Sunday, 6 January 2013

Creating interesting characters

What I'm reading: The Writer's Journey: mythic structure for writers by Christopher Vogler; The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott; Spirit House by Mark Dapin

While I'm certainly not the world's foremost expert on literary craft, these days I've got a reasonable handle on how to at least write my own books. I thought, therefore, from time to time, I might share some of the knowledge I've picked up - and mistakes I've learnt not to make quite so often.

I'll begin with character development, because as far as I'm concerned you can have the most original and exciting plot ever, but if your characters don't appeal to your readers, they won't care. And if your readers don't care, they won't finish the book.

There is a belief popular with some writers, which I admit I subscribed to myself for some time, that characters actually come to life when you're writing them, and sort of magically do things off their own bat that drive the story along, and all the writer has to do is type like mad to keep up. It was great fun, and easy, writing like that, until I started getting comments from editors about gaping holes in character arcs and flawed plots.

Why? Because I hadn't laid the foundations for my characters' motivations. My characters were doing things I hadn't set them up to do, and as a result their actions in the story didn't ring true. For example, if in Chapter 1 Mary Ann is a happy girl full of sweetness and light, and in Chapter 7 she suddenly wallops someone's head off with an axe, as the writer I needed to have built into her character a plausible reason - otherwise known as motivation - for her to do that. Note that 'the plot says she has to' is not an acceptable motivation.

And don't blame your characters and moan, 'But I can't control them. They just do it!', which is what I once said to an editor. I won't repeat in full here what she said back, but it included 'grow up'. So I did. Fictional characters are not real, no matter how much writers might feel they are. Every  dimension of a character comes out of a writer's head, therefore you, as that writer, have total control over what they do. So set them up properly right from the start. Give them all the motivation they need, and try to make it original while you're at it - which is a big ask as these days there isn't much  new under the literary sun - and if you can't make it original at least make it intriguing.

Fabulous character Fagin, from
Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist
In real life people do all sorts of things for a range of reasons. If it's something bad, it's often due to anger, resentment, jealousy, etc. If they do something good, it can be for love or altruism, or  sometimes for less noble reasons, such as self-aggrandizement. Your characters' behaviours should mirror reality, so your readers can recognise and connect with them, even your 'baddies'.

Understand, too, that real people often aren't driven by just one emotion - there will usually be a combination of feelings festering away under what the world sees. Just watch Dr Phil. If you're writing about a character's anger, be aware that people get angry because they're frightened, or lonely, or they've been betrayed or whatever. Focus on these 'invisible' or secondary emotions, not just the anger, to give your characters more depth. One dimensional characters are boring. The most interesting characters can be the ones who have a mix of both good and bad in them - just like normal, real people.

To keep track of my major characters, I set up one-page 'passports' for them. I'll include their name, date of birth, hair and eye colour, height, distinguishing physical characteristics like scars, tattoos, missing teeth, etc, habits such as whether they smoke (pipe or fags), personal quirks, eg, pushes hair back from face or taps foot when agitated, family members, and dates of major life events from their backstory. I'll also attach a picture, if I can find one that works perfectly for them. The better you know your characters, the better you can tell their story. It's a handy tool for reference to avoid silly mistakes, and when writing a series I can add to it as characters change.

Names are important. I always take care to choose the right one. Because I write historical fiction, obviously I use names that were popular in the era in which I'm writing. Modern names like 'Crystal' and 'Tiffany' just SO don't work for 19th century characters. This is a good site for 19th century names: or you can go to various 19th century birth, marriage and emigration records for authentic names. Be aware, though, that the Americans favoured slightly more religious-sounding names than the English, particularly for boys. Sometimes, for a particularly flamboyant character, I'll choose a suitably out-there name, such as Friday Woolfe, whom I named after St. Frideswide. But names, really, deserve a blog all to themselves.


  1. I like the idea of your 'passport' for each character - esp the personal quirks..

    Informative post. Thanks :)

    1. Thanks, Kez. It's really handy, especially when you have multiple characters. Helps avoid eye and hair colour-related stuff ups, etc.


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