The People in Books
Our aim as writers is to make the characters in our books feel, sound, walk, talk, live, love and act like real people. But the truth is – they aren’t. They are devices conjured up to fulfil a purpose – namely the delivery of a plot or message.
To write is to play God – Greek style.
Our characters are our chess pieces. They have to go wandering through darkened, abandoned houses – despite the risk of falling beams and lurking maniacs, they have no choice but to set sail on stormy seas in leaky ships or fall in love with their English tutors or open the box – despite the ominous sounds of scrabbling inside. That is their destiny – as created by us.
But here is the challenge. Readers tend to ‘fall in love’ with characters not stories. Think Lou Clark or Mariam and Laila. And they adore a baddie as much as a goodie, think Moriarty and Hannibal Lecter. When you read reviews it is clear how much energy and affection readers invest in characters. Such emotional investment go can a long way in transforming the fortune of a novel from average, to good, to stratospheric.
So how do we go about conceiving, gestating and giving life to characters that readers will ‘fall in love with’.
I think the first step is belief. You, as the writer, have to believe in your characters, if not, your lack of love and attention will transmit to the reader. That means you have to invest time in them. You have to let then take up residence in your head early on the thinking/ writing process and you must keep nurturing them throughout. Characters are like those tiny creatures that all the kids were into years ago – tamogotchi. If you neglected them they died; so it is with fictional characters. But a character you invest in will, thankfully, give you more back than an invisible sea creature on a plastic key chain. Because, as your creations become real to you, so their personalities will begin to present themselves to you like iron filings attracted to a magnet.
Some writers swear by character CV’s or profiles – complete with photos – to build these personalities. You can Google any physical ‘type’ you fancy nowadays and have a world of choice for your leading lady and man, your villain and your victim. And that isn’t a bad place to start. But what it will result in is an empty, though quite often pretty, vessel. What people look like is actually a terrible short cut to an authentic character. What fiction needs is depth and complexity, not appearances. What a character looks like is an anchor, but it can be a drag in terms if adding anything useful, exciting of interesting about the people in your story.
For that we have to circle back to the purpose of any created character and their story arc. Individuals who change, learn and ‘grow’ are dynamic and it is these characters that will deliver the plot best for you. Pulling together a ‘personality quirk/ inner demon/ childhood trauma/ guilty secret’ thumbnail for each of your characters is, I think, far more useful than knowing whether their eyes are grey or their teeth straight or crooked. And you can have fun with these inner-life profiles. Pick topics/ questions that suit your plot and genre and play with them. See if anything interesting emerges. It’s can also be useful to embellish such profiles with physical manifestations of their personality traits. I don’t suggest you go full Dickens with it, but are your characters healthy, hungover, fitness obsessed, carrying an old injury, disguising a flaw. This approach is different to an appearance based one and, I believe, more interesting. You may not use many of the notes from the inner-life profiles in the final book, but such exercises will root the characters in your mind and that will help.
A lot has been written about speech, cadence, vocabulary and the importance of making characters verbally distinct. And in a multiple character novel there does needs to be some difference in the way characters use words. But I think you can take ‘voices’ too far. Most of us do not have huge verbal tics or particularly unique language use – unless we are seafarers, or surgeons, or Soviet trained assassins. I think, it is more important to make the dialogue or interior monologues natural and fitting. And remember, the characters in books have to carry the plot, so they need to be slightly more articulate than many of us are in real life. Just beware the savant child. Or maybe that’s just my personal bugbear.
So when you have some notes on the internal life of your character and a way they use words, the next thing to do is get them doing something. Character is best demonstrated through action – in fiction as in life. Of course, what they say may and, probably should, on occasions, be different to what they do. A character can present himself, or herself, as one thing then, in the very next chapter or paragraph, do the exact opposite. That is the joy of writing fiction -you can play with that dichotomy.
Because at the end of the day, and in the beginning, middle and end of the book, our characters are not real! They are our slaves. They have to do what we decide.
And this is my biggest tip on creating impactful characters – be inventive, think laterally and do not write endless versions of yourself. Be a teenage boy, an elf, a wolf, a megalomaniac, a Victorian parlour maid – be whatever you are not! Because none of us are interesting enough to sustain the characters in one short story – never mind one, or two, or even ten novels.
(c) Caroline Bond
About One Split Second:
One split second … the moment that changed their lives forever.
When a car carrying five friends home from a party crashes into a wall, the consequences are devastating – not just for the young people directly involved, but also for their families and the wider community.
No one escapes unscathed, but some are more deeply scarred than others. Those affected are left to question who was to blame for the accident, and what price they will pay.
This moving story of an accident and its aftermath explores our understanding of love and loyalty, grief and forgiveness.
Order your copy online here.