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Seven Questions to Help Develop Your Characters by Catherine Mangan

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Character
Catherine Mangan

Catherine Mangan

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As a writer, there’s nothing more intimidating than a blank page, especially when you know that there are three hundred or more pages to fill in order to reach your word count goal. There are days when I can happily sit and write for hours, and then there are the days where the threat of some form of torture couldn’t force me to write something that I’m happy with. On those days, self-imposed, old-fashioned discipline is the only thing that works.

Writers spend most of their time alone with their thoughts—thinking, plotting, writing or editing—and many fiction books are written in a vacuum with little input or guidance. The voices in your head can get pretty loud in the midst of all that alone time, and it can be hard not to stare absentmindedly at the screen, wondering if what you’ve written is even any good. It’s not as if you can just send off a few chapters and get some feedback either. On the contrary, publishing guidelines demand that a fiction manuscript is finished in its entirety and is fully polished, before sending it off to potential publishers or agents.

Three hundred pages is a lot of solitary time spent with your laptop so there’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt to creep in. But, at some point, you just have to believe that your idea has merit and keep going. The more you write, the better you get, so persistence is key and on the days that inspiration is ebbing further and further away, I’ve learned not to fight it, but instead turn my hand to something more productive.

Writing a book has its own to-do list: there’s literally a checklist of things to be completed and ticked off. The basic elements of the story have to be figured out and the richer the level of detail you can provide, the more authentic your story will feel. These elements include plot, setting, characters, conflict and resolution, dialogue, pace, point of view and style, each of which has their own set of parameters and guidelines. On those days that I’m feeling less inspired, I turn to this list, pick one, and sketch it out, going back to basics with paper and pencil.

Take characters as an example. The more you know your characters, the more real and engaging they will be for your readers, but you don’t need to know every detail before you get started. You can build out their profile as you continue to piece together the other elements of your story, but ultimately what you’re trying to do is create characters that your readers can relate to. They don’t have to be likeable, they shouldn’t be perfect, but they definitely should be believable.

When I first start to sketch out a new character, I run through a list of seven simple questions that are designed to push my thinking beyond just the physicality of a character. Even if you don’t end up using or documenting every one of these elements in your story, they will help define and visualize the character in your head, creating a much richer overall picture, and ultimately, more believable characters.

The profile for Niamh Kelly, the main character in my first book The Italian Escape began with the notion of an Irish woman in her mid-thirties, reeling from recent personal developments and unable to find her way out of her current pit of despair. The seven questions forced me to think beyond my initial notion of her character and dig deeper to understand exactly who she was and what was going on in her head.

  1. What does she look like? (Paint a physical picture of your character)

Niamh has startling green eyes, and long dark hair, which she usually wears tied back in a knot. She is of average height at five foot, four inches, and is quite self-conscious about her weight, believing herself to be a couple of kilos on the wrong side of chunky. She has a great smile that lights up her face and when she’s impatient or exasperated she rolls her eyes exaggeratedly.

  1. What age is she?

Niamh is thirty-three years old and obsesses a little too much about the fact that she’s in her mid-thirties and still single.

  1. What does she do for a living?

She has spent the past four years working at her boyfriend’s startup but following their recent breakup (he unceremoniously dumps her) she’s enormously humiliated and insists that she can’t possibly return to work. So, submitting a fake doctor’s certificate, she’s currently out on ‘sympathy leave’ and is at her wits’ end as to what she will do next.

  1. What does she like to do in her spare time?

She loves to travel but hasn’t done nearly enough of it. Recently she has been obsessing over house magazines and mentally decorating the apartment she thought that she and her now ex-boyfriend might move in to together. She hates the gym and would rather hand wash a basket of socks then sign up for a workout class.

  1. Where’s she from and where does she live now?

Originally from Dublin, Niamh is still living at home with her elderly parents. She’s desperate to get her own place but can’t afford it and is craving a sense of independence and the freedom that comes from having your own place.

  1. Who are her family and friends?

She has one sister, Grace, a successful architect with an adoring husband and two cute if berserk toddlers. Grace is tall, slim and elegant and seems to waft through life effortlessly, which is a source of much frustration for Niamh. Her parents, both in their seventies are kind, easy-going people. Niamh is reluctantly newly single, her four-year relationship having very recently come to an abrupt end.

  1. What kind of personality does she have?

Niamh is easy-going, funny and has a sharp wit. She’s a very likeable character but, following her recent breakup has been wallowing in self-pity and humiliation and taking solace in a nightly bottle of wine.

The list could go on, determining her strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes but a lot of that will develop naturally as you continue to work through your storyline. You know that you’ve reached a tipping point, and something has ‘clicked’ when suddenly, you can hear your character in your head. She has a voice: she’s real.

If, on the days that I feel I can’t write anything worthwhile, I invest some time working on those core elements of writing a book, then at least I’m still contributing to the development of the story. That way, when I eventually get back to writing, I can convince myself that those days when I was less than inspired hadn’t been a complete write-off!

(c) Catherine Mangan

About The Italian Escape

Sparkling sea, sun, delicious food and Aperol Spritz – escape to Italy with the perfect summer romance . . .

Niamh Kelly’s life hasn’t turned out quite as she’d expected. She’s thirty-three, still living at home and was recently dumped . . . by her boss. So when her sister invites her to tag along on a work trip to the sun-drenched Italian coast, Niamh jumps at the chance, eager to escape into a world of sparkling prosecco, delicious food, and breath-taking beaches.

Upon her arrival, Niamh immediately falls in love with the beautiful Italian town they’re staying in and realises she never wants to leave, deciding instead to stay and open up a quaint coffee shop nestled in charming old town streets – even if she has no idea what she’s doing. But when a family tragedy and a tricky tourist season threaten her new business, Niamh isn’t so sure she can stick it out.

With help from her new-found Italian friends – and the possibility of romance on the horizon – can she make her new life in the sun a success?

A glorious and uplifting escapist novel set against the stunning backdrop of the Italian coast. The perfect holiday read for fans of Rosanna Ley, Rachel Hore and Karen Swan.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Catherine Mangan grew up in Ireland before embarking on her own Italian escape. She studied languages at University College Cork before moving to Italy (briefly) with friends, which was the start of a life-long love affair with the country. She now divides her time between Ireland and Silicon Valley. The Italian Escape is her first novel.

Under another name, Catherine is an award-winning Irish entrepreneur and creator of a language-learning app, which has users in 175 countries.

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