10 answers to the real questions of creative writing

We recently gave a lesson on creative writing as part of the Bridport literary Festival. 38 people attended and the whole event went very well. People demanded quite spontaneously more information so here is a a bit more about the ideas presented.

The real questions of creative writing are:

What do I write about?

How do I make a story?

How do I make people speak?

Who should be in my story?


The solutions are actually quite easy but there is so much confusion in this area we need to iron out some fallacies first:

1.   don’t think in terms of characters think in terms of relationships.

2.   Don’t look for conflict look for contradiction

3.   Don’t look for conflict look for submission and domination

4.   Find out what CAPTURES your imagination- it may be weird, it may be unPC but that is what you must write about.

5.   Some things in a story are fixed. A story has parameters. Just because you CAN change everything doesn’t mean you should. The main shape of a story comes during the dream and then the writing phase- that should be fixed, that’s the way it is. Rather like when you have a bad day at work you use your SKILL as a story teller to interest us either in its humour or its pathos or the insights you derive from it. But the facts of the day more or less remain fixed. If you try to change everything all the time you will be lost. The secret is to accept the parameters rather like a poet accepts the need for metre or rhyme and use your skill to work round this.

6.   When an element captures your imagination go that way. That’s where the energy lies. Go where your energy is telling you to go. Experiment, get used to sensing where your energy wants to go in life and in writing.

7.   Challenge yourself- you may find new areas that capture your imagination.

8.   Do free writing without any thought or preparation first thing in the morning. Do flash fiction and fake book blurb writing. All this will help you find what captures your imagination.

9.   If you love a particular book maybe a big part of that captured your imagination. So copy it. Naturally you will change bits and it will probably seem original. Now that early Murakami novels are getting republished you can see for yourself the huge debt David Mitchell owes to that writer. He really copied him- and then made it his own, just as Oasis had the nerve to copy the Beatles and make something of their own too. AS Robert Louis Stevenson used to say to aspiring writers: “Copy, copy, copy.”

10.                 To find out what captures your imagination try writing about your best moment at the end of the day, or the beginning of the following day. Just ask yourself what the best moment of that day was and then write about it, following up all the leads it generates.

Beginner's Mind for Writers

Zen philosophy encourages a state of mind known as beginner’s mind. I have always found this very suggestive and it’s one reason why our introductory course is entitled Beginner’s Mind. Basically it takes all that it is GOOD about being a beginner and leaves out the negative connotations of being a newbie (almost useless word in my opinion). Beginners have beginner’s luck- let’s start there. Why? Because they aren’t in a rut, staring at the tiny space in front of their noses. Their minds are switched on and open. Studies by Dr Richard Wiseman have shown that lucky people are very often simply more open to experience and the advantages that life throws at all of us. In his experiments the people with an ‘open mind’ were more likely to see money left lying on the ground and advertisements in the paper that benefited them. The unlucky people were simply switched off, convinced that life had nothing much to offer. This applies to writing as much as anything else.

My first book sold more copies than any other I wrote in the following ten years. Often students have the experience of their first real story or poem, the first they really work on, turns out to be their ‘best’ for quite a while. Beginner’s luck is out there, and if you switch into Beginner’s Mind you can gain access to it, even if you are no beginner at the craft of writing.

Beginner’s mind signifies being in a state of openness. You are ‘on’ to whatever is around you. In writing terms it means you treat stuff that seems like old hat, or you heard before as if it were MORE IMPORTANT than new and exciting things you’ve only just learned. A real beginner in everything is in that state naturally, but since this is an idealisation (you have been writing for years even if you don’t self-identify as a writer) you need to fake it to make it real. Every time you hear something said about writing that seems over familiar or ‘not exciting’ pay especial attention. It isn’t just because of that particular piece of information, it is to cultivate a sharper sense of perception, that will be useful in all areas of writing.

If you allow a complete beginner to read a story or film script they will very often pick out the problem areas- they may say they like them or hate them and they may offer solutions for fixing them- all of that is irrelevant. Their beginner’s mind has identified a problem area- physically on the page. All you have to do is study it and find a way to fix it. Ignore their suggestions- as non-writers they won’t have much of a clue how to fix a problem- but they have already done a great job of pointing out the place where the problem is. Unburdened by theories of good and bad the beginner at least knows what they like- and it is that sensibility you are trying to regrow and encourage. Regrow- because you had it when you were much younger and had a ‘natural’ reaction to everything you read. But years of schooling and hearing other peoples’ ‘informed’ opinions can do wonders for blocking your own ability to tell what you really like and what you don’t. Beginner’s mind aims at restoring this first of all.

Barry Lopez, the highly regarded writer of Arctic Dreams, famously gave three pieces of advice to new writers: Read a lot. Get away from the familiar. Find out what you believe. A beginner accepts that this is new territory. They accept that their own writing mind is something of a mystery to them. They engage in analysing what they believe rather than assuming they know already. ‘Been there done that’ is the antithesis of such a mind. It is also the death of good writing as it kills the energy to even attempt to write something.

Michael Merzenich, a leading researcher into cognitive decay and its avoidance, has discovered some optimum conditions for learning. One is being ‘switched on’. This occurs when you do something for the first time (beginner’s mind again), when you are shocked or when you focus hard. It resonates with what Colin Wilson called the St. Neot’s margin- by forcing oneself to deeply focus you suddenly ‘break through’ and achieve a whole new level of engagement and interest. This is one reason for never writing for less than a couple of hours at a time. If you don’t feel in the right mood keep taking tiny breaks but returning to your desk. After the third or fourth try at getting going you may be surprised at the sudden surge of engagement.

Beginner’s don’t have high expectations and ideally they have no expectations. Expectations are what get us every time. How to avoid them? As Andy Warhol said: make more art. Get busy. Hammer that keyboard. Drive the fantasies away by using the word count button, the best invention since the fountain pen…

When you feel lost or unsure switch into beginner’s mind. Revel in uncertainty rather than drown in it. Be experimental rather than judgemental. Find our what you like writing, what you believe in.

The scaffold

Christmas is over. I cast my mind back to childhood and for some reason I get the TV image of the Queen’s Christmas tree- maybe in her palace in Scotland- reaching to the high ceiling. The height of the Christmas tree (ours were always rather short) was very important to me, though my own kids don’t seem to care as much. Maybe because I self-consciously bought tall trees at first; now I, too, see the merits of a small cheap tree…the sight of wrapping paper discarded around the Queen’s tree suggested the magnificence of Royal gifts, but, tantalisingly all that was on view was red shiny wrapping paper and gold tinsel. All this from a few minutes of one year’s Queen’s speech in the 1970s. 

But then came the letter writing- thank you letters. We had until early Jan at the latest. Some cousins were ridiculed because they sent their thank you letters in mid February. Might as well have not bothered. Thank you letters were considered important and I hated writing them. They brought on a familiar anxiety, the desire to say something that would be both noticed and approved. I know now its easier to separate these two- write for approval but care not for its qualities, or to hell with being liked – write what you feel like writing.

Writing a thank you letter is still not easy for me. In fact writing any kind of letter is hard. Letter writing makes me anxious and if there is one condition that kills the ability to write well it is anxiety.

Some people are natural letter writers, I’m not. I can still recall the sense of blankness when it came to finding a few things to say other than thank you. I was tormented by the limited, or so it seemed, possibilities. I could praise another present- running the risk of belittling the giver’s gift. I could talk about how Christmas ‘went’- but often the letter was to someone we had seen that Christmas. This feeling of being tongue tied, unsure of what is ‘right’, has stayed with me whenever I write almost any kind of letter unless I free myself up in the first line- sometimes by being ridiculously formal “Good morning Sir!” or facetiously informal “Yo bro”. These forms of address can always be changed later, their function is to get me writing in the right way.

Writing always has these two parts: the scaffold, what you need to get you to produce what you produce, and the work itself. Some writers leave traces of the scaffold in- which confuses critics who bend themselves out of shape trying to explain the anomalous presence- when its true function was simply to catalyse the release of the main idea. Buddenbrooks has a lengthy family scene at the beginning that seems pointless- it was Thomas Mann's way of getting going, getting the right feeling before he really started. Some scaffolds are made to be removed. Agatha Christie would write a detective story with one character in mind as the murderer. She would then change the murderer at the end and go back and fix all the clues, making the final work much more subtle. In fiction I sometimes deliberately use the names of people I like or actively dislike- it gives me a kick- then I change them later. You need to know how your own mind tends to work. What turns you on. Gets you interested. What I would say is that if you feel some kind of emotion you like before writing then that will make for better writing. The worst writing is usually, not always, written when you feel flat, bored and don’t care. The best when you have a warm feeling of caring interest in the subject. Anger can drive a certain fluency but you lose the playfulness that really good writing seems to have. You probably want to avoid an overwhelming closeness. Nicholson Baker recommends writing down your best moment of the day as a good way of building this caring but playful feeling. You really care about your best moment and you care about yourself. Yet it isn’t too painful and pressing and close to make writing difficult. It’s your experience so you know you have a good supply of stuff to convey- so no anxiety there. And you are genuinely interested and it is fun too- that must be a big part of it. You need to have that caring feeling, a fondness for your subject. Interest can be clinical and functional, what I am after is a sort of nostalgic caring feeling mixed with real but playful interest.

An emotion then. But as psychologists will tell you when they are off the record, no one is quite sure what an emotion really is. I find it better to characterise the feeling with some physical counterparts. A cosy warm interest, a sense of endless time or time slowing down as when you are sitting with hours ahead of you in a book lined room that is warm and inviting, maybe with a beaten up dark red leather covered armchair. I think the experiences of actors can be useful here. Imagine a scene in the approaching piece of writing that strikes a deeper chord than simply fulfilling a function. Think about an image you like, or nice phrases you like to repeat. These can serve to anchor the writing, give it some kind of gravitational centre around which you can circulate.

You can keep making stabs at the same subject. Don’t worry about disrupting the flow of what you are writing- that can be easily fixed. Lots of goes at saying the same thing can jog an emotion to the surface and result in subtle but interesting differences. 

Keep on keeping on

Writing is hard. I don't mean the act of making the pen move or the hands bash the keys, what I mean is, the entire process from having an idea you like to publishing a book you still like is hard. But you can turn that to your advantage. Everything that helps you keep writing is GOOD. Everything that seems to slow or discourage writing is BAD. This gives you a way to sideline one of the most crippling aspects of writing- losing self belief, asking yourself 'is it good enough'- or worse, telling yourself 'it's just not good enough'. By doggedly following the path of least resistance to actual words on the page you will at least get to stage one- a sizeable number of words that can be edited. This is the equivalent of a sculptor taking delivery of a lump of stone. Think of a sarsen stone or a menhir- they 'work' as sculptures even without any surface chipping and carving. So too does a raw MS- it has real value in itself- very very few MS cannot be salvaged in some form or another. Maybe not by YOU, but by someone with a less attachment. But let us be optimistic- you have your raw words, now you decide or fine tune what the book is 'about'- for me this isn't always straightforward. I've written books where I had to be told by someone else what it was 'about'. Then it was obvious. It could be a theme you keep circling, it could be a something that bubbles along beneath the surface or it could be a question you are trying to find answers to. Having settled that (again using the criteria of going with the idea that makes you most want to keep writing) you can start a proper edit. Congratulations you are half way there!

Are you a pessimistic writer?


E.M.Forster wrote that one must be an optimist in life but a pessimist in writing. By this he meant that life and art are different and that art, in order to be taken ‘seriously’, needs to reflect the age we live in- which he concluded, rightly, was pessimistic. Though he would have loved to end his books with a happy marriage he felt he couldn’t, that a sense of dissonance was truer to life. 

The writer and thinker Idries Shah observed that all societies have a negative current, of varying strength, made up of superficiality, pessimism and laziness. Different cultures have differing ratios and levels of each. But here we are concerned with pessimism. But just what do we mean by pessimism? As Shah also commented, “A pessimist may just be an optimist with more information.” In other words, the straightforward definition of a pessimist as someone who sees faults, the negative aspects of a thing, the downside- is not really very useful.

But in his excellent book The Perfumed Scorpion, derived from University lectures he gave in the 1970s, Shah mentions the idea that pessimism – as a useful concept – means the clumping together of ideas, views, beliefs that do not need to be packaged up. It’s ‘pessimistic’ because the world is far more magical, unusual and diverse than any simplifying ‘clump’ can make it. Writers seem dull when they unload such a conventional package- though we may not be aware of the source of that dullness. Pessimism, then, is taking a cluster of ideas on board, a sort of picture of how the world works in which certain other ideas ‘fit’ or don’t. Any new idea you come across is not assessed for its truth or usefulness, merely whether it fits the picture or not. You see it everywhere: the way politics, fashion, food tastes, film tastes all seem to coalesce into a ‘type’. But behind that there is the more damaging pessimism of being operated by a picture you don’t even notice is there. ‘Pointless progressivism’ could be such a dogma, or ‘we’re all the same’ another. Procustes was famous for cutting off the legs of those that didn’t fit the ‘one size fits all’ bed. In another fable a hawk is trimmed of its beak and talons and is told: ‘now you look more like a pigeon’…these traditional messages are there to guard against pessimism- which is, in reality, holding ideas simply because they ‘go’ with other ideas.

Maybe there is a reason why ideas cluster. There is an odd parallel with genetics: certain genes are 'stickier' than others. What this means practically is that if you want to breed high yield/hardy barley you'll find it impossible beyind a certain point (otherwise we'd see cornfields in alaska presumably). Hardiness is 'sticky' with low yield, high yield goes with fragility. These kind of multiple gene clusters make it hard to make real frankenstein foods- which is surely a good thing- but it also shows there is a 'natural' proclivity for clustering in things that want to survive. In one sense a world view, political outlook, theory has a life of its own. By analogy, a compelling myth, picture or narrative has sticky memes within it to help it survive. It thrives by us repeating it, finding it attractive- but the cost is we very easily and naturally imbibe a whole cluster of ideas that distort reality and encourage wrong action. The US/UK involvement in Iraq is an example of this.

Back to writing. It’s very easy to fall into a conventional viewpoint- especially if you actually believe in large parts of it. In one book I wrote I was lambasted- more or less rightly- for narrating the book from a ‘boilerplate green’ perspective. Now I do think we should live in a sustainable way and I do think we shouldn’t pollute resources that are used by everyone. However that means I must actively try and identify the incongruities, humour, bits that don’t fit with this perspective in the material I am dealing with. This is allied with, but different from, trying to avoid cliche and a conventional viewpoint. Life is never ‘this or that’- and neither should writing fall for the easy clustering of ideas.


bulk counts

Look at any page of writing and isolate the common words, the 'thes', 'ifs', 'buts', 'ands' and 'maybes'. How many of these words seem crucial to the sense of the piece? How many facts or examples anchor the writing? You may be surprised to find that an awful lot of very ordinary 'support words' are needed to unload one apercu or interesting idea or piece of narrative. Richard Feynman famously observed that there is 'plenty of room at the bottom'- meaning that we can easily minaturise machines if we operate at the atomic level. He suggested that if we store information at the atomic level you could easily put an encyclopedia on the head of a pin. Because of the vast number of atoms which make up the molecules in even a tiny thing such as a living cell we should not be surprised at how much complex information it can contain. What is surprising is the comparative simplicity of the atoms and molecules compared to the cell. By analogy a book has huge numbers of 'atomic' words, building blocks that are very simple in themselves when compared to the complexity of the book. Its easy to be daunted by the book until you work out just how much of it is just scaffolding....Be that as it may, for writers the heartening news is that any piece of writing contains a lot of bulk, roughage, standard support 'ware'. It is this you must blast out when you start writing- not all the fine ideas you are having trouble pinning down. Susan Sontag was famous for going over her essays and tweaking the ideas, improving them on each round. Edmund White commented that her raw material was never impressive- but she was good at levelling up whatever she wrote.

You can start writing even when you are only half informed, or have only half an idea- just get those 2000 words down (I believe a professional writer should aim at 2000 unimproved words a day- 1000 if you have a full time day job). There is nothing more heartening than bulk. Later you can experiment with endless improvement. Just get started!

Master writing tip #1

A story consists of a platform, which is the initial conditions (people, place, relationships, time) and the unpacking of the platform: reusing, as cleverly and interestingly as possible, the various elements of the platform or their direct descendants. Bloody hell, even I can't quite make that out! Example: two men on a bus= bad platform. Two men on a bus, one hasn't paid for his ticket and the conductor is coming= slightly better platform. Two men on a bus, one ticket between them and the conductor is coming= a tad better too. So you get the picture: the platform is your pandoras box, your dressing up cupboard, your chest of goodies that you can mix and match to the reader's delight. The later on in a story you introduce a new element the more you stretch the platform out and into the unpacking of the platform. This is usually bad and makes the story read like a series of 'and then I did X, and then I did Y'. It doesn't matter how interesting each element is, without the glue of unpacking and reusing of what has come before the audience will lose interest.The chiefdelight in hearing a story is the clever reuse of something glimpsed earlier. Think of Piggy's specs in Lord of the Flies, the Ring in the Hobbit, and every gagg structure used by Charlie Chaplin. Unpacking and reusing elements of the platform are how we 'understand' the basic materials of the story. A 'three act' structure is nothing sacred- it's just this: the platform, elements of the platform going wrong, the same elements going right. The five act structure is more pleasing because we get an extra go at the elements with the 'false victory' that happens in the middle (Act 1=platform, Act 2=bad stuff happens, Act3=false victory, Act4=all hell breaks loose, Act5=a climactic struggle leading to final victory or utter defeat).

Interesting platforms lead to interesting stories. Forget what you can drag in later. If it 'aint in the platform get a new one. Hated notions such as the 'hi concept' movie have something right here. A high concept platform is probably a fruitful one, other things being equal. If you can repeat the platform to someone without embarrassment it is probably a good start. If the platform seems to DEMAND explanation (like the marvellous 'hundred year old man who leapt out of a window') then you are onto something.

The tip: create platforms that seem to demand further explanation.


make more art

“Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

andy warhol

more on novel writing methods


Make it very simple. Make the base idea impregnable. Look at it as the capstone of a pyramid and writing the  novel as descending the pyramid, building it in reverse so to speak; as you descend what is above becomes set in stone. You absolutely don't want to be making small changes that have huge effects on structure at a late stage: you want your structure nailed early on and set in stone. In every decision chose the simpler and stronger of each option. Keep making it simpler. Life complicates- it needs a simplifying shove at each stage. OK, so much for general comments, what follows is my method for novel writing, more or less. I have to say it works for me- maybe it will work for you too.

1.   Get a good location that gives you a buzz. This is absolutely the single most important decision the novelist can make. NOT character, NOT story but LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION that’s what calls the shots and sets up the key parameters of story and character. Of course a character and a location may suggest themselves at the same time, but never lose sight of the need to nail down the location soundly. There’s a reason why Hardy country still exists.

      The exception-  there always is one at least- is when the location gives you a character who can travel. A series character perhaps.

2.   Get a good story/situation that gives you a buzz. A story/situation is simply something interesting or potentially interesting in your chosen location. This is your PLATFORM. This Platform forms the storehouse for the novel- which serves to unpack what is implict in the platform. Example: location- Florida swamps, platform- a deserted house where a drug smuggler has told his straight brother to recover some hidden money. You can see the possibilities. Half or more of the battle is in having a good platform. Give up if yours isn't. start again.

3.   Get good character names. With the right names the right characters will follow. Model characters that don’t ‘live’ on someone you know. Be shameless in copying. Use opposites to generate life: a bodybuilder who is studying Balzac, a policeman who loves bonsai trees. Exagerate their main characteristic. Easier to tone down exxageration than to 'tone up' a dull character. 

4.   Flesh out some dramatic scenes. Make sure you include a disgusting scene, a very funny scene and a scene that sends a chill down your spine- for whatever reason. Just thinking in this way should get you generating ideas.

      Never explain why someone falls in love, or is obsessed by something- they just are. we always accept it when someone tells us they have fallen in love- with the most absurd things/people. 

5.   Make a list of scenes that broadly connect. Keep reusing stuff from the platform in an inventive way. WE love to see earlier material pop up again and affect the story. Toy Story is a great example of this. Don't worry too much about making it all watertight at this stage.

6.   Refer to the card system outlined in my previous post on novel writing.

7.   Start first draft

8.   Finish and print first draft

9.   Read first draft and make notes on it

10.                 make a list of bits that need doing

11.                 Do the easiest or the one that most attracts first. This is KEY. If you attack hardest first you’ll lose momentum and give up. The secret is to GAIN momentum by knocking off the easy stuff first.

12.                 Work through list gaining momentum

13.                 Write new list for the next day

14.                 When list is done print off whole book

15.                 Read and mark up print off

16.                 Make new list etc

17.                 Continue until satisfied

18.                 Send book to key readers

19.                 Read their notes

20.                 Make a new list etc

21.                 Continue until satisfied.


novel writing equipment

You can write a book any old way you like but a system helps when things look blank and scary. Over the years I have very slowly evolved mine to one that works, mostly. I use big 6x9 cards, smaller 6x4s (rough measurements in inches here), yellow legal pads (usually A4 but sometimes if I'm lucky old foolscap size ones)- these must have a red margin line not blue- I'm picky! I have a little notebook for word count and odd ideas that occur when I walking about. When I have an idea I sometimes just start writing on to the computer. After a day or so I'll either ditch it or if I am sure this is what I want to do I'll rough out some stuff on the legal pad. Being pretty wasteful with the paper at this stage. Then I gradually note ideas down onto the smaller cards. If I can get a stack of more than 40 I know I've got something. These I then shuffle into some kind of order- and that will suggest more cards. Of, I forgot, the A2 yellow paper map! I get a big piece of yellow A2 and draw a map of the story- because what I write usually has a journey of some kind a map is always useful. I add stuff and rub stuff out- I use a 2B pencil here. Gradually I get a pretty good map going, with people and little houses and trees drawn on it for added time wasting potential - but also to keep the momentum going. I then take stuff off the map onto the small cards and then vice versa, building up both resources, increasing the reality feel of the whole project. Then I go back to the legal pad and write a chapter list and see if I can make one that seems to make sense. Sometimes it's enough to just have the stack of cards all numbered next to me. When I need to write a new chapter or chapterette I use a big 6x9 card to expand the small card (which will just have a quick direction on it); I then on the big card pile on all I need to give me courage to start on that chapter. I also use the bigcards for each character, adding info as I go. The whole point of this is to always have something to do, following my favourite writing dictat: "always keep going even if it means moving sideways like a crab".

dialogue tip

When writing dialogue in a story or novel think about the way the talkers connect in a REAL way. Talking only rarely allows of a real connection (so rare that in real life the result is often silence). So even if the talking or the scene demonstrates lack of connection it's good to show the lower level on which there IS connection- this could be hostility or desire for attention (in fact it's always worth looking at a scene and asking yourself - who's looking for attention, who's giving it here, is there an attention battle going on). Melville is good at connecting his characters through the way they may touch each other physically. Updike is good at finding the level of connection that surrounds otherwise banal dialogue. If you can look for that connection you'll bring interactions between characters to life- because you will be depicting life and not some jaunty back and forth exchange of ideas.

only question the novelist need ask

There is only one question a novelist need ask himself:

What do I want?

Not: what does the editor want, what does the reader want, what does the public want, what does the critic want, what does my mother want, what does my best friend want?

Of course it is possible to write with all or any of the above questions in mind but you'll find when the going gets tough your mind will begin to skate unless you pull up and say to yourself- screw all the rest- what do I want to write here? It's the only way to break though the topsoil into the clay beneath. And clay is the stuff real people are moulded from.

building fictional characters #2

The question you want to be able answer about a potential character is: can I run with this? You can build up a character full of quirks and contradictions and then find he or she just doesn't move of their own accord- you're always having to cattleprod them from scene to scene. You know you're in this pickle when the thought of writing new scenes seems like a drag (or a bigger drag than usual). You want a character with LEGS which carry them around gaily and happily or even grumpily but at least carry them. So you need to keep trying on characteristics that seem to chime in with the name and character's context, seem to mix into a potent cocktail that moves. For example I spent a long time building this character X who was supposed to be an expert on the jungle, knew about plants, etc etc...but it was all a bit static. No legs. Then I had a mid-morning coffee break insight that X was tough. That was it. I had my legs. I like writing about toughness and now I had my chance. So, it is likely that the key driving characteristic may be somthing simple that appeals to YOU, gets YOU a bit excited- or excited enough to want to write about it. One must always ignore what is 'good' or 'acceptable to the audience' at this stage- it's all about charging your own generative powers with whatever fuel they need.

building fictional characters

Embark on your novel at peril if you haven't nailed your characters. Character can be done last but it involves headache inducing rewrites. Instead get 'em nailed first. Number one- get the name right, this goes hand in hand with what I call the moment of squint-truth: this cumbersome phrase refers to the inner mental squint you make to try and capture your character in some defining moment or relationship. For one of my characters it is the fact that he has an unnecessary 'enemy', for another that she has a huge first aid kit- these captured moments seem to set up the right improvising energy needed to make the character thrive. It's rather like getting the right hat for a role on stage. Wear the right hat and you know how to speak, go on stage in the wrong hat and you're tongue tied. The right defining feature will also, usually, highlight a contradiction within the character- people who are internally torn are always more interesting- and lifelike.