Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Creating Characters

Creating Characters - In a Nutshell!

So today I am not going to rant about my writing I am going to share what I have learned about creating characters through my extensive reading about characters. How to make them three dimensional, fully rounded, loveable and hated. I think I am going to make this a new feature of this blog. Occasionally compressing all what I have learnt in the last five years into one blog post on different topics. I am going to label these blogs ‘In a Nutshell’ – which is basically the main points I have picked out on a particular writing technique over the last few years. the following is not designed to be comprehensive. It's just the main bits that I remember now when writing about Characters:

So imagine a world where you controlled everything - Mwah ha ha ha (evil laugh). Well that would never happen unless you are running for president or friends with The Pinky and The Brain. Well actually wait a minute – you are in control of an entire universe and it is your novel. This is where you can give birth to characters without going through a painful labour – well sometimes creating a character can be painful to begin with but…anyway you get what I am talking about.

So characters – the first thing you think about with a character is their name – In GT I picked random names and I thought they would work because I was under the impression that a name is a name.  In real life people meet and they have the name that was given to them. But really this is not the case. Readers want quirky, pronounceable names. The characters in Goa Traffic worked – their names were simple and there were only a few characters. If I re-wrote any part of that book I wouldn’t change the characters names because they kind of grew into their names. It would be like calling a dog fluffy its whole life and suddenly changing it half way through his life - it just wouldn’t work. 

I roughly did the same thing with Bittersweet. Picked random names but I made some tweaks during and even after I finished the first draft. The names had to be right. Names have to fit their characters. They have to work with each other. You can’t have all the characters in your book with names beginning with L for example any particular letter for that matter. Remember the reader does not know your characters as well as you do. The same first letter may be confusing. This is not to say presume your reader ignorant. No. It is to say have a think about a name. Also we all know a soft sounding name like Hannah to a hard sounding name like Victor – you can use this to your advantage by creating the goodies and the baddies and giving them appropriate names. Someone in my writing group does this exceptionally well. I recently read a novel where the name matched their physical detail, their occupation and ultimately their motives and it made for a thrilling read! Try noting the names of people you know with their personalities and occupations. It makes for an interesting read once you have compiled this and I believe will get you further in tune with the chracaters you create.

And remember pick names that are relevant to an era- I know this is obvious but sometimes we forget when writing modern fiction! Google is your friend – if you are writing a book set in the 80’s just Google popular baby names in the 80’s names or 70's names- you get the picture!

The second thing you think of is adding a bit of colour and history to the characters via a smidge of physical detail. Previously I have made a mistake from describing every possible characteristic of a character – Whilst this may work in some novels characters remain more memorable if they are created in the heads of the reader themselves. If you describe every detail they might find this confusing. Remember the reader knows best. Give them one to three details about a character. A hooked nose, grey hair, a mole on their neck. Let the reader fill in the gaps and they will much prefer their own version of their character than yours and they will remember the character better! Just give them some guidance 

Of course, unless your character is jobless (and even then they should have some kind of interesting hobby) give them an interesting job! See I failed here in Goa Traffic and in Bittersweet. I gave them run of the mill jobs. Lisa is an English Teacher and Maria is a Travel Agent. Although there was reason for their jobs in both cases I think a quirky job works better.  I recently read Hurting Distance by Sophie Hannah – the protagonist was a sun dial maker! Excellent – us readers (because remember writer, you too are a reader) we like to learn – yes on some subconscious level we are all geeks! So tell us a bit – in a showy not telling way (of course)- about the profession- something quirky that the general lay person does not know about. Not only can we repeat this interesting nugget to work colleagues or friends - we can say- yes I read it in so and so’s book. And remember here real detail adds authenticity! So although it’s fiction- don’t make up everything! Put some real fact in there!  That is another topic entirely. 

You know this as well but - Don't give too much back story of the character at the beginning of the book - we need to know the characters motivation and what their personality is like but don’t say this in one paragraph (remember show their personality traits – don’t tell).

Back story , I feel, should be drip fed, after all, it creates the characters motivation for why they are like they are … and characters motivation is everything – but that’s another topic. And remember your characters need to interact with others.. Think about their current interaactions and relationships. Remember they have had past relationships- things have happened to them which will never be mentioned in your book but makes them what they are.

You may think that doing a character profile for each character is a waste of time, but it's not. At first it will be laborious but it will really save you time in the long run and will show you which characters are lacking in depth- it will eventually make you automatically write them as more three dimensional characters. Try the following to profile your characters:

Interview them with random questions like dream job? Favourite food, colour, music? Keep a little journal with each character profile which you can refer to. Google image the celebrity which you would most like to play that character in the film version of your book. Cut the image out and stick that next to their profile.

Go for a walk and pretend to be one of your characters- what would they do in the real world? Would they sit by a river? Would they go to a record store? Perhaps pretend to be them for the day.

Write short stories with each character from your novel as the protagonist of the piece – perhaps an incident that happened to them when they were younger. Perhaps a bit of back story- use their voice when writing these stories.

Make a note of the props they need- a walking stick – always chewing gum, glasses that they don’t actually need- all these things show something about your character without telling the reader this.

Make a list of tags that a character has – or a certain speaking style – jot it down next to their profile!

Remember characterize the villains and the most likeable characters carefully in your novels too. People like goodies who are modest, good at their jobs, a bit of an underdog maybe. Remember people like good triumphing over evil and we are shallow too- believe it or not we like heros to be good looking!

Baddies- give them a scar- horrible I know – after all most of us have some physical scars- it doesn’t make us baddies but remember cartoons – scars work!  But give them good qualities as well- remember the character has to be human and of this world. Think of someone you know but dislike they all have redeeming qualities. A balance is good. Remember as well a reader will like your book/character even more if the character starts of as good- the reader thinks he is okay and then he turns or better still if we think a character is evil and at the end we see the reasons why they did what they did and they are not evil anymore. If a writer can get a reader to change their mind about a character mid way through a novel then their work is done (well kinda done) 

Well thats it for now. I hope this has been helpful. If so tell me what you think or follow me on Twitter @marissadeluna