I love character-driven stories. When I read Moby Dick, I had a powerful urge to write in the margin, ‘more Queequeg, less how-to-peel-a-whale’.
The wonderful Tayari Jones says that a good story is about people and their problems, not problems and their people. That’s the heart of a character-driven novel. If your reader cares about the character, they’ll follow them on pretty much any journey. Long or short. Saving the world or hanging out the washing.
I also love lists so what follows is a short list of things I find useful when developing characters.
- Character voice should be unique to each character – it’s the sum of their personality, what they say and how they say it, how they think about themselves and the world around them. If you feel that one character sounds like another, they may not yet be fully rounded in your head. Or maybe both characters serve a similar function and you could collapse them into one. Look carefully at your character’s friends or family – if they’re interchangeable, reduce your cast.
- Characters are a mix of thought and behaviour and reveal themselves accordingly. Some are very chatty and learn out loud (think Anne of Green Gables) while others are more reticent and watchful (Ada in The Poisonwood Bible, Barnaby Gaitlin in The Patchwork Planet) and still others say exactly what they think about others but rarely turn that insight inwards (Olive Kitteridge, Merricat Blackwood). Readers both watch and listen to your characters, so if there’s a mismatch between a character’s thoughts and actions, it had better be intentional.
- Which brings me to dialogue. Don’t let your character down – they are neither a mouthpiece nor a puppet. I once gave my own views directly to a character to say and it still makes me feel a bit oily. No line or thought – no matter how beautiful or meaningful or heartbreaking – is worth sacrificing your character for. If they wouldn’t say it, don’t make them. It’s their voice, not yours.
- Work with what interests you about people. When you meet someone new, what would you most like to ask them? (What’s in their handbag? What is their most precious memory? Would they be eaten first in a zombie apocalypse? If not, why not? And the big stuff – what keeps them awake at night? What are they most ashamed of?). Put those interests to work when you’re out and about. You don’t have to interrogate real people or ask them to tell you the most interesting thing about themselves (in my defence, we were psychology students and thus obliged to do that kind of thing) – you can simply imagine their answers. Or eavesdrop. In these Covidy times, out-and-about is more limited but you can do this indoors too, meeting new people in books or TV.
- Which leads us to the intriguing question of person vs persona: what people don’t do is as revealing as what they do – that’s the nature of life, to choose this-or-that. What’s interesting for a character is what they think but don’t say – that glimpse into who they are compared to who they present to the world. For my money, there’s nothing more compelling than seeing a character begin to identify and gradually close that gap. Once, on an editing course, Brian Langan (Storyline Editing and Literary Agency) asked us to identify each character’s path of least resistance and their road less travelled. It was enormously clarifying in understanding who the characters were and how they might develop.
- Writers are told that characters need to be consistent but also that they need to learn and change and grow. Holding those two things together can become confused when it is forced. Remember to give your character a little time in which to change. There are exceptional circumstances of course – in books, as in life, there are times when we are forced to confront ourselves in a more immediate way. To quote Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone, when we must ‘look out at the world hard and stare that fucker down.’ That line – the sheer resilience within it – reverberated through my character decisions in Where the Edge Is, those moments where characters can safely earn credible insight leaps.
- Multiple perspectives fascinate me, the fact that you can ask a handful of people about the same scene and everyone will have a different memory, filtered through their own experience. Writing multiple character points of view within the same story gives huge freedom – the caveat is that you have to find them equally intriguing. If you don’t give similar weight to each character’s sorrow and joy and journey, it shows, and your reader will skim that section. Love them equally, but in different ways. (Sound familiar?)
- Know the parts of character development you struggle with, particularly if you have a strong preference for how you find and understand your characters. I hear mine and I have to work hard to see them too. I often write in close third person, meaning I spend my time in their heads, frequently forgetting that they also have a physical body in the world. Whatever hole you consistently fall into, work on it in whatever way you can. The Irish Writers’ Centre does excellent online themed short courses (I recently signed up for ‘Writing the Body’) but it doesn’t have to be a course if that’s tricky for you or doesn’t feel right. Read and re-read stories that are strong in your weak area. When editing, make that weakness the first question you ask yourself (have I done it again?). Be honest with yourself – your gut already knows anyway.
Finally, in the warm, witty-yet-instructive comfort blanket that is Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott advises that writers ‘hold some space open and an image may come to you.’
Or if you prefer: walk with a head full of your characters and let them talk to you.
(c) Gráinne Murphy
About Where the Edge Is:
As a sleepy town in rural Ireland starts to wake, a road subsides, trapping an early-morning bus and five passengers inside. Rescue teams struggle and as two are eventually saved, the bus falls deeper into the hole.
Under the watchful eyes of the media, the lives of three people are teetering on the edge. And for those on the outside, from Nina, the reporter covering the story, to rescue liaison, Tim, and Richie, the driver pulled from the wreckage, each are made to look at themselves under the glare of the spotlight.
When their world crumbles beneath their feet, they are forced to choose between what they cling to and what they must let go of.
‘A truly brilliant debut’ Emily Mazzara, Books Ireland
‘With sentences that you will want to cut out and keep, this is an intelligent, exquisitely crafted debut’ Fiona Mitchell
‘Original and shattering’ Marianne Lee
Order your copy online here.