Archive for category Creating a character
Why is all good fiction driven by characters? How can we widen our repertoire so our fictional people aren’t carbon copies of ourselves? What kind of research can give us greater understanding of situations we have no experience of? Should we bother to create our villains with as much empathy and insight as we lavish on our protagonists? If our MC’s enemy is utterly evil, how can we possibly crawl inside their minds – and why would we?
In the yellow corner is Joanna Penn. In the pinkish corner is me, answering her questions. We’re at her blog The Creative Penn, and you can read a text summary, download a 50-minute audio podcast or watch us grin and and wave our hands while we discuss how to write convincing and compelling fictional people. Do come over.
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204 pages. Yes, much bigger than the first Nail Your Novel. Fully indexed. Pages to dog-ear, scribble on, receive coffee stains and the sweat of your genius brow. Contains discussions of all the books it’s leaning on in the photos, and many more besides.
Back with a proper post tomorrow!
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When to trust the reader’s intuition – and when to spell out what a character feels: post at KM Weiland’s Wordplay
Readers don’t have to be told everything. Sometimes they will intuit how a character feels about a plot development or another character. Or they know what’s unsaid. Or they understand that the quiet character who rarely says anything is vibrating with mysterious depths.
Good storytellers are masters of the reader’s curiosity and emotions. They know what they can plant between the lines and how to make readers fill the blanks. So how do they do this? And how might it go wrong?
Today KM Weiland has invited me to her fabulous blog Wordplay, where I’m discussing this tricky – and exciting – balance. Do come over.
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Characters and personality. Not the ones in your books: I’m talking about you, the brain that’s parked snugly behind your eyes and the temperament that feels the urge to write. Sometimes our human wiring is not ideal for creating the kind of havoc we need for stories – which is quite amusing in its own way.
Anyway, I’m enjoying this conundrum today at Authors Electric – do jump the gap and see.
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It’s live! New Nail Your Novel book shows you how to create characters who keep readers hooked and make you want to tell stories
Three guesses what it’s about … but here’s the formal blurb…
How do you create characters who keep readers hooked? How do you write the opposite sex? Teenagers? Believable relationships? Historical characters? Enigmatic characters? Plausible antagonists and chilling villains? How do you understand a character whose life is totally unlike your own?
How do you write characters for dystopias? How do you make dialogue sing? When can you let the reader intuit what the characters are feeling and when should you spell it out?
I’ve mined 20 years’ worth of writing and critiquing experience to create this book. It contains all the pitfalls and sticky points for writers, laid out as a set of discussions that are easy to dip into. And it wouldn’t be a Nail Your Novel book without a good dose of games, exercises and questionnaires to help you populate a novel from scratch.
Whether you write a straightforward story-based genre or literary fiction, Bring Characters to Life will show you how to create people who enthrall readers – and make you want to tell stories.
If you like more heft in your hand, the 200+-page paperback is in progress, and will proceed as fast as an index can be built and proofs can fly the Atlantic.
Ebook price GBP £3.56 USD $5.50 (rough conversion estimate)
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I’m somewhat preoccupied with characters as I’m finishing NYN 2: Bring Characters To Life. I’ve recently read two novels with several main characters – one that made them real and the other that didn’t. I thought it would be interesting to compare the key differences.
The former is Ruth Rendell’s The Keys To The Street, which uses several points of view, all with their own internal identity. The shaky one is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. It follows eight separate people but they all sound exactly the same.
Briefly, The Keys To The Street is about a handful of characters in Regent’s Park, London, whose lives intersect over one summer. The Slap begins as an extended family gathers for a suburban barbeque. One of the children gets out of hand and one of the other parents gives it a slap. There is uproar and the novel explores the ripples.
In both, the narration is close third person, so although the ‘I’ pronoun isn’t used we’re following the thoughts and feelings of each individual.
Rendell is good at characters who sound distinct on the page. Their vocabulary, thought processes and speech rhythms make them into separate, recognisable people. Tsiolkas’s dialogue, both quoted and internal, sounds like it all comes from the same person.
Characters might sound similar because they come from the same culture and social milieu. But even so, there can be individual variation from the characters’ different natures. In the simplest terms, some would be introvert and some extravert. Some will see the glass as half-full. The emotions and urges behind their speech and thoughts would not be the same.
In The Slap they all have similar levels of aggression and introspection. In The Keys To The Street, there are several characters who are homeless or nearly homeless, but each has their own internal landscape. Some feel persecuted, some are tragically numbed.
Indeed, characters in the same milieu have many reasons not to be similar. They might have an assortment of occupations, which would make them tackle a variety of life problems and people.
In The Slap we potentially have these, but none of the differences are used. The TV scriptwriter sounds just like the civil servant and the businessman. In The Keys To The Street, the girl who works in the museum has different daily influences from the former butler who walks everyone’s dogs. These environments shine through their vocabulary and the comparisons they use. Their back stories are also vastly different, which affect how much each of them will trust other characters. Again, the girl in the museum believes good of people whereas the dog-walker suspects nasty motives in everyone.
Behaviour in extremis
Sequences of anger, sex and other kinds of extremis should tear the characters’ masks off. They should show us who they really are.
In The Slap, all the characters default to one pattern of behaviour when upset or emotional. They want to smash things or people. They brood on conversations and wish they had hit the offending person, pummelled their faces, grabbed them by the hair and shouted obscenities at them. When they curse, which they all do plenty of, they use the same words. Readers really notice when all the characters have the same curse personality. When they have sex, they all have the same preferences and urges.
In The Keys To The Street, the characters react according to their personalities, even when roused to the same emotion. When angry, the mentally unbalanced drug addict uses violence. The dog-walker resorts to blackmail or spits (or worse) in his employer’s tea. The museum curator’s former boyfriend is also violent, but immediately regretful. One emotion: three individual ways to handle it.
Other private moments
Other private moments can be very revealing. In The Slap, many of the characters are inclined to look at their reflection or a body part and think about their lives. In The Keys To The Street, the characters have their diverse ways of reflecting. Many of them don’t need to manufacture a specific thinking activity; they do something from their usual routine. This makes their reflective scenes different from each other. The dog walker collects his animals and does his job, meanwhile plotting and fulminating. The violent psychotic takes crack. The tragic down-and-out goes for his long walks, pushing the barrow that contains his possessions. What they do to get thinking time can be ways to differentiate their souls.
If you’re interested in either of these books, here’s Guardian Book Club on The Keys To The Street
And here’s a review of The Slap in The London Review of Books
Thanks for the pic r h
Have you read other novels that handle several point-of-view characters and differentiate them well? Or conversely, novels that do it badly? Let’s discuss!
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Many years ago, my writer friend Cathryn Atkinson told me she found inspiration for characters by reading obituaries, especially those in the Daily Telegraph. By gum she was right, and I was soon curating my own file of the fascinating dead. I called it my morgue, of course.
Reading obits is still a habit, and not just to discover queer folk. I’m inspired by the way obit writers tackle certain problems we also have in novels.
Although famous people obviously get obits, so do obscure achievers.
For the writer, it’s easy to describe a person who is already well known; you just tick their recognisable characteristics. For Elizabeth Taylor, reference the violet eyes, voluptuous proportions and bawdy persona – and that’s enough to summon their physical presence.
But the obit writer often has to describe a person the reader hasn’t seen before. Which is also what the novelist does.
Crucially, they don’t rely on visual descriptions. Blue eyes and a crooked front tooth don’t mean much if the reader doesn’t already have a mental picture. So the obituarist adds another dimension – the sense of what it’s like to be in a room with the subject. One of the earliest entrants to my morgue file was an eminent female chemist who always had a worried expression, as though she feared a catastrophe was happening in the next room. I’ve long forgotten her name or what she was responsible for (alas), but I still know what it would be like to spend time with her. Another unforgettable was the religious leader who had the disconcerting habit of closing his eyes while he spoke.
The obit’s subjects may not always be nice or heroic.
Take The Economist’s obituary of UK reality TV star Jade Goody. She was infamous for squalid incidents, astonishing ignorance and racist remarks. She was also a shameless publicity hound. The obit didn’t whitewash any of this, but their unsparing portrait also uncovered her battles, hardships, goals and happinesses. The result gives her remarkable dignity.
This is so interesting for novelists. Even if we’re writing nasty characters, they become more potent if we approach them with respect and curiosity.
Back story and context
Obits generally follow a formula. First they hook your interest – tell you why the character is significant, conjure up a conundrum that gets you curious. Then there will be defining incidents from their prime. Details about childhood don’t come until late in the piece. After we have read about the achievements or ignominies, we are shown how the person started with similar stuff to ourselves – parents, a local library or sports ground, school teachers. There they are, just like we were, unaware of their destiny.
It might be peculiar to follow that backwards chronology in most novels, of course, but it’s a reminder that back story works because of context. Deployed in the wrong place, back story will be boring. In the right place, it can be humanising and even powerful.
Are there any non-fictional places you go for inspiration, such as obituaries? Why do you like them? Share in the comments
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And PS… if you enjoyed this post, you might like the next Nail Your Novel book, which is all about characters. It’s due for release in May, so if you’re interested to know more, sign up for my newsletter.
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Once upon a time, an idea caught your eye. You wanted to spend tens of thousands of words exploring it. Maybe you now can’t remember that, or the work you’ve done has left you weary and muddled.
If we’re talking about an idea that hasn’t been written yet, the first thing I’d do is make it new again. Recreate the gut ‘wow’.
OMG I must write this
I forget everything I’ve tried to do with the idea so far. I identify what grabbed me when the idea was fresh and new.
I also forget what anyone else has done with it, if they have. It’s easy to end up intimidated by other treatments, especially if I’m frustrated. I disregard all that and find what originally demanded I work with the idea.
I create a mood board. I write down random phrases, images, dialogue snatches that the idea suggests to me. As a shorthand I might note moments from other novels or movies, or snatches of music. Anything to capture the excitement I first felt.
Make it fun
The chances are, I’m disappointed with the pointless work I’ve done so far. Ideas will flow better if I’m not reproaching myself. After all, the original idea came unbidden.
As much as possible, I make this process feel like play. Instead of typing on a computer, I write by hand. I often use the gaps in expired appointments diaries, scribbling notes in a different-coloured pen, or using the pages upside down. This lets me brainstorm without judging the results. Or I go somewhere I don’t usually write – cafes, a bench overlooking a view, a Tube train.
If you use Pinterest you could also start a board for your idea, but I’m not disciplined enough and will probably get lost on a browsing spree.
Where to take the idea?
Once I’ve made the idea feel new again, I start thinking about where it can go.
I start new lists for
- characters and what they want
- dramatic events that fit with the idea.
Batteries recharged, I can now face looking at what others have done. I search on Amazon for books tagged with keywords. LibraryThing has even better tags – here’s the page for My Memories of a Future Life and its tags, which I can click on to find other books that tackle the same subjects. (I would do the same on Goodreads but haven’t been able to work out how.) I also use the website TV Tropes (here’s how I use it to fill gaps in my story outline). All these resources will suggest the kinds of events, characters, conflicts and quests I could have.
Importantly, they’ll also help me discard some possibilities. In the novel I’m working on at the moment, I get a heartsink feeling whenever I look over some of my notes. Clearly I’m not interested in that aspect of the characters’ world, even though other writers have tackled it. So I’ll play it down.
When is the idea strong enough?
Ultimately the idea is strong enough when I know:
- who the hero is and who or what might oppose them
- what people are trying to do
- how it will get worse
- what the setting is
- why it will take a long time to reach a resolution
- a rough structure – what kicks off the drama and various twists that will form the turning points. Sometimes I decide the end beforehand, or I let it find itself once I’m writing.
You might have covered all these bases but the story still seems limp. In that case, beef up the material you have -
- increase the stakes so that the goal matters more to the characters
- make it more difficult for them to get what they want
- turn up the conflict between the characters.
You don’t have to get it all instantly
This is important. Some ideas need to be shut away and wiped from your fretting brain. If the idea looks feeble, don’t junk it. Give it a sabbatical. The Venice Novel, which I talked about in the TV Tropes post, has worn out my ingenuity for now so I’ve put it in the deep compost department. Meanwhile another novel I thought I’d worried to shreds has – to my surprise – woken up with real substance. I’m working on the detailed outline. For now I’m calling it The Mountain Novel.
Partner it with another idea
Sometimes an idea doesn’t have enough juice on its own. But it’s still worth working it as far as you can. A few key elements in My Memories of a Future Life and Life Form 3 began as separate story ideas. Negligible on their own, they harmonised perfectly in a bigger work.
Don’t be afraid to restart
Sometimes we go wrong with an idea or get lost. If I’m in the early stages, trying to work out what to do with an idea, I return to the pure inspiration and look for a stronger angle. If I’ve already drafted and the story doesn’t seem to matter enough, I look at ways to turn up the heat. (Speaking of which, thanks for the distillation pic Brankomaster.)
Have you had to strengthen a story idea? What did you do? Share in the comments!
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. Book 2 is now under construction – sign up for my newsletter for details as soon as they become available. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
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The expected answer is usually the murderer, the villain, the cheating wife, the despicable and repugnant millionaire …
Brace yourselves, non-writers. We enjoy creating those people.
But if I dislike a character, if they are a chore… I change the character.
It’s nothing to do with whether they spoil things for my other characters. I’m just as excited to write my bad people as angels. But if sharing headspace with a character is not appealing, it means I’m not interested enough to write them well. And the reader will feel the same heartsink sensation whenever their eye alights on that darned name.
Here’s what to do.
If they don’t excite you and the rest of the story does, perhaps it’s a sign they don’t have any effect on the world of the novel. Are they needed at all?
Are they only in the book to give a central character a plausible background, for instance a mother? Have you written her in too much detail, perhaps tried to give her scenes by herself and come up with only trivialities? If a character is in the cast to flesh out another character’s life, it’s perfectly okay to write only the scenes where they are together. Or narrate them from the perspective of the more important character.
But they will become important
Perhaps they’re in the book because they do something important later on. Try cutting the earlier appearances. Not all the cast has to be on stage from the word go. Could your dull character begin as a walk-on and gradually become a significant speaking part? Characters are allowed to blossom late – that can be very rewarding to read. But until they become useful, don’t make them tread water or amble aimlessly. (Or if they must, make them do it outside your book.)
You might find you have several characters who perform roughly the same story function – and this may be what’s bugging you. Could you ditch most tedious one and give their role to someone else? Combining two characters might also give you a fresh perspective on other parts of the story.
Give them even more to do
Yes, you’re already grudging the time you spend with these blots, but I’ve often found my attitude changes completely if I beef up their role. Challenge them, make them a more crucial link in a chain, tighten their attachment to one of the other characters and watch them transform from soggy to sparkling.
Don’t soldier on
If you loathe writing certain people, it’s a sure sign that you need to take action. Don’t soldier on, dragging them through scene after scene, thinking it’s part of your writing duty to sometimes find things hard. Find what makes you want to write them.
Thanks for the pic rotokirby
Have you had a character you hated writing? What did you do about it? Share in the comments!
You can find tips for writing and revision in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
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It’s not the ones who are most straightforward, although they are probably the easiest company. It’s the enigmas. The ones you can’t pin down, who dance to their own drum.
Consider the guy who’s gruff and abrasive when you talk to him, but surprises you by being fiercely loyal to his friends. Or selfish most of the time, but generous to a fault with a few special people.
More extremely, they might have an edge that makes it difficult to truly know them. Perhaps it’s a seam of aggression that unexpectedly comes out in a harmless discussion. They have secret buttons you don’t discover until you push them.
This crowd make great central characters.
To observers, they may seem inconsistent. On the inside of them, it’s war. They feel strong one minute, undermined the next. Humbert Humbert in Lolita loves his own good looks, or is shy, or full of self-loathing. He probably doesn’t even make sense to himself.
They might feel the world is too small for them, but some complex equilibrium keeps them that way. There might be comedy from a character who complains their town is too dull, but won’t kick up a gear – like the Little Britain character who complains about – and revels in – being the only gay in the village.
Or they might be headed for tragedy. Frank in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road feels he should be more than a suburban office worker. His wife hatches a plan for them to start a new bohemian life in France, but he gradually gets cold feet and starts scheming to stay. He makes like he’s in jail, but if you gave him the key he wouldn’t use it. But his wife will fight tooth and nail to get out.
Contradictory characters might sabotage themselves. Sheba in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal also has a sense that something is missing, despite her comfortable, married life. So she begins an affair with a pupil at the school where she teaches.
Contradictory characters might not be liked by the reader – but likability doesn’t keep us reading as much as interest does. In Revolutionary Road, Frank’s contradictions are going to keep us curious. What will he do and how will he justify it? (But our sympathies have to go somewhere, so the author makes sure we feel for his poor, trapped wife.)
What it’s not
Here’s something that isn’t a character contradiction: Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes. It’s certainly fun and it humanises a brave chap, but it’s no more than a physical challenge and has limited potential to cause him trouble. True character contradictions affect life choices, relationships, or make people do things that get them into trouble.
Contradictions at a simple level can round out a character so they aren’t a cardboard cut-out. But the deeply conflicted are story time-bombs.
Thanks for the pic, heyjoewhereareyougoingwiththatguninyourhand
I haven’t forgotten I owe you a post about blog design, paid-for themes, self-hosting and SEO. But I thought it had been too long since I tackled a meaty writing subject. Fear not, I will be posting more about blogging in the next week or so. And in the meantime, tell me…
How do you use contradictory characters? Do you have a favourite in fiction?
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