Diana Wynne Jones, a children’s author better known in the U.K. than on this side of the pond, died last night at 76. She had been fighting a long battle with lung cancer, and had herself taken off chemotherapy this past June.
Over here she is best known, if at all, as the author of the book that inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Howl’s Moving Castle. The movie is quite different from the novel, but Jones praised it to the skies anyway.
She was old enough to have attended lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis at Oxford, and in her nonfiction work she was amusingly tough on the cliches of fantasy fiction. Her “Chrestomanci” series, about a group of enchanters tasked with regulating the use of magic throughout the parallel universes, was frequently compared with the Harry Potter novels, and the popularity of J.K. Rowling helped bring some of her work back into print.
On her Web site you will find a page of advice on writing that is both helpful and entertaining. Here, for example, is how she advises novices to flesh out their characters:
People are even more important. They are the ones that make the story happen. You have to SEE them even more clearly than places. You have to know the shape of them and if their breath smells and how their hair grows. In fact, you have to know twice as much as you put in the story. Sit and think and SEE them before you start. And HEAR them too. Everyone has their own special way of talking. Make them talk like they should – and do remember that people don’t talk proper sentences and that they shout or they mumble, and try to get them doing this. If you have trouble, put a real person in your story. If you have an Aunty May or an Uncle Joe whom you don’t much like, use them as the vampires and they will come out wonderfully real. You won’t need to describe them, just do the way they talk and move. (You don’t need to tell your aunty or your uncle either).
Writers could do a lot worse than to follow that strategy. And readers could do a whole lot worse than get acquainted with the worlds of Diana Wynne Jones.