From Shakespeare to Austen to Wodehouse to Winnie-the-Pooh, most storytelling involves exploring the human experience. Who are we, and what makes us tick? As a reader, the books that captivate me are the ones whose characters leap off the page. I’m disappointed when they’re flat and grey, when their voices don’t ring true. It’s like watching a magician who has no rabbit in their hat.
Every writer has their own way of positioning the smoke and mirrors when it comes to creating characters. For what it’s worth, here is mine. Let’s call our newest character Felicity, a retired GP.
Step one: a first glimpse. Felicity is a fleeting figure, spotted out of the corner of my eye. I spin around, trying to get a better look. I met Lucia Livingstone (The New Woman) while waiting for my sons to come out of school; Justin – the messianic cult leader from See You in September – turned up while I fidgeted in the choir stalls in Napier cathedral, pretending to listen to the sermon.
Step two, which continues through the writing process, is listening. Sometimes we all behave in ways that we ourselves don’t understand. If I’m to give Felicity depth, I need to know her better than she knows herself. What conflicts does she face? How does she view the world and her place in it – what does she want? What is her experience? I try to hear her voice, straining my ears for the hesitations, the things she doesn’t want to talk about. If I get stuck, I might do a quick spot-check of what’s in her pocket, handbag or desk drawer. It’s amazing what you find stuffed away in there!
While trying to walk in a character’s shoes, I find it useful to think about the Johari window, a technique created by psychologists in the 1950s to help people better understand their relationship with themselves and others. Imagine a square, divided into four so that it looks like a traditional window. Each quadrant represents a different area of Felicity’s makeup:
- Things known both to her and to others: her name, age, job, family, physical features, skills, politics, hobbies – all the known aspects of her life and personality. Characteristics on this list may be personal, but they aren’t a secret. Does she experience things visually, physically or verbally? Is she a linear thinker?
- Things known to her, but not to others. None of us are completely transparent, but some people have more of a façade, or hide more beneath the surface than others. What memories has Felicity never, ever shared? Perhaps she harbours hang-ups, regrets or private joy. What makes her embarrassed, angry or euphoric? Who – if anyone – does she love, or loathe?
- Things known to others, but not to the character herself. Those closest to us notice facets of our personalities of which we’re not ourselves aware, or of which we’re in denial. It might be small things: a nervous twitch, a lisp, an irrational obsession or stooped posture. Those dreaded Zoom calls during lockdown forced many of us to face depressing facts about ourselves! But our ignorance can be more significant: King Lear was fatally mistaken about what others really thought of him; Tolkien’s Boromir denied his own weakness and enthralment to the ring. Perhaps our Felicity is unaware that she has dementia, though her family see it all too well.
- Things not known by her, nor by anyone else, but which may become apparent as the story unfolds. Dumbo didn’t know he could fly. Oliver Twist didn’t know his true parentage. Elizabeth Bennett, I think, had no idea of her own capacity for misjudgement and prejudice.
And now for step three: physical attributes – how our character looks, talks, even smells. This is the time to conjure a clear image of her gait, her posture, body language and mannerisms. How does she wear her clothes or her hair? Is she a touchy-feely type or does she stand well back? I listen for the pitch and pace of her voice, for an accent or verbal tics. This is going to sound creepy, but I trawl through the Internet for photos of people who could be my present cast of characters. I print them out and pin them up on a board. While I was writing The Secrets of Strangers the crew in Tuckbox Café, along with Eliza the police negotiator, were all there, looking at me as I wrote their story. I even had a photo of Buddy the dog, and another of a real negotiation cell. Told you it was going to sound creepy.
Which brings me to the final stage: interaction. Together, all these characters face the conflicts of the story and take on momentum. Throughout the writing, rewriting and editing process I nag myself to keep asking why – what is driving this person to say, to think, to do this? It’s best if I can stay in their head for hours or days at a time. I think I go a bit peculiar. It’s like acting. If I drop out of the role, the smoke and mirrors dissolve and characters turn into empty, made-up people again. The magic has faded, leaving me to stare disconsolately at my screen, eating cheer-me-up chocolate and wondering why I ever gave up my day job.
(c) Charity Norman
About The Secrets of Strangers:
A BBC Radio 2 Book Club Pick
A regular weekday morning veers drastically off-course for a group of strangers whose paths cross in a London café – their lives never to be the same again when an apparently crazed gunman holds them hostage. But there is more to the situation than first meets the eye and as the captives grapple with their own inner demons, the line between right and wrong starts to blur. Will the secrets they keep stop them from escaping with their lives?
Another tense, multi-dimensional drama from the writer of the Richard & Judy bestseller AFTER THE FALL.
Order your copy online here.