There are many ways to go about creating a character. Here are just a few of my favourites:
1. Be Nosy
In life, people are born fast. In fiction, they are born so slowly it is almost impossible to say how it happens. Beth, the narrator of my novel, All the Good Things, popped into my head as I was *attempting* to sleep. Her voice was unique and insistent; she was in prison, she’d done a bad thing and felt like she was nothing: she needed to be heard. I told her to pick a more convenient time, please. She did not listen. So I got out of bed and scribbled her down. Such moments of inspiration are rare and precious; yet I also believe they do not occur unless you are open to them. Behind that moment lies years of incurable nosiness. Writing is about opening yourself to the unknown — and what greater unknown is there than other people? Watch, listen, eavesdrop. Carry a notebook with you at all times. If a particular detail or aspect about a person strikes you and refuses to leave you alone, write it down. Sooner or later these observations and impressions will knit together and you will find yourself with a newborn.
2. Be Kind
Newborn characters, like newborn people, need lots of love and attention. They may wail and rail against the basic facts of the world. They may be a little over the top. That’s ok; let them. Let them tell you boring and silly and sad things. Write until you no longer feel scared or awkward around them, until you feel like you’ve known them your whole life. This is what I did with Beth, and with other key characters in All the Good Things; I have many notebooks crammed with scenes, impressions, thoughts about my characters which did not make it into the finished novel, but without which the finished novel would not exist. This isn’t a waste; it is more like the hours of training an athlete might put in for a marathon. Reading is an important part of this, too; some writers say they don’t read whilst they write, but for me, it’s like fuel. If you are struggling with a certain issue or question, looking at how other writers have tackled it can really help. If you’re in a slump, finding a book you really connect with can reinvigorate you, fill you will tears and wonder — make you remember why you wanted to write in the first place. I read loads at all stages of writing All the Good Things, and tried my best to read things that might ask or answer relevant questions, whether that be how to deal with voice, structure, endings, or factual research.
3. Do Your Housework
Now that you know your character, you’ve an idea of what they want and where they’re going, it’s time to do some housekeeping. Reread what you’ve written. Scrutinise every word. Is that the character’s word? Or is it yours? Is that how they really see things or is it your own pesky self sneaking into the limelight? Either way, sort it out. In my first draft, I was anxious that the reader understand Beth; consequently, I often explained too much, laboured certain points, or crammed my sentences with so many of her unique catch-phrases that one reader’s eyes hurt when she looked at the page! I’d also put in a number of jokes and observations that came more directly from me and had nothing to do with Beth. It’s often hard to let go of sentences you find beautiful or funny or intriguing, but the questions should always be: is this you or the story? Do your readers need to know this? Sometimes you’ve just got to sweep yourself to one side.
4. Keep Questioning
You may think you know as much about your character as it’s possible to know. You don’t. I realised this when I started on my edits; I’d dismissed a lot of secondary characters with a few broad strokes, much the same way it can be easy to dismiss or judge people in real life. So I interviewed them. I asked what they were afraid of, what they really wanted, what they loved and hated, what made them laugh; what they thought of other characters in the novel. I was ruthless. I grilled them. Then I took them to the supermarket, out for runs, to bars and restaurants and parties. Always at the back of my mind was the question: what would x or y do now? What would they think of that weird man at the bus stop? How similar or different is this to what I think? I also kept an eye and an ear out for people who reminded me in some way of my characters; did they have a particular habit, tick or turn of phrase that would make my character more vivid? Once I got over the initial fear, this was really fun; I event grew to enjoy the company of some of the less likable characters in my book. When I returned to the novel, I wrote with so much more energy and confidence, and my characters were far more nuanced, consistent and believable. This does not mean they ceased to surprise me; far from it. Don’t be tempted to rinse them of all mystery. In fiction, as in life, it is the questions not the answer that keep us coming back for more.
(c) Clare Fisher
About All the Good Things:
What if you did a very bad thing… but that wasn’t the end of the story?
Twenty-one year old Beth is in prison. The thing she did is so bad she doesn’t deserve ever to feel good again.
But her counsellor, Erika, won’t give up on her. She asks Beth to make a list of all the good things in her life. So Beth starts to write down her story, from sharing silences with Foster Dad No. 1, to flirting in the Odeon on Orange Wednesdays, to the very first time she sniffed her baby’s head.
But at the end of her story, Beth must confront the bad thing.
What is the truth hiding behind her crime? And does anyone – even a 100% bad person – deserve a chance to be good?
All the Good Things is a story about redemption and hope for fans of Nathan Filer, Stephen Kelman and Emma Healey
Order your copy online here.