Character Reference

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I’ve just had my passport photograph updated – who is that woman? She looks like she’s had an interesting life – it’s certainly left its mark. Which ties in nicely with this week’s theme – creating characters.

People-watching can be very fertile ground and there are plenty of opportunities for observing personality traits and characteristics in colleagues, friends and total strangers in the course of your working life and leisure activities.

I’ve been lucky to work in some colourful and exciting environments, full of large than life personalities, who transfer easily onto the page, albeit with a little tweaking. Here are some possibilities for you to consider:

  • Do you work with the same colleagues every day, closely enough to be intimate with their coffee and biscuit preferences, the names of their spouses and their children, how they would vote in a general election? Combining the characteristics and experiences of several people might result in a completely incredible character, but it could also produce an interesting personality who positively jumps off the page.
  • Do you regularly meet the public? Is there a barrier between you, like in a benefits office or a bank, or are your dealings more pleasurable? Do they need something from you? Are the people you meet hostile, confrontational, apathetic, desperate, considerate, conciliatory, understanding? How does their attitude affect your opinion of them? To create believable, two-dimensional characters, we should think about how their job impinges on their personal life, and vice versa.
  • Service personnel spend long periods of time away from home. How does this affect their home life? Do the things they’ve seen cause problems on their return? Does it change them? What happens when they try to resume authority over the household when they get home?
  • A character in uniform has a readymade set of attributes, real or imagined. Think about ministers, nurses, fireman, soldiers, policemen, paramedics. We’re all familiar with the archetypes, but are they always so kind, so authoritative, so masterful, or does the uniform disguise a different sort of character? An indecisive fireman or a priest with murderous intentions makes for much more interesting reading
  • Do you belong to a church, a trade association, a union? Are the proceedings always taken very seriously, or is there a humorous angle you could exploit? Are the members’ interactions legitimate, or is there room for some mischief?

You are in control, after all. You can make your characters do whatever you like. You build them from the ground up, equipping them with the traits that make them who they are and how they conduct themselves. The more ammunition you have in your armoury, the more effective your writing will be.

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