As I launch the new Writing Coach website, I thought it would be a good idea to also celebrate the history of The Writing Coach by beginning this series of blog posts and articles from my own archive. In coming weeks I’ll be sharing some of my favourite archive articles.
This one “Creating Convincing Characters” is more a series of notes than an article. I prepared the notes for a talk I gave at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 2005. I hope you find them useful.
Creating Convincing Characters
When we write fiction in an organic way, we do not need to begin with a plot. We can begin by creating our characters. The plot grows from the characters and not vice-versa. For example, my novel Bluethroat Morning grew from a fragment of a rejected novel; from a single image of a Victorian woman in a bustle dress walking along a Norfolk beach, side by side with her elderly uncle who was wheezing for breath.
Characterisation includes aspects of character we may consider when first building characters, including:
- Physical appearance
- Dialogue & narrative voice
- Self-perception of character and the perceptions of others
- The character’s history
- The character’s conflicts and desires
- The thoughts and actions of the character
Yet character emerges through the difficult choices a person makes. In other words, if you are an organic writer, it is discovered only in the process of writing.
So we can begin with a visual image, we can do writing exercises to begin filling in the gaps (for example using lists like those in the list below – a common method). But real character goes deeper. It emerges when you put characters in situations and conflict with other characters, when you begin to dream about them and build on the characterisation. Characters develop and grow.
They may at first emerge from a fragment
- A phrase that intrigues you
- Visual images – paintings, photographs (I’m a huge John Fowles fan and his picture inspired my character Harold Bliss in Bluethroat Morning)
- Composites of people we know
- A face on a bus or a fragment of conversation
We then build these characters – by journaling, writing or dreaming about them. Maybe we’ll pin pictures above our desks: the novelist Deborah Moggach (author of Tulip Fever and more recently In the Dark) once told me she likes to use Michael Gambon’s face as an inspiration because she feels it is so open to interpretation.
We may set ourselves an exercise – for example – ‘write your character’s obituary’. Or we may write a scene about a central childhood experience, to begin to understand the character’s past. I did this for Harold Bliss, when I felt I didn’t know him well enough and the scene I wrote became a vital passage in the novel.
As we write our characters, so they begin to build in our imagination. Only through regular writing do they begin to live and act in unexpected ways…
If we keep notebooks, where we scribble ideas about our characters, we are giving them room to grow. They must never be static.
Character is about more than a set piece description. It is dynamic: a vital life force within a work of fiction.
And characters develop through conflict.
Where do your characters experience conflict?And how do our characters develop?
My experience is: it comes partly through writing partly through dreaming. It’s like getting to know a person. First you simply see them, then you see them in a certain situation, then they start to tell you their life-history, you notice their habits, you begin understanding their habits, their turn of phrase becomes familiar and you start to be able to anticipate how they will behave. You may wish to experiment: utilise different narrative methods to explore them such as playing with a first person voice, writing their dialogue, an internal monologue or a third person view of their life.
I suggest you be playful in your approach.
Try putting a character in a situation that is likely to cause some distress or difficulty, and write the scene using close observation. Think about what that person wants. What spurs them on? Desire and conflict are vital.
I once heard Iris Murdoch speak in a lecture at UEA. She said that we must like our characters – even those who appear on the surface to be abhorrent. If we do not ‘like’ them (for which you can substitute ‘understand’) then your reader is unlikely to want to be drawn into their story. Every character has their own justification for acting as they do.
Aim not merely to describe, but rather to illustrate character through action and dialogue. Don’t tell rather show. Let that character be revealed to us. Showing involves putting your character in a situation and seeing how he/she reacts. Describing the action in some detail, using dialogue. Taking it slowly.
Your own curiosity is vital too. If you have a genuine desire to understand how a particular character works, you are half way there.
Use this list of questions to inspire a journal entry about your character:
- Write down two random facts about this person
- What is their most important life event to date?
- If they could change one thing about their life so far, what would it be?
- Who do they love?
- Who do they hate?
- What is their favourite item of clothing?
- What is their greatest desire?
- Is it a secret or a public desire?
- How do they envisage their life ten years from now?
- What was their first sexual experience?
- What makes them angry?
- What is their earliest childhood memory?
- What frightens them?
- What does their voice sound like?
- What is the texture of their skin?
I look forward to hearing what emerges from these questions and ideas for you.