Creating complex characters: Dolores in She’s Come Undone

Creating complex characters: Dolores in She’s Come Undone


This week it’s Dolores Price’s turn in the complex characters spotlight. Dolores is the star of Wally Lamb’s debut novel, She’s Come Undone. She’s a character that I use often in the workshops and courses that I deliver as she is amazing. Written by a 40-something man but one of the strongest and most memorable female narrators I have ever come across.

The story follows her from childhood to middle-age and although, as the novel title suggests, she goes through some really hard times I never found the book hard-going. It was compelling, heartbreaking, funny, poignant and ultimately uplifting (without having a shmaltzy ending) even though it covers themes such as sexual abuse, adultery, abandonment, mental health breakdowns and obsession.

We start with a young Dolores having a brutal introduction to the ways of the world when her beloved father leaves the family home as he’s having an affair, and never really bothers with Dolores again. Setting in motion a life for her that’s filled with mistrust, low-self-esteem, and a burning desire to be in control of people and situations, which ultimately leads to more heartache but with moments of joy and love along the way.

So why is Dolores so memorable? She’s one of the most complex and contradictory characters I’ve come across and also one of the most consistent (the 3Cs of character).

She’s surly, angry, manipulative and a liar. She’s funny, self-deprecating, vulnerable and desperate for someone to love her. She consistently behaves in ways that are really out of order but you find yourself rooting for her. She also consistently treats herself badly, physically and mentally, and you want to shake her when she looks like she’s finally having some moments of self-realisation only to slip back into the behaviours she’s always relied on, even though they are clearly harming her.

What makes her so memorable is that we’ve all been there. We’ve all done thing we know are bad for us, we’ve all shied away from dealing with the things that are making us sad. Dolores goes too far in her attempt to control things and I don’t think there’s many of us that will have done lots of what she gets up to. I’m not going to tell you what she does – go read the book if you haven’t already. It’s a brilliant book and a brilliant learning tool for us as writers.

Writing exercise

Create a character that shares the traits I’ve listed above for Dolores. Play around and find a voice for them by writing for 20 minutes from the sentence starter: I wish I could…

Then write a scene where they are doing something most people would think is a terrible thing to do but that will keep the reader on their side anyway.


If you’re feeling brave, post your scene in the comments below as we’d love to read it!



How to write a novel in a month, not only November

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? I imagine when this goes out, it will all be over for this year, the hand cramp, the dreaded daily total, the prompts and the lingering sense of guilt because you haven’t donated any money, because, well, Christmas – but you really will next year, look, you’ve written it on the calendar – but yes, all over for another year, and was it all worth it?

Well, yes. It’s bloomin’ hard finding time to write, and somehow the virtual tick-tick-cheer of NaNoWriMo is really good at getting those words onto paper. But if you’ve missed it this year, or have no idea what I’m talking about, then here are my tips for getting that book onto paper at any time of the year.

  1. Only write for twenty minutes at a time, ideally the same time every day, ideally as early as possible. This may sound odd, because surely if you’re on a roll, you should strike while the iron is hot, but hear me out. I think it was the dreaded Enoch Powell, may he not rest in peace, who among all the terrible things he said made one good point about negotiating – if you want to strike a deal, go in to the meeting really needling a wee. In a sense, the twenty minutes deadline is a bit like this – with the pressure of time writing suddenly becomes the treat being snatched away too soon rather than the chore which must be done, and you don’t give yourself time to sit there wondering if you’ve got the right word. Of course, you can always add in a second or third twenty minute slot if things are going well, but at least if you get one done in a day, then you know something is going down on paper, and for a first draft, that is all that matters. Which leads me onto my second point –
  2. Don’t think, write. This I intend to have tattooed on the inside of my wrist, along with ‘never get a fringe cut’ and ‘People notice less than 20% of what you’re worrying about’ – in first draft territory this is crucial. Don’t ponder the perfect metaphor, don’t worry about what colour you said your main character’s favourite shoes were, don’t even stop if you can’t remember their name (just write XXXXXX and move on) – just write. At the very most, write a footnote to yourself like ‘sort this out later’ or ‘put the gun in before this’ or ‘mention the death of the first wife earlier’ and move on. All these things are picked up in the edit, that’s what the first edit is for. And to help you write and not think…
  3. Plan lightly, but always plan – So that you have a rough idea where you’re going, give yourself a structure however light to follow. Most, indeed all stories have a beginning, middle and end, so that’s a start. I like to then come up with chapter headings – opener, this is the main character, the fight scene, running from the police – things like that. I don’t bother too much about the order they come in, because again, that can and will change in the edit, but I aim to have about five or plot points for each section, bearing in mind that we’ll usually need a climax in the middle of section three, and probably a bit of a twist towards the end, that sort of thing. If you break things down that way, it’s easy enough to build a light structure you can follow, so you’re not worrying about where you’re going next. And finally –
  4. Have a rehearsal. Usually a book idea comes to me with a scene, a character, a moment in time, which is where the whole thing grows from. I write this first, setting aside one session in a week to indulge myself with it, reading it through, editing, making it sound good. I may try doing it three different ways, first and third person, second if I’m feeling naughty, and past and present tense, treating it like a paint pot tester to try out the colour of the novel before I start slapping on the paint. Once I’m happy with this, maybe even giving myself a month to work on it, then my basic structure will come from this as I’ll know where the story needs to go, roughly, and then off I go.
  5. Once you’re done, don’t look at it for a month or more. No peeking, no thinking, don’t even spell check. Lock it away, watch some box sets, read some books, don’t worry about it. What you’re trying to do is get a sense of distance from your words, like stepping back from a painting to check perspective. If you try and dive right into an edit as soon as you’ve written ‘The End’, you’ll either still be too in love with it to see the brutal truth (we’ve all even there, right?) or be far to cruel on yourself and do something stupid, like deleting the whole thing. Just give yourself the time to enjoy that warm, fuzzy post novel glow, before the heart breaking work of editing must begin.
  6. Then call Amanda! and read next month’s blog on ‘how to edit a book’.

Getting the voice right

Voice is something that a lot of writers have been asking me about recently when sending their work for feedback. I think when you are so close to your writing you can often feel that the voices you have in your story, especially when you have more than one narrator, are not distinct enough, or authentic enough.

I know I felt this way when writing As If I Were A River but in virtually every review I’ve had of the book the readers have said that the voices are really strong, really different, and really real. So, it can be difficult to tell when it’s your own work.

Part of the problem for me when writing that novel was that I became really annoyed with my main narrator, Kate, at one stage. It seems that I am not alone in this dilemma. Morna Piper’s guest blog for Mslexia What to do when you hate the sound of your own voice‘ reveals that she finds her narrator irritating. While a lively discussion of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel, Gone Girl, over On The Literary Sofa blog shows that voice can kill a novel completely no matter how clever the plot may be.

So how can you tell whether you are getting it right?

Well, as writers you all know that you are far too close to your own work to be able to tell. So my advice is feedback, feedback, feedback! Get as many writer friends as you can to read your work and let you know what they think. Use critiquing services if you can’t find anyone honest enough or if, like me, some of your most valued readers are now almost as close to your work as you are.

Even if I’m writing a story in third person point of view, I always do some exercises writing in first person for each character and find the ‘what if’ ones can work really well for this. Play around and get to know your characters well and you’ll find that the voices will come naturally.

Think about the novels you love and return to again and again. What are the voices like in those? Why is it that you keep returning there? Conversely, think about the novels you haven’t enjoyed and the ones you abandoned – why did they not draw you in?

As well as feedback, I definitely recommend reading more novels as a writer rather than just for pleasure and analysing them as you go. Also read Francine Prose’s Reading As A Writer, do the exercises in it, and eavesdrop whenever you can to hear different voices wherever you go.

Character & Conflict: Driving the story forward

Richard Skinner (novelist, poet, creative writing teacher and head of the Faber Academy fiction programme) hosted a workshop at a character and conflict retreat in 2015. He focused on conflict being the heart of your novel and what drives the plot, character development and the entire story.

Richard, why is conflict so important in creating characters that readers can relate to remember?
If plot is the engine of a narrative, its heart, then the idea of ‘conflict’ is the heartbeat. Put simply, without ‘conflict’, there is no story. If the fact that a character will find success is never in doubt, there is no interest or involvement for the reader. The gap between desire and its fulfillment is what drives the story and keeps us glued to the page.

Does conflict in novels have to be on an epic scale?
The conflict doesn’t have to be on a grand scale—war, for instance—and every decision doesn’t have to be life-or-death. Conflict can be internal and much quieter, existing on a quotidian level, small scale, as it does in Anita Brookner’s Hôtel du Lac, but it must be there.

Which novels do you think use conflict really well to develop character and drive the novel forward in synch with each other?
Conflict within a novel can work on many levels. First of all, there is ‘personal’ conflict, the fight a person has with themselves. This may be the struggle for spiritual enlightenment, as in the case of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, or it might be the result of a dissatisfaction (as it is for Emma Bovary), or a ‘disaffection’—Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, for example.

Secondly, there is ‘interpersonal’ conflict, the conflict between two people who, for whatever reason, do not see eye to eye. This kind of conflict is at its most heightened when it is based on a protagonist and antagonist who have mutually exclusive goals, so that, if the protagonist achieves what they set out to do, it is at the expense of the antagonist, and vice versa. One very common example of this kind of conflict is the story of the ‘hunter and the hunted’, which is the template for countless Boys’ Own adventure stories. Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, for instance, or Hugo’s Les Misérables, in which Javert mercilessly and relentlessly pursues the reformed convict Valjean.

A more recent novel that is a good example of conflict is Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing (1994). During the novel, Billy Parham crosses the US-Mexico border three times: the first time to release a wolf back into the wild; the second to recover his father’s horses; the third to search for his brother. Each time he crosses the border, he loses something—the wolf, the horses, his brother—and he returns home empty-handed. In turn, each loss necessitates that he cross the border again. It is a magnificent novel and one of the best embodiments of pure conflict that I know.

Finally, there is ‘social’ conflict, which arises between one person and a whole community. In general, this type of story is the result of differently held views, whether it be an individual’s non-conformist approach to life (Crime and Punishment, for example), or the result a person maintaining their integrity in the face of great hostility, as in Twelve Angry Men. The permutations are endless, but all stories with this level of conflict have in common the idea of ‘one person against the world’.

There is another level of conflict, namely that between man and his environment, but as the subject of these stories is usually some form of natural phenomenon, they typically don’t pay much attention to character. This kind of conflict is to be found in movies such as Twister, Volcano, Armageddon, etc.

What does your teaching focus on to help writers get deeper inside their characters and develop different levels and layers of conflict?
I look at ways of putting obstacles in the character’s path to make life difficult for them. When placing obstacles for the characters to overcome, one important point to bear in mind is to ensure that those events don’t just happen to your characters, but that they happen because of them. It is easy, and tempting, just to hurl random impediments at characters, but they should in some way be the result of a character’s actions and decisions.

If something ‘just happens’ to a character, and they are not seen to act on or react to it, your character will be cast merely as a passive victim of circumstance rather than being an active generator of incident. In this instance, you need to ensure that character determines plot, not the other way round.

What are the three key things writers should know to develop conflict?
1) If you want a character to become rich, the first thing you do is rob them. 2) A character should achieve their success, not just acquire it. 3) Characters must pay some kind of price for what they desire and that cost is our investment in their story.