Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tweeting in character

By Jeremy Duns

I’ve been on Twitter for a while now, and have been enjoying it. The site has helped me interact with readers of my debut novel Free Agent, and I think find new readers for it, but it can be challenging for a writer. When you spend all day trying to fashion an exciting and coherent story in 80,000-plus consecutive words, Twitter’s 140-character limit can take a little getting used to.

So I was interested to see a couple of writers trying something new on Twitter: tweeting in character. A couple of months ago, Joseph Finder, author of Paranoia and High Crimes, set up an account representing the protagonist of his latest novel, Vanished. Heller is described in his Twitter profile as an ‘intelligence investigator, security consultant, fixer, ex-military’ who ‘knows where the bodies are buried’. And just to make the message clear, he tells us he is ‘working with author @JoeFinder to tell my story’. Finder tweets as Heller as though he were a real-life citizen. So the character often links to stories online about intelligence and security matters, and exchanges banter with his Twitter followers – he has over 1,450 of them at the moment. Finder sends the tweets to Facebook, too, where he continues the conversation. One of his associates explains some more of the reasoning behind the experiment here.

Another thriller-writer adopting this approach is Jeff Abbott, author of Panic and Fear, who set up an account for Luke Dantry, the protagonist of his latest novel, Trust Me, in July. Abbott announced the development on his blog, saying that Dantry would ‘write about his researches into the next wave of terror and criminal networks’. The character is a grad student in psychology penetrating online extremist sites to try to determine which participants might become violent. In Trust Me, he is kidnapped, whereupon he realizes that his research is much more dangerous than he believed.

Abbott said he decided to put the character on Twitter because ‘he was the reason I got on Twitter in the first place: Luke uses Twitter to broadcast a message to his friends that he is innocent of a crime. I thought it would be a fun way to share a lot of the research I did into the dark world of online extremism – which I believe to be an enormous threat to our everyday lives.’

Like Nick Heller, Luke Dantry tweets links relevant to his field of expertise, but he is not in character to nearly the same extent, often directly referencing both Abbott and Trust Me in his tweets. Still new to the game, he currently has 36 followers.

I have been following both of these experiments on Twitter with interest, and a few weeks ago started wondering if I could do something similar with my own protagonist, Paul Dark. But unlike Heller and Dantry, Dark is not a contemporary character: my novels take place in 1969, at the height of the Cold War, and Dark is a British secret agent on the run. A character who lives in a pre-internet age using Twitter – how would I do it? What would he have to say, and why would he be saying it? Unlike Abbott and Finder’s characters, he wouldn’t be able to interact with other people on Twitter without shattering the fourth wall, but interaction is key to Twitter. Sure, some writers have serialized novels on Twitter – RN Morris, for example – but I wasn’t sure what I could add by doing that.

Then last week I read an article in The Bookseller about Philippa Gregory tweeting her latest novel. Here was a character from the 15th-century on Twitter! I found it interesting that she preferred some of the prose she had used to that in the novel, and I liked her idea to tweet around the edges of the book. It reminded me of Lawrence Durrell’s interconnected novels The Alexandria Quartet: at the end of each, Durrell included a few pages of ‘workpoints’ that provided descriptions of characters or places, alternative interpretations of events and possible sub-plots, extending the world of the novels and letting readers imagine further spins on it.

Reading is a curious experience. There is no interaction, just a series of posts that both advance the plot and can be read individually. Over 500 people are following the character, myself included. Because of the way Twitter works, I find it rather hard to follow all the tweets as they appear in my feed, and reading so many from the bottom up on the character's page, especially with Twitter’s current rudimentary archiving function, is also difficult. But Twitter works as a sort of skim-reading device, and the effect of @ElizWoodville, I find, is that her tweets subtly invade my stream of updates about political debates, publishing news and the like, and that even though I don’t read all of them or try to keep track of the story too closely, I still come away with a strong sense of the character, and the time she is living in. It’s very impressive, and certainly makes me want to read the book.

So yesterday I set up a Twitter account for Paul Dark. My novels are in the first person, which is an advantage, but this version of Mr Dark expresses himself in the present tense as opposed to the past. I have decided to do something along roughly the same lines as Philippa Gregory, but with no time limit to it (she’s only tweeting as the character for a week), and to write as I go along. This has the benefit of spontaneity, and I feel that having written two novels from Dark’s point of view I can now effectively ‘channel’ his voice. In fact, the exercise is already helping me as I gear up to write the final book in the trilogy.

I have, naturally, had to adapt to the site. Free Agent is a breakneck-paced spy thriller with nearly every chapter ending on a cliff-hanger. But cliff-hangers don’t really work on Twitter, because of the way it streams and is read. So Dark's tweets follow lines of the first novel but do not stick too closely to them. Sometimes I rewrite or edit passages from the book; other tweets are either free-floating thoughts or circle around moments in the novel, like Durrell's workpoints, or songs on a soundtrack that were not in the film. The chronology is much looser, and I intend to insert some foreshadowing of the second novel and perhaps the third into tweets as I go on.

It’s an experiment, both in terms of marketing my work and in terms of my writing. So far, I am enjoying it. Strangely, although Twitter offers just 140 characters a time, I find that Dark is slightly more expansive in this medium than he is in Free Agent. But I hope I am succeeding in capturing his voice, and that I will be able to both entertain people who enjoyed the book and find new readers as well. Please do let me know what you think!

Free Agent by Jeremy Duns is published by Simon and Schuster in the United Kingdom and Canada and Viking Penguin in the United States. See for more information.


Jeannie Holmes said...

Great article, Jeremy! Thanks so much for sharing both your and Paul Dark's experiences on Twitter.

Although didn't know about Joe Finder's character or the others you mentioned, some other authors I follow and of whom I've been a long time fan have done this for some of their characters. It seems this is becoming a popular trend, which I think can certainly enhance the reader's experiences in the worlds we create for our characters.

Having said that, I tweet in character also but have taken a different approach. I set up accounts for the two main characters in my debut novel, BLOOD LAW, and have them interacting with one another from time to time as though they were real people. I don't delve into the events of the book, although I may hint at them or refer to another character in passing. Since the main characters are in a rather complicated romantic entanglement, it can be a challenge to stay within the boundaries of their established relationship. But it's a challenge I enjoy and am having fun with it.

Another challenge, as you mentioned, is the 140 character limit on the tweets. I don't find this as much of a challenge as some character "tweeters" may since my characters are contemporary, and I treat their tweets as dialogue. As I said, I'm having fun with it and have already gained some early support for the novel, which is wonderful considering it isn't due to be released until next summer.

Thanks again, Jeremy, for the great article. I hope to see more of Paul Dark in the future, both on Twitter and in the bookstores. :)

Carla Buckley said...

How clever you are, Jeremy--Dickens in miniature! I admit that Paul Dark is tailing me--and he's being very clever about it, too.

You're making me wonder if I should do something like this, too, even though I don't write a series.

And Jeannie--I love that you are pushing the envelope like that, and having your characters interact on the Tweet Stage. I am certain Blood Law is going to be a major success.

Unknown said...

I'm completely impressed. What a well-researched, well-thought-out, clever idea!

Jeremy Duns said...

Thanks, everyone. And Jeannie, that sounds like some very clever stuff you're up to - let us know how it goes!

Jeannie Holmes said...

I'll keep you posted. So far, it's actually helping me stay in that character mindframe while writing the second book.