The number one essential for a good story is strong characters. The best story in the world will not be read if you don’t believe in the characters whose head you are living. We also know that characters can be good, bad or both at the same time.
So what makes that character stand out and lift off the page so that the reader wants to know more? This is what readers and writers consistently yearn for. So challenge yourself to think hard about every character you write.
I’m not suggesting I have the answer to this, by the way, although clearly by putting virtual pen to paper in this blog, I’m perhaps suggesting I have some knowledge. Perhaps experience is a better word, knowledge assumes you know everything. With writing I learnt there are no rights or wrongs just rules to be broken. I know it doesn’t make sense but as a writer you can do what you like, it’s your work. It’s more a question of whether you want people to read it or you want to challenge the genre.
Back to characters. Everyone is different and see different things in people. Often people see things in my characters that I hadn’t a clue was there. I created them, yet they take on a personality of their own. I also found that when writing, characters can take on the story themselves. Whatever plan I had for them, often changes as they develop through the story.
This is maybe because life never quite works as planned, people go off at tangents, react in an unexpected way. So as your character goes through the story, let them have deviations. They are more real for it. As the writer and editor of your story of course you have to limit this for the sake of writing prudence but if you don’t allow your characters some kind of free reign on the page they will stay one dimensional.
Where to start?
Story before character or character before story?
Doesn’t matter, either can work. Inspiration for writing comes from many sources. Sometimes you see something in a person that inspires an idea. Other times you have a great story and you need someone to tell it.
This is so important for a fiction writer. If you see someone and think, ‘wow they’d make a great character for a book’. That’s fine, great idea. I do myself but immediately I take the central premise of what that person is about and then change everything else, sex, age, habits, name. Why? Because the character you know will always constrain if you don’t give you them a new lease of life. Plus what will that person think when they read the story? For me this is a rule I won’t break. People you meet and know are great ideas for characters but the only characters in your stories should be ones you created in your head.
There maybe different rules for working with historic characters, but as I’ve never tried that genre I might leave others to witter about that.
Writing in first person
Many writers love writing in the first person. And I do occasionally as it really allows you to develop a point of view. But you will have to think about how you portray your character to the reader and how much of yourself sneaks in. Readers often believe the person writing to be themselves when reading stories in the first person. Sometimes it’s fun to play with that idea. Take your character to another extreme and see what readers suddenly make of the head they’re in.
How to build a character?
In my book, A Very English Revolution, the characters came before the story. One of the central characters Rachel however was hatched from another character. The political part of the story started was based on the idea of an experienced middle aged business woman (Anna) who was fed up of the world of politics and decides to take it on herself. That gave me a good start but I quickly came up with a Cinderella character to her. A faithful assistant who made everything Anna do come to life. That was Rachel. As I thought about Rachel, younger, faithful to her boss, determined but not ambitious, she became more interesting. I then gave her a backstory, even gave her an alter-ego as a folk singer, then a book and now a sequel that centre’s largely on her personality.
Do characters need a passion?
The character Rachel, above, I gave passion. With one or two others, she was the inspiring, determined type of character needed to build a thriller. But a further character Sarah, who also features throughout the story, in a supporting role, has little passion. She is frustrated with life and home, but finds her way into the story when faced with a family trauma. Her cynicism with life and truth is what provides the question that the book fights to answer. For all her apparent weakness throughout the story, especially against forthright characters like Rachel, she probably ends the stronger.
Characters need to be fed
I don’t mean a virtual steak and chips, I mean they need to be challenged. They need to be put against the wall and every bit of anger, passion, dread, fear squeezed out of them. If you don’t challenge your character, feed them great lines and make them do things, where is your story? If you wimp out of writing the difficult lines for your character, glossing over the juicy bits, your reader will not be challenged either and therefore will skip to page 300 to find out what the end is, and miss the dulls stuff out.
The extra dimension
Every character needs another dimension. There is usually one that serves the story. E.G. For a female character to fall in love for a love story, she has to be willing to fall in love and you build a story that places in her that spot. Then you might add some personal baggage that creates a problem or challenge. Great, that all serves the story, but find something else. Smoking habit, nervous habit, a shopping habit, an element that perhaps conflicts with the other aspects of the character. This is what will give them life.
Dodge the Cliché
Tricky to do but one we have to do. Most things have already been done, so don’t go searching for a character in other books to see if it already exists. It’s a check against infinity so pointless. In crime for example there are so many heavy drinking policemen with marital difficulties. Seeking a variation of that norm may not be worth it as people almost expect it. A policeman with a normal life might be quite boring, but seek something that makes them different without going too weird. That’s why it’s important that characters are created in your own head and own voice. That will give them a unique flavour anyway. And if it sounds familiar to you then it probably does to the reader. You then have a choice to go with the cliché (e.g. the policeman example above) with a variation or trash the dimension that provides the cliché and start again.
Lots to ponder over in the notes above. I would love to learn how others take on the idea of a character and maybe even more techniques for dodging the cliché. Pretty sure there are far better character builders than me.