5 Ways Virginia Woolf Can Help You Improve Your Writing

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Though many know her for her dramatic suicide, Virginia Woolf was a champion of literary modernism who adapted the close psychological approach favored by Russian novelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pioneering stream-of-consciousness narration that she married with a superb sense of style, restraint, and inimitable observational chops.

As you might expect, there’s a lot budding writers can learn from Virginia Woolf. A master of character development and introspective narration, Woolf’s groundbreaking novels To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and Orlando are major literary landmarks and as relevant today as they have ever been. Here are the top five lessons writers can learn from Woolf.

1. Look after yourself

It may seem like I’m selling Woolf’s literary achievements short by starting with this tip, but self-care is important in a field where rejection is both so direct and so common. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf famously laid out a writer’s bare necessities: ample money and their own space.

A little depressing and very English but, as she writes, ‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.’ Obviously, no-one chooses poverty, but many artists do indulge in the ‘tortured artist’ archetype, where suffering is seen as an unavoidable side effect of creativity. Simply put, it isn’t, so if there’s anything you need help with, be sure to get that help, as much as you’re able.

Now, with that responsible adult advice out of the way, let’s get down to craft.

2. People-watch (or ‘character-read’)

Writers like Ernest Hemingway and, more recently, Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski were all about living wild, exciting lives and then translating those experiences into stories. Woolf scoffed at this bravado, instead favoring a writer’s life built on the careful observation of others.

We are all innately people-watchers (or ‘character-readers’ as Woolf puts it). As she says in ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’:

Everyone in this room is a judge of character. Indeed it would be impossible to live for a year without disaster unless one practiced character-reading and had some skill in the art. Our marriages, our friendships depend on it; our business largely depends on it; every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help.

– Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’

But what separates this everyday people-watching from writerly ‘character-reading’? Well:

Novelists differ from the rest of the world because they do not cease to be interested in character when they have learnt enough about it for practical purposes. They go a step further, they feel that there is something permanently interesting in character in itself.

– Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’

But how best to mine real people for character ideas? Well, you have to really look. Ask yourself what someone’s appearance says about them – Woolf talks about encountering ‘Mrs. Brown’ on a train, and gleaning from her appearance – ‘everything buttoned, fastened, tied together, mended and brushed up’ – a ‘more extreme poverty than rags and dirt.’

Of course, Woolf knows nothing about this woman – she’s essentially letting fictions form around her own judgements and prejudices, supplementing the concrete details that she does know (the woman’s appearance) by filling in the gaps.

From here, Virginia Woolf being Virginia Woolf, it takes her no time at all to flesh this scant ghost into a living, breathing character:

I felt she had nobody to support her; that she had to make up her mind for herself; that, having been deserted, or left a widow, years ago, she had led an anxious, harried life, bringing up an only son, perhaps, who, as likely as not, was by this time beginning to go to the bad.

– Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’

It’s startling how quick Woolf goes from absorbing the appearance of a stranger on the train to writing her life story. The trick is tenacious interest; Woolf finds the woman ‘permanently interesting’ and follows each clue to its logical end. Every detail of Mrs. Brown has its own history, and they come together to form a cohesive story.

Great writers find human nature ‘permanently interesting’ and worthy of study.Click To Tweet

3. Write about people who make an overwhelming impression on you

Writing is about passion, and that goes for your characters too. Woolf’s portrait of Mrs. Brown is so convincing and engaging only because the woman on the train made such a strong impression; Woolf’s characterization may have been less impressive were she trying to write about someone she didn’t find interesting.

Of course, part of what Woolf finds so fascinating about Mrs. Brown is her own fiction – she’s gone beyond the reality of Mrs. Brown and finds herself caught up in her own musing. But for your imagination to run wild like this, there has to be an initial spark; a reason why.

What do you find compelling in people? What catches your eye? Think about it and, out in the real world, seek it out.

4. Allow your characters their contradictions

People in the real world are inconsistent, irrational, and contradictory, and realistic characters possess these same qualities. Like Hemingway, Woolf advocates for a form of detailed personal realism that denies the flattening ‘good’ and ‘bad’ moralities of genre fiction and instead presents characters who are blurred, imperfect, and entirely human. As Woolf says, ‘There are no Mrs. Browns in Utopia.’

The things that make Mrs. Brown so fascinating to Woolf during her train journey are both her imperfections and, to a greater extent, the ways in which she deviates from Woolf’s initial assumptions; she surprises Woolf and, in her behavior, Woolf finds fascinating and fruitful contradictions. Consider:

I was beginning to feel a great deal of pity for her, when she said, suddenly and inconsequently: ‘Can you tell me if an oak-tree dies when the leaves have been eaten for two years in succession by caterpillars?’ She spoke quite brightly, and rather precisely, in a cultivated, inquisitive voice.

– Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’

And, at the section’s close:

He told her what fruit farmers do every year in Kent, and so on, and so on. While he talked a very odd thing happened. Mrs. Brown took out her little white handkerchief and began to dab her eyes. She was crying.

– Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’

What is going on here? How, over the course of Mr. Smith’s explanation, has she been so moved? The woman who began ‘brightly, and rather precisely’ has somehow been reduced to tears over the course of Mr. Smith’s fruit-related monologue.

This reaction is in itself fascinating; working as it is on the back of Woolf’s earlier descriptions – ‘everything buttoned, fastened, tied together, mended and brushed up’, a woman, somehow, of ‘extreme poverty’ who the reader is led to see as prim, carefully put together, and ultimately tragic – is here reduced to tears for reasons unclear to the reader.

Seed your characters with contradictions that reveal new layers and priorities, not just random quirks.Click To Tweet

The contradiction of this neatness, this championing of manners and dignity, and of her emotional breakdown over something as seemingly inane as the precautionary measures of fruit farmers, is inherently dramatic; it’s an example of how successful characters create their own stories.

5. Understand psychology

Woolf’s understanding of human psychology is, frankly, rather startling. Like Dostoevsky, she sees all the mental baggage dragging behind every action; in her fiction, no act is insignificant. Such writing allows for characters of startling depth and turns the reader into an amateur psychoanalyst, working to piece together the individuals behind each calculated behavior.

Mr. Smith said nothing. He got up, buttoned his coat, reached his bag down, and jumped out of the train before it had stopped at Clapham Junction. He had got what he wanted, but he was ashamed of himself; he was glad to get out of the old lady’s sight.

– Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’

See how the actions of Mr. Smith (another stranger on the train) here subtly communicate the emotions Woolf has herself prescribed to him. Her sequential description of his actions (‘He got up, buttoned his coat, reached his bag down’) suggest a prim, orderly fellow, traditionally English and masculine – that is, uncomfortable around displays of emotion and concerned with outward appearances.  His premature leaping from the train goes further still, communicating his eagerness to be rid of the situation, to forget the man he’d just been; as Woolf tells us, he is ‘ashamed of himself.’

The more you understand psychology, the more you’ll understand your characters.Click To Tweet

While I’m unsure whether Woolf’s organic eye for human behavior can be taught, there are certainly things you can do to improve your own understanding of psychology. The obvious options are reading books on psychology or, if you have the time and money, attending evening classes, but you could also do some Googling and do some careful, thoughtful eavesdropping (I particularly recommend our article Psychology 101: Knowledge That Will Improve Your Writing). Alternatively, read lots of Woolf and, like Woolf herself, the great Russians: Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy.

‘I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual’

Life’ll do that. No matter what you want to write about – no matter what genre you’re writing – you need to squeeze life into your writing. And nothing says ‘life’ like living, breathing, engaging characters.

So, next time you’re putting pen to paper, think about what your characters’ appearances say about them; think about the stories behind their behavior, the forces pulling them one way or the other. Think about their worries, their neuroses. Think about how your Mr. Smith responds to your Mrs. Brown, and think about what he thinks about his own responses. Will he, like Woolf’s Mr. Smith, feel ashamed of himself and, consequently, resentful of Mrs. Brown? Think about it, and get out in the field (i.e. your local café) and practice your character-reading. Good luck!

What are your favorite works by Virginia Woolf? What lessons have you gleaned from her writing? Let me know in the comments, and check out Are You Dressing Your Characters For Success? and 6 Insanely Good Dialogue Tips From Your Future Literary Agent for more great advice on this topic, or try 5 Ways Maya Angelou Can Improve Your Writing and 5 Ways Ernest Hemingway Can Help You Improve Your Writing for more insights from other literary greats.


4 thoughts on “5 Ways Virginia Woolf Can Help You Improve Your Writing”

    1. You’re very welcome! Many thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad you found the post useful.



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