When I first started writing and realised that I really need to learn how before I could expect to be published, I came up with the idea of running writers workshops – designed specifically to improve my own writing but, as it turned out, I wasn’t the only aspiring writer who needed help. One of the first people I chatted to about this workshop idea was the incredible Patricia O’Reilly. We talked about writing (unsurprisingly!) and one of the phrases she mentioned was ‘building on detail’. Now whenever I think of that phrase, I think of her. Patricia has written many books, including the story of Eileen Grey, and she now teaches at UCD – her words were formative and come back to me often.
As I discovered, tiny details can tell us SO much about an individual, and if you chose wisely, the character will form clearly in your reader’s mind without you having to tell them everything about them. As Simon Scarrow said in one of the Winning the Writing Game Facebook interviews I did with Simon Trewin during lockdown – it’s important to leave room for your reader.
Telling your reader too much about a character deadens your prose – but by showing them a detail, you’ll make that character live. Do they drive a Mini or a Mercedes? Do they read the Daily Mail or the Financial Times? Do they drink their coffee black or prefer milky tea with sugar? With these contrasting details you can already see how they might inform your reader and help you to build a picture of your character in your reader’s mind.
I love finding out about the characters and their details as my story begins to develop – it shows me who they are, and those details are a way of making every character unique – which is particularly useful if you have two characters of a similar age and background. In The Dark Room, Rachel has a skull ring and Caroline wears tortoiseshell glasses – I’m always fascinated by the jewellery a character wears as it’s so personal and can often be a metaphor for their personality.
Remember My Name, which began as an idea with someone not hanging up the phone properly on a telephone call and me starting to wonder about what a listener could overhear, has a very twisty plot, but it’s the details that convey character, and characters who make a story resonate.
Brioni O’Brien is a tech expert, she’s young and very very bright. She spent a year travelling and has an unalome tattoo on her wrist – a Buddhist symbol representing harmony coming out of chaos. Many things about Brioni’s life were chaotic, not least her getting mugged on during her year travelling and coming home to discover her sister was missing. But when we meet her in Remember My Name, she’s studying for her Masters and working for a major company in Dublin’s tech quarter. She’s still got the bright pink hair and double undercut that she had in college, and the diamond nose stud from iconic jeweller No 42, that her sister bought her for her 18th birthday. These three details – tattoo, hair, and nose stud give the reader a clear picture. If you met her in a bar, they are the things you would notice within thirty seconds of meeting her, they are details that build her as a character. There’s more – she loves sea swimming, she doesn’t drink and she also knows how to spy on errant husbands…
When we first meet Cressida Howard, her seventeen-year-old daughter has just breezed out of the front door at 9 o’clock on a dark October evening and she’s reeling from overhearing a conversation that sets a series of deadly events in train. She’s in her late thirties, blonde, fit and wearing a cream cashmere sweater. She appears to have everything – her own successful business as a speech therapist, a beautiful house, and a lovely car. But when you scratch below the surface, some things are not quite what they seem. Your character’s profession is also a detail that it’s vital to think about – different types of people do different jobs (the really mad ones are writers!) and that makes them both interesting and informs the reader – Cressida loves helping people, and does that through speech therapy.
I also love using location detail to build a picture of my characters, so their houses are as important as their clothes – Emily Jane, Cressida’s daughter has a frilly pink bedroom with fairy lights and state of the art technology. She seems immature but as the story develops we learn that she’s a lot sharper than she appears. Brioni’s family home is beside the sea in Wexford, overlooking a storm-tossed beach, isolated on the edge of fields. It’s a contrast to her modern Dublin apartment and these two places represent the two sides of her character.
I use story boards when I’m creating characters, finding photos online of people who look like the people I can see in my head. Sometimes they are inspired, in looks at least, by real people – Cressida looks a lot like Reece Witherspoon, and Brioni is based on a girl I saw on the tube in London. When I’m creating a storyboard of their photos and the details of their homes, I’m looking at the relationships between people and places and I want the photos to connect on the board in the same way that they do in the story. I add details, like their cars, their pets, or a favourite piece of jewelley. I find a storyboard an incredibly useful tool, particularly when I might not be writing every day – it’s a prompt that gets me straight back into the story when I do sit down.
Look at all your characters: what is their signature detail? What does it tell you and the reader about them? I’m thinking about the next book at the moment and finding out what my character’s signature details are so they are clear in the readers’ mind. It’s probably just a reason to browse jewellery shopping sites it but it’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!
(c) Sam Blake
About Remember My Name:
If she’d turned off her phone, instead of listening in, perhaps no one would have died…
When Cressida Howard catches her entrepreneur husband playing away from home, she hires security expert Brioni O’Brien to get the evidence she needs for a speedy and financially rewarding divorce.
But what Brioni uncovers goes beyond simple infidelity. Because Laurence Howard is also in bed with some very dangerous people. Bribery and blackmail are the least of his worries as someone comes after the women in his life – someone who is out to destroy Laurence and his empire, whatever the cost.
And Cressida and her teenage daughter could soon be collateral damage, if she and Brioni don’t act fast.
Remember My Name came out on 6th Janauary, 2022, went straight to No 1 and stayed in the top ten for six weeks. Order your copy online here.