One subject that keeps coming up in my writing group is how to create convincing characters.
All characters need a context, a goal, a challenge, a history, but do you start with a blank page and watch your characters develop as the narrative progresses, or are you familiar with every aspect of their backstory before you start writing?
So how do you build a character?
Some writers create a comprehensive study for all their main characters right down to the smallest details, such as where they went to school, their favourite colour etc. This way they know exactly how each character will react in any situation or circumstance. There are no surprises.
Other writers prefer to plunge straight in, allowing their characters to develop along with the story. Rather than responding to a situation in a way that reflects their pre-determined background, characters have the freedom to go off at tangents, to do surprising things that may not be in the original script. There’s less control, and that’s sometimes a bit scary.
Neither is right or wrong. It’s just what works for you and which method you’re comfortable with. I know which I prefer.
It’s important to give the main characters in your story individual personalities, otherwise they’ll appear two-dimensional. They’ll all sound the same and the reader will find it difficult to differentiate between them. You want the reader to be interested in and care about your characters, even those they don’t particularly like (and to be honest, why would anyone carry on reading unless they did?). The characteristics, speech patterns, accent or dialect you give your characters will also allow your readers to get under their skin and empathise with them.
To make your main characters stand out, you could try giving some of them a specific trait or trademark. Maybe a nervous twitch, a regular wardrobe malfunction or an annoying habit. If it’s something very unusual and outside the norm, or if it has an impact on the story, an explanation will be necessary at some point. Don’t forget, in a novel everything has to have a reason.
One of the regular characters in my novel, No News is Good News comes to work every day dressed as a Hollywood film star. A different film star every day. Her outfits are part of the office scenery and other characters comment on which star she’s playing each day. But there’s a reason for it, which is revealed at the end of the novel.
In the past I’ve used characters who:
- Whistle under their breath all the time. (My father used to do this, much to everyone’s annoyance.)
- Only possess two pairs of shoes which are alternated throughout the working week until they fall apart and are replaced by similar pairs.
- Sniff incessantly (Turns out they didn’t have hay-fever after all)
- Wears the same trademark bowtie, bright yellow, every day.
- Nervously pulls mascara off her eyelashes whenever she’s in a challenging situation. (You can use this trait in place of speech to great effect.)
- Begins every sentence with the words, ‘What I mean to say is…’
One last word on the subject – don’t overdo it. You don’t want a novel populated with wierdos, unless, of course, that’s your express intention