He was a man of good character
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?