explore in the story?

Yes. I wanted to explore the experience of women with regard to ageing and appearance. In the environment of this book plastic surgery is common place. I think the mother, Caroline, wants her daughter, Erica, to have a more pleasing appearance because she thinks it might improve her chances with men and a beautiful daughter might also reflect well upon her. But there’s a sense of anxiety about this even for Caroline. Though she pushes a young Erica to have surgery, she resists getting her own teeth cosmetically enhanced. The search for this kind of “perfection” becomes never ending and never satisfying. It is the result of fear. In the future the faces of people who die of old age may look forty years old, but they’ll still be dead.

How do you create the atmosphere in all the different locations and timescales you use? What research tools do you find helpful?

I think you have to think about popular culture, products, technology and clothing as well as attitudes. Checking out what was happening at the time of the story historically was helpful for structuring the story. I thought about putting the characters in situations where they think about events in the bigger world, and the growth of feminism, and of drug use and sexual freedoms are always in the background of the novel. I also tried to include climate in the book. In the Midwest, summer humidity and heat pervades absolutely everything.

What are you writing now, another American setting or somewhere else this time?

I always try to have two or more things on the go at once, so that I don’t take anything so seriously that I get anxious about it. It also means if one thing seems to be stuck, there’s something else to work on. I am presently making good progress with a novel which is based in Oxford, but I’m also working on a couple of other stories. One set in Turkey fifteen years ago, and another based in the UK. I’m sure I’ll write about an American setting again, but maybe not immediately.

What does your writing day look like?

There’s something about the rhythm of walking that helps me with beginning to write. I daydream about my characters and, when I’m driving or when I’ve got free time, I think with intention about their lives and potential plot developments. I’m a morning person so the best day is a very early walk with the dog and writing until the rest of my responsibilities press in and force me to stop.

I have a wonderful study and I climb up the stairs to work with expectation and a sense of excitement. I almost always write to classical music and I usually start by transcribing longhand work from my current notebook onto the screen, or with something I know needs more tweaking to make it good. This starting point gets me back into the work smoothly and after a while, I find that I’m writing new material and I can see the way ahead. This is a lovely sensation and at this point I allow myself to make a coffee because I know exactly where I’m going when I get back to the computer. Every few weeks I write with others at my home – we call it a “Just write” session – People can come and go as needed, but most turn up at ten and write without discussion until one o’clock when we might then chat about what we’ve been doing. It’s a good energy, this writing with others. 

And for my silly question, are you a long walk in the cold sort of person, or would you rather be waiting in the pub for everyone else to get there?

I’m guessing it’s the afternoon or evening, so I’m definitely waiting in the pub watching people while day dreaming, or reading a book. I’m extremely happy to wait in these circumstances.


You can buy Ruth’s book here, and if you have a mother I think you’ll find it hits home and makes you both grimace and grin as you read it.



Guest post: Mandy Huggins – Brightly Coloured Horses

A big welcome to Mandy Huggins for today’s blog. Mandy has two new books to promote, one of which is published by Retreat West Books. You may recall Mandy’s poetic short story, Giddy With It, in last year’s anthology from Retreat West Books, What was Left. If all that wasn’t keeping her busy, she’s just been announced as judge for a travel writing competition from

Those of you who have been following the exciting developments at Retreat West Books will know that my first full-length short story collection, Separated From the Sea, will be published in June. I’m really enjoying working on the book with Amanda, and I can’t wait to see it in print.

However, that’s not the only fabulous thing that’s happening in my writing career this year – it seems that just like buses, books come along in twos! I’m also thrilled to announce that my first flash fiction collection, Brightly Coloured Horses, has just been published by Chapeltown Books.

I love the flash fiction form, the challenge of crafting a complete story in a few hundred words and striving to make every one of those words count. Capturing entire worlds, creating plots and characters, evoking a gamut of emotions in a few short paragraphs, fully aware that you have to pull the reader in from the very first sentence. And you know you’ve got it right when people tell you that they were moved to tears in those few hundred words, or that they couldn’t stop laughing, or that they want to know ‘what happened to her next.’

And it’s amazing how many oak trees grow from these tiny flash acorns. So many of the stories in Brightly Coloured Horses have developed into longer stories, many of which will appear in Separated From the Sea – because I had to find out what happened next as well!

Publishing and promoting two books in the same year isn’t for the faint-hearted – I have a full time job in engineering as well – but I’m certainly learning fast. I want to give both my books their best chance in the world, and I’m lucky to be working with two dedicated indie publishers. I know Amanda is totally committed to making Retreat West Books a success for both herself and the authors she signs, and I really appreciate her faith in my writing.

Brightly Coloured Horses by Mandy Huggins

“Twenty-seven tales of betrayal and loss, of dreams and hopes, of lovers, liars and cheats. Stories with a strong sense of place, transporting us from the seashore to the city, from India’s monsoon to the heat of Cuba, and from the supermarket aisle to a Catalonian fiesta. We meet a baby that never existed, a car called Marilyn, a one-eyed cat, and a boy whose kisses taste of dunked biscuits.

These stories all have something in common; each is a glimpse of what it’s like to be human. We make mistakes, we do our best, and most of the time we find hope”

Already garnering 5-star reviews, Brightly Coloured Horses is available both in paperback and for Kindle.


Thanks Mandy! The cover of Separated From the Sea will be unveiled tomorrow (Wednesday, 28th March 2018) across our social media.


Brightly Coloured Horses is available via Amazon and Book Depository

You can follow Mandy on Twitter.

Mandy is judging a travel writing competition at

Cli-F Anthology, ‘Nothing Is As It Was’, cover reveal

Once again, a big thank you goes out to all the contributors of the forthcoming Climate Fiction anthology. ‘Nothing Is As It Was‘ which will be published on Earth Day, 22nd April 2018.  The book will be available through online retailers in both paperback and ebook and proceeds raised from the book sales will be donated to support the work of the climate action group, Earth Day Network.

The launch party is taking place on 2nd May 2018 and all are welcome. It will be in Reading in the Library room at Great Expectations, which is a hotel, restaurant and bar, where Charles Dickens held public readings. A blog tour is also running for 8 days around the launch where some of the authors will be talking about the inspiration for their stories.

Jennie Rawlings provided the beautiful cover design, shown above.  Thank you, Jennie!  Her social media details are provided further down, if you’d like to tell her how much you like the cover or see some of her other fine work.

The contributors are:

  • The Window Box by Stephen Connolly
  • Nothing Is As It Was by Nick Wright
  • The Goodluck Camera by Kimberley Christensen
  • The Arctic Commandments by Cath Barton
  • Blue Planet Collection by Jane Roberts
  • Mirror Image by Anna Orridge
  • Graduation Day at the Fishmongers’ Institute by Anne Summerfield
  • Healing Athabasca by Keygan Sands
  • Ophelia Rising by Elaine Desmond
  • The Other Side of Me by Norman Coburn
  • Hasta la Vista, Baby by Fee Johnstone
  • Deluge by Susmita Bhattacharya
  • Come and Gone by Angelita Bradney
  • Up Above the World So High by Rose McGinty
  • Portal by Philip Sobell
  • Airpocalypse by Rachel Rivett
  • Warrior by F E Clark
  • Walking With the Weather by Rob Walton
  • Sun by Wiebo Grobler
  • Thirst by Lorraine Wilson
  • I Am Stealthy. I Am Swift by CJ Conrad
  • Where Lies the Line by Jennifer Tucker
  • New Moon by Dave Murray
  • No-car by David McVey
  • Me on the Mountain by Vicki Ridley
  • Plenty More Fish in the Sea by Luke Strachan
  • The Warming by Karen Morrow
  • New Shoes by Charlie Hill
  • Too Late by Ros Collins
  • Bottleneck 2047 by Neil MacDonald
  • Fireworks by David Barker
  • Like a Captain of Old, Going Down With the Ship by Fiona Morgan

Seven additional stories will be published online. Starting later this month, they will be published on a weekly basis to help promote the book and raise additional funds for Earth Day Network:

  • The Extinction of Bognor Regis by Louise Mangos
  • Spark by Jackie Taylor
  • The Grey Seal’s Lament by Bayveen O’Connell
  • The Triumvirate by Sumana Khan
  • Carla Loves Frank by Rebecca Johnson
  • Silver Ghosts by Kris Faatz
  • The Flood by Olivia Sandwell

The anthology was edited by Amanda Saint and Gillian Walker.

Contact Jennie Rawlings (the cover designer) on social media

Learn more about Earthday Network:

Welcome to the new social media interns!

I’m thrilled to welcome Kelly Rebecca and Phil Sobell to the Retreat West team as the new social media interns – they were both so full of great ideas that I couldn’t choose between them. They will be working with me this year to bring lots more great content, writing challenges and competitions to Retreat West and I will be helping them to develop their writing.

Kelly has been working with the Hastings Writers Group over the past year, which led to the publication of her first short story ‘Nancy Riot’ in the 2017 anthology ‘Strandline 11’. It has also encouraged her to write more regularly and her first novel, based on her own experiences with a neuro-functional disorder, is now fully drafted. She also has a YA fantasy/ thriller novel in conception, as well as a whole host of half planned tales eager to find their way onto the paper. She said: “I’m ‘looking forward to working with Retreat West to further the wonderful work it does equipping and encouraging writers across the country. I am also excited to see where the experience leads my own writing journey.”

Phil has been writing short stories (mostly science fiction with a bit of horror and fantasy) for several years and found Retreat
West while seeking to progress with his creative writing, he said: “It’s great to be involved with Retreat West in the new internship position, and I look forward to taking advantage of the novel writing course to progress with my planned SF novel.”

Over the coming months both Kelly and Phil will be providing new writing prompts, challenges and chances to win books, free entry to our competitions and more. Let them know in the comments below if there’s any area of fiction writing you’d like prompts and challenges for.

Already Retreat West has a new Instagram page, which you can follow here: to get exclusive offers and challenges.