Regardless of genre, characters can make or break a novel. How many times have you read something that could have been (should have been) a great story, but the characters were so lacking in credibility that you lost interest long before the end? I would bet my reputation as a writer that everyone has read at least one novel fitting that description at some point in their lives.
Developing characters so real our readers fall in love with them, or despise them, is an art – one we have to learn if we want our novels to satisfy our readers. We all know characters have to have a past that has shaped them, a future they are striving towards, and a present they are dealing with in order to get from one to the other. But how we use that information is crucial. Readers don’t want a whole load of information dumped on them. They want to get to know the character as the book progresses, in exactly the same way as they would with a real life friend.
As Frances di Plino I run a book review site and, as the real me, Lorraine Mace, I am a creative writing tutor and also critique fiction for Writers’ Forum. In both guises, I get to read a lot of novel openings and short stories. One thing that stops me dead every time is a massive chunk of back-story explaining everything the author thinks the reader needs to know about a character. This effectively kills the pace and bores the pants off the reader (me).
It is our job to know our characters so well the type of person they are is apparent in every action and piece of dialogue uttered. When we get to that stage no back-story is needed.
There are various ways of getting inside the heads of characters and finding the right method for you is as important as any other aspect of writing. I use a mix and match of several techniques. As my characters often have heated discussions in my head, I sometimes feel they’ve developed just a little bit too much, but that’s another issue altogether.
I rarely describe my characters, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a full description of them ready to hand should I need to refer to it. As a reader, I prefer my own imagination to conjure up images. I don’t want an item by item shopping list of the person’s features and colouring. For this reason, I only describe anyone’s looks when it is important to the story. For example, when I write crime, if my villain has dark hair then all my red herring people also need to have dark hair.
I think it’s more important for my readers to see my characters as people, than be able to picture their looks exactly as I do. So, how do I develop my characters?
Let’s take someone called Bob. When I put him into a story I may not describe him, but I know exactly what he looks like, even down to a slight cast in one eye. I know how he got on with his parents and siblings, what makes him angry, what makes him cry. I know what tickles his funny bone, what he does in his spare time that he’s happy for everyone to know about – and what he does in his secret time that he hopes no one will ever discover. I know what makes him blush, what type of woman he dreams about, and also the type of woman he’ll end up with. I know his hopes, his dreams and his fears. I know where he’d like to go on holiday if he had enough money – and where he’ll go instead because that’s all he can afford.
In other words, I know everything I need to know about Bob at this stage. But now I want to develop him into a real person. To do that I need to find out how he would react in certain situations.
I put Bob in a house on fire – what would he do? Would he panic? Save himself without thought for anyone else? Would he be a hero even if it meant his own life was in danger?
I put temptation in his way – financial and sexual. Would he skim funds off if he thought no one would ever know, or is he rigidly honest? Would he have an affair if he was convinced his wife would never find out, or is he faithful enough to resist?
I put him in the path of a group of yobs picking on someone. Would Bob step in to help the victim, or would he look the other way rather than get involved?
I put him in a restaurant where he is given poor service and bad food. Would he pay up and leave a tip, even though the waiter was surly, or would he complain and demand the substandard food is replaced?
I put him on a train where it is clearly signposted no mobile phones, and then I put someone in the carriage who ignores the notice. Would Bob draw attention to it? If yes, how? Would he be diffident? Angry? Forceful? Apologetic? How would he deal with someone who carries on making calls?
I put him near the back of a long queue at the airport and have someone queue jump. Does he get angry but do nothing, or does he confront the queue jumper?
By the time I’ve answered all these question I will know Bob better than I know my own husband. In fact, I might swap him for Bob, depending on the answers.
As with everything writing related, this method won’t work for everyone, but it does the trick for me, so why not try it with one or two of your characters?
I wrote this post originally for the blog of Nancy Jardine, where it appeared in June 2012.
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