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He was a man of good character

May 23, 2011

Blank Character Canvas“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.”
Jaques (Act II, Scene VII, As You Like It)

In the early seventeenth century, Shakespeare drew the parallel between the acts that men and women put on throughout their lives to the dramatic acts put on in the theatre. We all play different characters at different times in our lives – I play the roles of daughter, sister, employee, writer, friend and cousin, among others. Of course, we’re still at the beck and call of the vagaries of life, so these characters are somewhat restricted by social convention, or expectation. However, if you’re a writer, you get to invent those characters – and you can make them do whatever you want.

Let’s face it, characters are the bedrock of your fiction. Plot is just a series of actions that happen in a sequence, and without someone to either perpetrate or suffer the consequences of those actions, you have no one for your reader to root for, or wish bad things on. Sure, you can write the sort of fiction where someone wanders through a vague backdrop before coming to a realisation, but where’s the fun in that? Readers always remember their favourite characters, from Miss Havisham to Mr Darcy, Dracula to Lestat, or Harry Potter to Aragorn. Just as life is made or broken by the people in it, so is fiction.

Unfortunately, characters and plot give rise to one of those ‘chicken and egg’ scenarios. What comes first? Do you think of a plot and then develop characters to populate your idea, or do you come up with characters and then try to find things for them to do? The drawback with the first approach is that your characters are solely there to prop up the idea. With no real reason for them to be there other than to propel the plot, they run the risk of becoming stereotypes, and you end up with cardboard cutouts. The drawback with the second approach is that your characters might end up aimlessly wandering about, or being so stuck for things to do that they don’t behave according to the profile you’ve sketched for them.

So what do you do?

 Create composites

You know people, yes? Well I just bet they’re crammed to bursting with interesting hobbies, annoying habits, idiosyncrasies and quirky turns of phrase. It’s probably not a good idea to base a character solely on one person, but there’s nothing stopping you lifting a hobby from one person, an eccentric habit from another, and a physical attribute from another to add extra depth to your character. Be careful not to take it too far lest you create a caricature, but things based on real people all add to the believability of a character.

Peek through the blindsPeople watch

Spend any length of time observing human interactions and you will most likely conclude that not only are the vast majority of us a bit strange, but strangers provide excellent fictional fodder. Ever been waiting in a queue and overheard a priceless snippet of dialogue? Ever seen a person in public that is utterly captivating from the basic way they carry themselves? There’s a whole world of potential characters out there – you just have to look for them.

Let the characters come to you

Sometimes you will literally just get an idea for a character you’d like to use. My longest-running character is my Cavalier ghost, Fowlis Westerby, and he just walked into my head and started talking. Other characters have entered a narrative at a point where I’ve needed someone to perform a particular function, and they’ve ended up staying. Immerse yourself in your fiction and characters will start volunteering themselves for jobs. Listen to them.

Personally, I do a mixture of all three. A character might walk into my head, but they might be a little flat, so I’ll round them out with a behavioural tic or quirk I’ve observed in someone I know. Alternatively, I might be out and about and see someone whose entire way of being suggests a story – and then I invent a character for that person, and let them start talking. But where do you take it from there? Here are three possible ways to expand and develop your character past the point of creation.

Movies

Many writers dream of the day that their novel is turned into a movie, so take advantage of that daydream and try to picture who you would cast to play this particular character. How would they play it? Would they have any particular tics, or habits? Would they have a certain way of speaking? Write these into the character.

Twitter

Set up a Twitter account for your character. Send tweets AS your character, and have conversations with other people. Sometimes you can have a Twitter conversation with a character created by someone else – as you chat, details will emerge that you may not have considered on your own, and a voice for that character will begin to emerge.

Interviews

Interview your character. Whether you go for a serious interview packed with gravitas or salacious muck-raking is entirely up to you, but the questions you ask will dictate the answers you get – which will in turn dictate the insights you glean about your character. Be aware that much of this information will inform the back story, and doesn’t even necessarily need to make it into the narrative, but it all goes towards giving you a much better understanding of the character – and the more you understand, the better you can portray them for your readers.

What about you? Do you have any particular methods for crafting characters? Are your characters on Twitter?

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7 Comments
  1. May 23, 2011 2:05 am

    Your chimera suggestion at building composites appeals. I do demand consistency from my characters but despair upon observing people in the real world that self same consistency is sorely lacking. Such fickleness (or sheer randomness in some cases!) would not be tolerated in fiction. People are whack jobs but we demand internal reliability and believability from our characters which seems all a bit unfair on our fictions if you ask me.

    PS: Hmmmm, K.P. on Twitter … yeah right, as if I didn’t swear enough on social media!

  2. May 23, 2011 10:21 am

    I’ve actually thought about putting one or two of my favorite characters (reader-favorites, not my favorites necessarily) on Twitter… but then I realize that I barely have enough things to say for my own Twitter feed! I may do this, though, if I get a character who is chatty enough.

    I mentioned my “Cavern of Characters” earlier this month and for any characters that come to me that are too flat, I stick them there… while there, they drink coffee, eat pie and talk about their favorite 13 rules of physics, show-biz and/or vegetarian diets. This, typically, causes them to round themselves out or run away screaming. Actually teaches me a lot about the characters in a slightly odd and perhaps, perverse, way.

  3. laradunning permalink
    May 23, 2011 4:08 pm

    I use a compilation of my own imagination and actors to think of my characters. How they might look, move, dress and get around in their world. Sometimes I dream them up, or a scene and create them from that.

  4. May 23, 2011 9:43 pm

    Characters are one of the easiest parts of composition for me. Everywhere I go, everything I watch, everyone I talk to feeds into the pool of potential character items. Characters are expressed through stories. What happens and how they react, whether it’s how they express being bored in a waiting room, or how they fight off a rabid cyclops. The best way I’ve found is to have a few character traits in mind and then toss them into a situation. Character emerges through response.

  5. May 24, 2011 8:32 am

    I think the key here is to get out and meet people. The more we are in contact with others, the better it is for us. I teach English to professionals and meet 10-20 new people every year through my work. Of course, none of these people ever end up in my fiction, or at least I’d never admit publicly to it. But it’s strange how so many character traits of those I meet do find themselves here and there.

  6. May 24, 2011 2:05 pm

    I definitely find traits of real people I know in my characters. Sometimes I do it on purpose, but in those cases I will usually try to make them be more like caricatures– to be funny as an inside joke, but only if it doesn’t detract from the story in doing so.

    Sometimes I put in narrative or dialogue that plays on a real person’s traits. In a play I wrote a couple years ago, I put in a line where one character didn’t trust anyone who drank tea. This was directed directly at my sister-in-law who, at the time, was giving up coffee and drinking only tea. It got a laugh out of everyone, but none bigger than from my sister-in-law.

    Playing with characters in such a way as to make them touch real people and their traits and idiosyncrasies can be a lot of fun!

  7. May 25, 2011 5:31 am

    I’ve only ever once used an actual conversation in my fiction. I just used the general gist but it was actually something quite personal to me, and quite cathartic to write. A few people have said it really rang true when they read it so I suppose there’s something to be said for the old adage of writing what you know.

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