Whenever I’m asked what it is that sets a book, a movie or a piece of theatre apart, my answer always has to be: the characters. While the plot and story line might be the most novel ever conceived, if I don’t find myself engaging emotionally with the characters, if they don’t stir something in me that makes me care about them, then the story will most likely end up falling flat. For that reason, when I sit down to write a novel, I will always begin, not with the seed or outline of a story, but by imagining and sketching out the characters that will populate it. Inspiration for my characters comes both from my own life experience and from one of my favourite pastimes: people watching. I pepper these with a little imagination and draw each character out in detail: their hair and eye colour, date and place of birth, weight, height, dress sense, disposition. I imagine their particular tastes, how they stand, walk, talk (the importance of real and believable dialogue cannot be stressed enough); their body language, any quirks they might have and, of course, their back story. Only when I have my cast of characters comprehensively drawn will I allow a story line to percolate. To me, these people are now real people, believable in their roles.
No matter how big or small the role of a character, I always try to give each of them a goal or desire. The fact that they have purpose and conviction – no matter how integral to the main story that may be – makes it easier for the reader to relate to them, to ‘feel’ for them as they go about their business. Also, that same goal or desire can very often lead to conflict and conflict will not only lead to turning pages but also to other characters in the book revealing aspects of their personality that, up until then, may have been hidden from the reader. This can often result in the reader having a change of heart or at least reassessing how they feel about that character and this has the effect of making the reader feel more personally involved in the story. Odd as this may sound, on more than one occasion when I have been quite a way through writing a story and a character that I believe I know inside and out can react to something in the story in a way that is so out of character that it leaves me looking at the page, open-mouthed! And I love when that happens because it is so real. In life, which of us has not been confounded when someone we thought we knew so well turned out to be not that person at all? That’s real life and readers will identify with it. This has taught me not to cage my characters in what I have conceived them to be but rather to give them the freedom to change and evolve naturally, as we all do.
Another characteristic that all of my characters will have is vulnerability because I believe that vulnerability is an integral part of being human. As a reader, I have always found that no matter how dark or unlikeable a character may be, as soon as I see even a shadow of their vulnerability, I cannot resist moving closer to them. All of us, I think, recognise our own wounds in the wounds of the characters we read and that draws us closer, makes us feel more ‘in’ the story or experience. Again, it makes us care.
I always let my writing flow as freely as possible but there is one golden rule I follow when it comes to writing characters and that is to avoid both the hero and the anti-hero. One of the reasons people read is to escape, that’s true, but I believe that people want that escape to be relatable and reliable. Readers know that no one person is ever all good or all bad. It is in the drawing out – through story line, back story, conflict and circumstance – of the characters that the reader really comes to know them. The reader is prompted to think, to reconsider, to try and relate to the characters, to feel for them, love or hate them, champion them or wish them their comeuppance.
Every reader wants to feel immersed in the story they are investing their time in and for me the hallmark of a truly excellent book is when you hear readers talk about how they thought about the characters long after they had finished the last page. They talk about the characters as though they were real people and that is the pivotal, most important point: characters must be so real that the reader feels they actually know them.
I fell in love with books and reading at a young age thanks to Dickens, Hardy and Dostoyevsky and these three, I believe, were the real masters of character crafting. Which of us still does not ache when we remember the young Pip’s shame and cruel destruction at the hands of Ms Havisham and Estelle; Tess’ self sacrifice for the good of her family; or the struggles of the god-like Myshkin in his ungodly world? Though written in a different century, these characters live on in our memories as if we had read them only yesterday. Why? Because we saw them, we smelt them, we identified with their vulnerabilities, their wounds – they were real, reliable and we took them into our hearts.
Speaking of the classics, another point worth noting is the importance of due consideration when naming characters. I am always mindful, when naming characters, of finding a name that ‘fits’ and is suggestive of the personality. If, for example, I am writing a strong female protagonist, I’m not going to call her Lily or Violet but something strong and short, a name that stands up and shoots from the hip, like Eve – watch out for her in my next novel!
One last thing I have learned over the years is to not necessarily limit my characters to just people. I have always believed that characters are hugely shaped by their natural environment and when writing my current novel, Finding Alison, I was aware that the sea, with its passions and unpredictability, would have quite an effect on the characters in the little coastal community where the book is set. Because of its influence both on the story and on the characters, I decided to make the sea a character in itself. I was delighted when reviewers wrote about the sea’s huge persona and leading role in the book and the richness and authenticity that this brought to the story. Some even said that its effect was so great that on finishing the book they had a huge urge to drive to the sea and experience it again. So, never be afraid to jump outside the box and experiment.
(c) Deirdre Eustace
About Finding Alison:
Grief and guilt. Love and resentment. A community divided.
No one in Carniskey has ever truly understood what led Sean Delaney, a seasoned local fisherman, to risk his life in a high storm in the dead of night. Now, three years on from that tragic night, his wife Alison is still struggling with her unresolved grief and increasing financial worries.
After three difficult years, Alison has grown distant from her daughter and estranged from her friends and fellow villagers, particularly her best friend Kathleen who harbours a deeply guarded secret of her own. Isolated by its stunning yet often cruel surroundings, this is a community used to looking after its own but the arrival of an outsider – artist and lifelong nomad, William – offers Alison a new perspective on life and love that threatens to unearth the mysteries of the past.
A story of courage and enduring humanity, Finding Alison follows the community through their struggles in love, loss and betrayal, each coming to understand that only in truth can we find the peace and liberation essential for true happiness.
“A story of love, loss and liberation that will keep you captivated to the last page.” Carmel Harrington.
Order your copy online here.