Posts Tagged fictional characters

How to write captivating characters – interview at @Sacha_Black Rebel Author podcast

I’ve just been a guest on Sacha Black’s Rebel Author podcast where we had a thorough (and sometimes rebellious) discussion about how to write convincing people. Ideas we talked about included how writers teach the reader what’s important to a character, and how readers want a book to take them to places and experiences beyond their own lives.

Drop in here, and wear your best rebel boots.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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Help – my characters are all too similar! 5 tips to make them distinct

villa saraceno 201I’ve been asked this question twice recently – in a conversation on G+, and by a student at my Guardian masterclass the other week. In both cases, the writers had encouraging feedback from agents, but one crucial criticism: the characters all seemed too similar.

And probably this wasn’t surprising because of their story scenarios. Both writers had a set of characters who belonged to a group. A bunch of flatmates, or a squad of marines, or a group of musical coal miners forming a choir. To outsiders, they probably looked identikit – they’d talk the same, use the same cultural references and have similar aims.

So how can you flesh them out as individuals?

1 Look for incompatibility

The first step is to assemble your cast carefully. In real life, if you were choosing a team, you’d go for compatibility and congruent aims. For a story, you need to plant some fundamental mismatches that may threaten the group’s harmony.

So, they might seem similar on the surface, but deep down it’s another matter.

Choose as your principals the people who will be most challenged by each other’s personalities and attitudes. They might be in one choir, but they don’t have to sing from the same hymn sheet.

2 Include this in the story

Make sure these differences are exposed by the plot events.

A couple, who might be well matched in other ways, might disagree fundamentally about whether to send their children to boarding school, or whether to take out a loan. Make that a story issue and explore the fall-out. You could give one of your characters a secret that will clash with the group’s overall interests – a drug habit, perhaps, or a forbidden lover.

Or if your characters are embarked on a bigger task, such as solving a crime, make the attitude differences into unsettling background music. William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach is worth looking at for its distinct bunch of scientists who are living together in a jungle research station (fresh in my mind because I just wrote a Goodreads review).

3 Humour, stress and swearing

Aside from the plot conflicts, your characters will express themselves individually in other ways. Think of their temperaments, and how they handle stress. One of them may go to a boxing gym. Another might stitch a quilt, which may seem intolerably mimsy to the pugilist. They’ll have different ways to express humour, or curse. There’s more here about polishing dialogue so that characters sound individual.

4 Keep track of their different outlooks

With my own WIP, Ever Rest, I’ve got four principal players. It’s tricky to hop between so many consciousnesses, so I’ve made aides-memoirs. I have a list of how they differ on important issues such as romantic relationships, ambition etc. Just writing this list produced some interesting insights and clarifications. As always, so much can unlock if you ask the right question.

Actors sometimes talk about how they don’t know a character until they’ve chosen their footwear. In a similar way, you could walk in your characters’ shoes by choosing a simple characteristic. Perhaps one of them wears glasses. One of them walks with a slight limp. One of them always worries about losing things. A small detail like this might help you remember how their experience is distinct.

Another fun tool is to collect pictures of strangers. You know how we’re told not to judge by appearances? Tosh. We can’t help it. And this instinctive trait becomes very useful when we create people out of thin air. Look through photos of strangers and you probably make instant – and of course erroneous – assumptions of what you’d like and dislike about them. It’s okay, no one will know. You don’t have to tell your mother. Here’s a post I wrote about this in detail.

5 Have dedicated revision days for particular characters

You don’t have to get everything right in one go. And we don’t have to revise a book in one go, or in chapter order, either. We might need a particular mindset to write one of our characters, so it might help to work on all their scenes in one batch.

nyn2 2014 smlebookcovernyn3There are tips on creating characters in Writing Characters To Keep Readers Captivated and on using characters’ personalities to create your plot in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart.

You also might like this episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss whether fictional characters have to be likable. Click this thingy for more (plus an audacious cover of a Prince track… no, not by us)

And meanwhile, let’s discuss – have you had feedback that your characters aren’t distinct enough? What did you do about it? Do you have any favourite examples of writers who do this particularly well?

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Two days of writer’s block unlocked a character’s secret

3422912206_c3c79e15f5_oI’ve spent the last couple of days blocked about a scene in Ever Rest. Solving it became a bit of a saga – and an unexpected and rather important answer.

The first symptom I noticed was irritation. A character in a scene I was revising was annoying me. I quickly figured out why. In previous scenes I’d been writing from her point of view. Although I had a strong idea of what she wanted from the inside, when viewed by another character she was a blank nothing. She didn’t feel like real flesh and blood. I couldn’t describe her.

(I’m not talking here about whether her eyes are blue or she likes sharp suits – the physical attributes we can bestow almost without thought. I mean the essence of her. A good character description makes you understand what it’s like to be in their presence. For instance: this is from William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach, which I’m currently reading:

She had unusual eyes, the upper lids seemed heavy, as if she were dying to go to sleep but was making a special effort for you… She was very thin. I imagined that in the right clothes she would look elegant. I had never seen her in anything but a shirt and trousers.’)

A presence
So I needed to give my nebulous character some physical heft to make her more real. I considered which actress might play her in a movie, no one seemed right. I considered whether real-life friends or acquaintances had a quality I could borrow to start her off. No one fitted. She remained faceless, presenceless.

A name
Perhaps I’d given her the wrong name, which had then conjured the wrong impression about her. I wondered whether to rechristen to appreciate her afresh. I rolled some possibilities around. None seemed to suit her better than her existing name.

Accessing a difficult personality
I’ve often written characters who I found hard to access immediately; this is the challenge of creating people who are not like you. Gene in My Memories of a Future Life was the stubbornest beast to channel. Writing his dialogue was like trying to guess the desires of an inscrutable and unpredictable monarch – endless patience and guesswork. When I made the audiobook, he gave my voice actor unsettling dreams.

A line she would not say
So I did what I often do in that situation – began editing, guessing new dialogue, and hoped the character would join in. In the first draft she’d asked an important question – and this became the sticking point. Now, she wouldn’t do it.

I tried all sorts of segues to allow it to arise naturally, but it felt fake. I tried the opposite – to let her avoid tackling the situation so that another character could step up. That wasn’t right.

A hole in my knowledge – and the clue

It was clear the problem went much further than her physical presence. There was a hole in my knowledge of her. Despite all the work I’d done on what she wanted or didn’t want, there was something important I hadn’t yet identified. I was writing someone whose true motives and feelings were very unclear to her, and confused. And this scene was bumping up against it.
The lines she wouldn’t say were the clue.

And then I got it. They weren’t my block after all. They were hers. They were the issue she didn’t want to confront – and didn’t realise.

Two days it took me to guess that minx’s heart. But now I have, I’ve pinned her down. I’ve found the inner voice that justified her during this scene. I knew what she’d say. And it fits. It flows. And not just with her, but with the overall arc for that episode of the story. Understanding this question about her was a valve to let the entire narrative flow again.

And so…
I’ve reminded myself of three principles I consistently return to:

  1. The truth about a scene may lie much deeper than we think. Even with a lot of preparation work, there may be more to learn. We must listen to the instinct that something is wrong.
  2. The thing your character refuses to say or do may not be a story problem. It might be their most important issue. Try working with it.
  3. So much of our work is done away from the page, from carrying the problem with us as we walk to the station, from thinking, refining and persisting.

And my character? Now she’s not bland at all. She’s in a lot more trouble than I’d suspected.

nyn2 2014 smlThere’s more about characters in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.

Thanks for the pic Smabs Sputzer

Has an episode of writer’s block helped you solve a problem? What do you do if a character refuses to enact the plot? Do you have any tips on how you create fictional characters? Let’s discuss!

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The inner horse – and your fictional character’s true nature

Lifeform Three Roz MorrisI was teaching a masterclass at The Guardian yesterday and we were discussing characters. One of my students said this:
‘I think of my characters as horses.’

To be honest, I couldn’t believe my ears. If you know me on Facebook and Twitter, you’ll know I’m rather fond of the equine breed, so when one of my students said ‘I think of my characters as horses’, I thought I was still in bed at home, waiting for the alarm.

Not as mad as it seems

But she went on to explain. She ran a carriage-driving centre, and found that all of her horses were such different temperaments they were a great basis for building fictional characters.

Stay with me here, because it makes glorious sense. One of the fundamentals of a character is what they’re like in the core of their soul, the things they can’t fake or change. Whether they’re bold in new situations, whether they feel safer following the crowd or prefer to be in charge, what kind of personalities annoy them, whether there are bad past experiences that have left scars, whether they’re naturally friendly or touchy-feely, or prefer to keep to themselves, whether they’re gentle or insensitive.

If you hang around horses a lot – and, I can imagine, dogs – you’re used to the company of a creature that can’t pretend. It always shows the material they’re made of. Then if we start to imagine those behaviours translated into a human character, who might try to cover them up, and whose life might make more complex demands…

The Johari Window

Indeed, this is not unlike the Johari Window, which can be useful for designing characters. It’s a grid, split into four, in which you write:

  • the things the character and everyone else knows
  • the things only the character knows
  • the things everyone else knows but the character doesn’t
  • the things that are unknown – the traits, fears, and feelings that no one suspects.

These last two are where we can have most fun with the character: the impulses that drive them, behaviours they are not in control of, and make them complex and interesting.

That’s the horse self. (And a nice excuse for me to include a picture of my own Lifeform Three.)

Use this to write a character who is very different from your own personality

Another student asked how to write a character who is very different from you.

This is where advice to ‘write what you know’ seems somewhat unhelpful. If we followed it we wouldn’t write murderers, queens, abuse victims, abusers, fatally jealous people, talented artists, heiresses, politicians, housemaids in Victorian houses, wizards…

On the other hand, ‘writing what you know’ is the place to start. All characters will have certain traits that we can relate to. Again, these come back to very simple impulses. What do they want to protect? What makes them feel threatened? What gives them joy and release? What makes them feel safe? If you start with those, you can find your way into most characters.

nyn2 2014 smlThere are more tips for your fictional people in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.

Do you have any off-the-wall tips for getting to the hidden depths in a character? All pets welcome.

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And then there were three (NYNs)… Do you find plot more difficult than character? Plus the midpoint of Blade Runner

SONY DSCPhew, the plot book is ready. It seems to have taken a marathon of effort; much longer than the characters book. So much that I’m wondering if this tells me something about the nature of plot.

In writing the book, I’ve been pinning down the ultimate essentials – what a plot is, what it needs – whether you’re a genre author, a literary author, or anywhere on the spectrum between the two. Indeed, if you want to defy convention, are there some story and plot principles that still hold? I found there were. I also found that even an apparently loosely structured book followed a few simple patterns.

But honestly, Roz, you’ve been promising this book for most of the year.

Yeah, why did it take me so much longer than characters? As I wrote up the tutorials – starting from blogposts and mentoring notes – I found that each example spawned many possible discussions. There were as many exceptions as rules, possibilities upon possibilities for making a story rich, or exciting, or surprising, or heartbreaking. I have come away with this: although there are certain fundamentals, the department of plot and storytelling is much more tricky, finely balanced and infinitely varied than the department of characters.

You’d think it would be the other way around, because people provide the heart of a book. And aren’t they the most unique element of any story? No, by comparison, fictional characters follow a number of rules we already understand from life – those of how real people behave, are motivated and react. But a plot – what you do with your characters, themes and story metaphors – can go absolutely anywhere, especially in non-genre fiction. Good plotters invent new ways to use events and ideas. Writing this book has taken me on my own journey of understanding. I’ve ended up with a deeper appreciation of the infinite versatility of stories, and indeed a greater sense of wonder.

Or maybe it means only that I find plotting more difficult than creating characters. I wouldn’t be the first author with literary leanings who felt this. And in case this all sounds airy-fairy, let me assure you that the book is about practical advice and examples. Plus games, of course.

To whet your appetite, this is a post I was going to expand for the book and rework with prose examples, but eventually tackled another way. If you’re an old-timer here you might recognise it.

Midpoints on a continuum of change – Blade Runner

neeta lindI never miss an opportunity to talk about Blade Runner. One day Dave and I were discussing it and said: ‘which event is the midpoint?’

My memory does the very opposite of total recall (see what I did there?), so I hazarded that it was where Roy finally finds Pris and they discover they are the last replicants left alive. Or was it the scene where Rachael comes to Deckard’s apartment, they have a heart-to heart about the fact she’s a replicant and get romantic. Or was it both – as each significant story strand might have a midpoint…

When we checked we found the Roy/Pris scene is past the middle. The actual middle is the scene where Deckard’s boss tells him he will have to kill Rachael, even though she’s not one of the renegade bunch in his original brief. We’d both forgotten two other strong turning-point contenders – the scene where Deckard kills the first replicant, Zhora, and feels unexpectedly bad about it. Or the scene where Deckard is nearly killed by Leon and is rescued by Rachael (who has ventured into scuzzy places where nice girls never go). Midpoints galore, it seems.

Midpoint, schmidpoint

Backtrack for a moment. What’s the midpoint anyway and why do we bother to identify it? It’s a moment where the story significantly shifts gear. Readers (and moviegoers) seem to have an internal clock, and generally like it if this shift comes roughly half-way through the story.

Here are some typical forms a midpoint can take.

• It can be a false victory – perhaps the main character has apparently got what they wanted and discovered it was a shallow goal or has got them in big trouble. (Deckard has after all just managed to shoot the first of the replicants he is hunting.)
• It can look like the original quest went horribly wrong and now they have to sort out a much more involved mess.
• It might be an echo of a scene from much earlier in the story, but done for different, more serious reasons.
Whichever it is, at the midpoint everything turns grave. It is a moment when the conflict and journey become internal as well as external. The character’s need is deeper, truer. The consequences become more significant. The characters pass a point of no return.

Back to Blade Runner
The reason we couldn’t remember the actual midpoint of Blade Runner is that there are significant shifts for the characters all the way through. The movie is a continuum of internal change. The characters are transforming inside all the time, discovering deeper needs, acting in the grip of impulses they have never before faced, getting into deeper trouble and discovering profounder joys – which increases what is at stake. Also, there are two protagonists. This is one of the reasons the story has such momentum. It builds and builds, propelling the characters towards what will be the most significant moment of their lives. And every scene has a sense of change.

If you build a story so that every scene commits the characters more drastically, unexpectedly and personally to their path, it will be engrossing.

Thanks for the Blade Runner pic, Neeta Lind  Thanks for the Jenga pic, Ed Garcia

ebookcovernyn3The ebook of Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel is now available on pre-order. It will go on live sale on Twelfth Night, 5th January, and if you order beforehand you can get a special pre-order price.
‘On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords….’ Is that too complicated for an opening scene?

Meanwhile, let’s discuss! Which do you find more difficult – plot or character? I’d also be interested to know what you write – genre, non-genre – to see if there’s any pattern.
And merry Christmas.

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Heroes and heroin – writing a character who has an addiction


Pic of Janis Joplin from Wikepedia

You might remember the terrific question Adam Nicholls asked me about daily wordcounts and now he’s sent me this: May I pick your brain about fleshing out a character? I’m struggling with someone who’s addicted to heroin.

What a challenging subject. It’s daunting to portray a character whose experience is well beyond your own, especially to such an extreme. Here’s where one of my day jobs comes in handy. My freelance gig on a doctors’ magazine means I’ve edited a lot of pieces by people who help addicts. So this is my checklist for creating a plausible, three-dimensional character in the grip of a demonic addiction, whether illegal drugs, alcohol or a habit such as gambling.

Choose your poison

The addictive drugs have different effects. Adam has already decided his character uses heroin but you might want your character speeded up, slowed down, made more confident or just mickey finned. For one of my ghosted novels I needed a drug that would produce ghastly, debilitating hallucinations with possible flashbacks and could be easily obtained by ravers. With that wish list I decided on ketamine. (A horse anaesthetic, since you ask. Horrible if taken by humans. And make sure your internet firewall is working. You’ll find some seriously shaky stuff.)

Decide how the drug or habit alters their personality

The drug will probably amplify or change certain parts of your character’s personality. So you need to know what they were like without the drug. And remember personality is not the same as back story. Although you might use back story to demonstrate a traumatic event that led them to addiction, their reaction is individual. That same event may have had a completely different effect on another person.

Consider what the drug does for them

What do they get out of it? Why did they like it at first? Why did they try it? Have they used other drugs and what did those do for them? Are they calmer, more intensely concentrated, does it take the edge off, make them more confident, ease awkwardness with other people, numb a sense of not belonging, being fundamentally wrong or dull some other pain?

Decide how addiction controls them

You’ll undoubtedly be reading first-hand accounts of addicts and those who have been close to addicts. But you can also do a little role-play yourself to understand a person in the grip of a fierce dependence. You may not have dabbled with drugs, but I’ll bet there’s something in your life that is so important you arrange everything around it. Your children, partner, job may all govern your day-to-day decisions and choices. So you know what it’s like to place something at the centre of your life and defend it when necessary. This is like your addict’s need.


What does your addict do to fund the habit and how does that impact their life? Do they steal? If so, do they commit crimes or do they steal from the people close to them? Or are they independently wealthy? Is their supply guaranteed or do they struggle to find the drugs? What dangerous people might their habit bring them into contact with?

Significant others who aren’t addicted

How does the addiction affect the lives of those around them? What story conflicts might that create? Does your character have family and friends who aren’t addicted? How do they react? How are relationships changed by it? Who might be driven away? Who might grow closer in an attempt to help? Who knew the character before they were like this? Who has only known them since it started?


Does your addict have the capacity to stop? What might help them? What might throw them back down?

Introduce the reader to the behaviour that will be abnormal

Your addict character won’t behave like the others. If they develop the addiction through the story, you can introduce their bizarre actions gradually. But if they’re already addicted at the start, you need to handle the character-establishing scenes carefully in case the reader mistakes them for clumsy writing or refuses to believe them. This may be tricky for you to judge by yourself, so when you give the book to beta readers, ask for feedback about it.

Ultimately, when writing an addicted character, it’s not about the substance/habit or the extreme physical experiences. Concentrate on their personality, priorities, conflicts and other people. Thanks for a terrific question, Adam – I’ve enjoyed tackling this.

There are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated

Thanks for the pic of Janis Joplin Wikipedia

Guys, do you have any tips to add? Have you had to write a character who’s addicted, or somebody whose world is significantly different from your own?

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NaNoWriMo prep: generate your novel from characters – post at Multi-story

mulIt’ll soon be Christmas. No, come back. Even sooner, it will be NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month).

Okay, that’s not until November, but many serious NaNo-ers will be starting to prepare in the next few weeks. So I’m at Multi-Story, with a plan for creating your NaNo novel – by starting with its people.

Why start with the characters? Because if you know who they are, you’ll want to tell their stories. If you like to plan in detail, you’ll understand who must do what and when. If you like to wing it, the characters will take hold and drag you into an adventure. So if you fancy designing a novel this way, come over to Multi-Story.

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‘Roz from the land of Harry Potter’ – an otherwise serious discussion of writing with John Rakestraw

rakestrawWhen Americans interview Brits in sweltering summer heat, their thoughts turn to Harry Potter, the Beatles and the Queen. But we do also get down to serious matters. My host, John Rakestraw, had got his mitts on the characters book and wanted to quiz me about creating fictional people, killing darlings, editing, dialogue and subtext.

John was one of the earliest blogger-podcasters to pick up on Nail Your Novel. He demonstrated this by waving his copy – the primitive rake2edition I made on Lulu when I first published it four years ago! Folks, you may overwrite your early designs and wipe the files, but you can never hide from them. (Watch for the moment when one of the other guests says ‘um, why doesn’t book 2 look like book 1…’)

Anyway, come on over to see us. And if you remember the original coffee-and-blue 6×9 edition of Nail Your Novel, give me a wave here!

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Why the fuss about characters in fiction? Post at Writers & Artists

w&a4Just why are characters the cornerstone of fiction? I’m discussing this – and tips for creating irresistible story people – in the fourth of my pieces for the Writers & Artists website.

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Why fiction characters matter and how we make them memorable – video and podcast with Joanna Penn

jocharsWhy 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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