Creating characters

It was my turn to take our writing group last week and as my theme I chose a topic I’ve written about in the past – Characterisation.

As well as what the story is about, readers are interested in who it’s about. They want a protagonist they can empathise and identify with throughout the story, but these characters won’t necessarily be nice people; some memorable characters from literature have been downright horrible – think Heathcliffe from Wuthering Heights, Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Pinkie Brown from Brighton Rock.  Whether likeable or thoroughly villainous, we need to believe that the characters we create are real, breathing people or our readers won’t believe in them either.

A character without any problems will be an unconvincing, two-dimensional, cardboard cut-out. Well-rounded, plausible characters will have some kind of conflict going on. This could be an inner conflict; maybe something in their past holding them back, or an external problem that they haven’t any control over which nonetheless exerts some sort of power. But how your character’s deeds and behaviour impact on the world is more important than how the world impacts on them. Passive characters have no impetus; they are always waiting for something to happen to them. They don’t move the story forward.

Character development depends on consequences, on the way the character has been shaped by the world and their response to these influences. So even before we start to write, we should be familiar with our characters. In order to understand a character and imagine them carrying our plot, we need to know what makes them tick. By exposing their personal traits and discovering their histories we can create characters that spring off the page as unique and exciting individuals that our readers will care about. If they don’t care, they won’t turn the page.

As we get inside our characters’ heads, to find out what excites them, what they find interesting and what offends them, we get an insight into how they might behave in our stories. Ask yourself what films they like, what books they read. Do they read at all? Why do they wear vertiginous stiletto heels, even when there’s snow on the ground? Or do they prefer a life in jogging bottoms and trainers? What’s their complexion like? What sort of meals do they prepare?

Imagine them at work, amongst their colleagues. Do they get the bus to work every day, drive their car or walk? Do they enjoy their work? Are they well-liked, or universally hated? Do they have a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, or have they been part of the same tightly knit coterie since school days?

Characters evolve through being tested by events. Once you know their background they will start to have a life of their own on the page and reveal themselves to the reader in interesting ways. They don’t need to act in a conventional way, but it’s only once you know how they are expected to behave, because of the traits you’ve imagined for them, that they can react differently.

Your characters needn’t be stereotypes – the hard-up drug user who steals to pay for his habit; the working mother full of guilt; the girl who’s only interested in dolls – these characters have been done to death and are boring. We can create a more interesting cast for our stories by imagining characters in situations and circumstances outside the norm and offer alternative, surprising scenarios. It’s too easy to make a character hate everyone because he’s on the dole, or is bitter because he has to look after his aged parents and hasn’t got a girlfriend like all his mates. You could surprise your readers by creating much more imaginative characters who defy these conventions.

In my small library of how-to-write books, I have a copy of ‘The Creative Writing Coursebook’, edited by Julia Bell and Paul Magrs and published by the University of East Anglia. It’s an enormously helpful collection of advice and exercises, with contributions from forty writers, and I’m indebted to Susan Perabo for this character building suggestion:

Take a blank sheet of paper and think about the items your character might habitually carry around in his pocket, her handbag, briefcase, backpack etc. List the first ten things that come into your mind.

The list might include something your character never uses, or which no longer works, but which holds some special sentimental value, or something they need every day, like lipstick or a cigarette lighter. The items can be totally unrelated but they should reveal something about the person: a book, perhaps, or a fountain pen, a diary with no entries, a new tube of breath mints, a few coins, a dog-eared black and white photograph.

What observations can you make about the character based on this list? Is the presence of the lighter, but not cigarettes, significant? Why carry a fountain pen instead of a biro? What’s the title of the book and what does it say about the character’s reading preferences, if anything? Why is the packet of mints unopened and why are there no entries in the diary? Who is the photograph of and does your character know them? Consider the possibility that some of the objects might be connected. How?

When you’ve finished, write a short character study based on your list. Make sure it reveals something about the character and has some potential for conflict. You’ll be amazed what you come up with. The class surpassed itself, conjuring up all manner of imaginative lists. Can’t wait to see the characters studies next week!

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4 thoughts on “Creating characters

  1. That sounds like a really helpful exercise. It’s interesting how knowing facts about our characters that never get revealed still helps us write them in fuller, more three-dimensional detail.

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