by Jenny Howe
Okay, let's start this off with a question (don't worry, I won't be marking your answers at the end): what does every piece of fiction – whether it’s lauded in the Guardian or laughed at on godawful.net – need and depend on? What one literary device connects the great with the average with the illiterate fangirl? What’s the one element of fiction that transcends ability, writing style, culture, language and even that great modern-day barometer of everything, the fame/fortune thing?
Think about it: every writer whose work you read will differ in pretty much everything from their approach to writing to their views on the world. But the whole purpose of fiction – telling stories – is to invite the reader into the world you’ve created and then to make them feel welcome and involved. And being people ourselves, we all tend to like stories that are about other human beings. No people, no story. Simple as that.
(All right, I know that Watership Down is about rabbits, and you’re probably itching to tell me about the Hungarian genius whose epic novel about a tree was short listed for the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, but you get the point. No one likes a smartarse. And if you email me to say “smartarse” should be two words instead of one, I’m going to hurt you.)
I might be labouring the point here (sorry, but it’s what I tend to do; if anyone out there wants to write a column on how not to say the same thing over and over again, I’d be very grateful), but there is an important point to be made: your characters are the heartbeat of your fiction. When they’re done well, they engage the emotions and create the emotional roller coaster a good story should be. The reader should want the hero and his girl to get together, and come away from your story feeling relieved that they do (or disappointed if they don’t). Storytelling is a fragile magic, and poorly drawn, unbelievable characters can stop the spell from being cast at all. On the other hand, good characters can make the magic more potent and enchanting than you can imagine, more so than all the purple prose and elegant symbolism in the world.
So, how exactly do you create the Holden Caufields of the world, the Sams and Frodos, the David Copperfields? Well, if I knew the exact answer I’d be on Newsnight Review talking books with Mark Lawson and Germaine Greer right now, but I’ve got a few ideas, and hopefully they might come in useful to you.
In fact, let’s create a character now, together. (Don’t worry; I won’t be marking them at the end.) Even you’ve always like writing but the idea of making people up, actually pulling them out of thin air, has made you nervous in the past, there’s no need to fret. It’s actually kinda fun. Promise.
So, off the top of my head, I give you... Mark!! He’s twenty-three, he works in an office in Liverpool, and he’s got a girlfriend called Lucy. That’s enough for now. Mark isn’t a particularly special or unique person: he’s not a werewolf or a mass murderer or an undercover alien, though feel free to experiment a little bit and add something a bit different. My Mark might not sound very interesting at the moment, but don’t worry about that.
Some writers like to give their characters names that are symbolic or that somehow tie in with the character’s personality, and if you want to go down that route, that’s up to you. There are plenty of baby-name websites to help you pick the perfect name. Personally though, I just think of the first name that comes to mind. Nathaniel or Dweezil or Zebedee might be perfect symbolic and descriptive names for your new creation, but maybe you should think again if he’s meant to be a fifty-year-old plumber from Gateshead.
It’s also worth thinking about whether this character would actually realistically play a part in the story you want to write: it’s fair to say our man Mark probably won’t be getting hand-picked by NASA to command a space mission to a mysterious and newly-discovered planet. We’re concentrating on characters now, but you should still keep the story at least in mind.
Okay, so we’ve got a name and some very rough outlines, what comes next? One thing that often crops up – particularly in fanfiction, particularly regarding Mary Sues (of which we’ll come to later) - is a detailed description of your character’s clothing and appearance. If you want to see this done especially badly, read Chris’s recent MSTs of LoTR fics. Unless the revelations that Mark wears a tight pastel-yellow shirt and looks like Orlando Bloom are crucially important to your story, leave them out. One of the pleasures of reading fiction is being able to fill in the gaps with your imagination, and your reader might have been perfectly happy thinking that Mark looks more like Ian Dowie. One of the hardest things about writing is knowing which details to expand upon and which to ignore, but I think I can safely say your characters’ looks and dress sense can usually be tossed aside. Oh, and even if your man’s looks are important, don’t start the story by having him stood in front of a mirror, examining himself (and thereby giving you the perfect excuse to indulge in a lengthy description). Just say no, kids.
Now we’ve got the rough outline we can delve a little deeper. What sort of person do we want Mark to be? This is where things get either fun or scary, depending on how you feel towards creating original characters. How do you avoid those 2D, cardboard characters that lurk in the fiction world’s darkest shadows? How do you stay away from the SARCASTIC TEENAGER, or the MAVERICK COP WITH THE TRAUMATIC PAST, or the SEXY, SASSY FEMALE FBI AGENT?
One piece of advice I’ve read before is to avoid those dreaded clichéd characters by giving your people hobbies or beliefs that go against common stereotypes or conventional ideas about how certain people act: for example, invent a detective who enjoys gardening, or maybe a judge who goes to every Barnsley game. I think you should ignore that advice. It’s flawed, because it’s based on the shallow assumption that people are defined by the things they like doing... and shallow thinking leads to ONE SENTENCE CHARACTERS, okay? Giving a cardboard character a wacky hobby won’t make them any less of a cut-out: the MAVERICK COP WITH THE TRAUMATIC PAST AND GARDEN SHED FULL OF MIRACLE-GRO won’t win you the Booker Prize, trust me.
Here’s a little game for you: see if you can sum up your friends in one sentence like the ones above. Try and describe them as fully as you can. If you can manage to do it in fewer than six clauses, then I’m afraid you’re living in a John Grisham book. People are complicated, multi-faceted creatures, and your own creations should be no different.
Another thing that a lot of respected writers have recommended doing in the past is carefully planning all your characters before you ever start writing the story, sketching them in ornate detail like a painter will sketch a fine painting. Work out every aspect of your character, from history to personality to likes and dislikes, so when the time comes to finally break out the oils and colour your masterpiece in, everything has been well worked out in advance. If that’s what you like to do, and it works for you, then go for it, but it’s not how I personally like to work. Frankly, having everything worked out like that so there aren’t any surprises seems pretty dull: it’s more fun to throw your character into the thick of things and watch him grow and develop. Besides, having everything written down on paper in advance doesn’t seem too realistic to me: can you honestly say you know how exactly you’d react to any given situation? And did you ever sit down and carefully compose your personality, choosing your good points and then balancing them out with some negative things?
So how would I go about things? Well, we’ve got our character, and we know a little bit about him now. Apart from a few nebulous biographical titbits though, we don’t really know a great deal. But here’s the thing: I know people of a similar age and background of Mark, and assuming that he’s gonna be fairly similar to those people, I can make some educated guesses of how Mark will act in whatever hypothetical situation I throw him into.
In fiction, as in real life, everyone has their own agenda, their own hopes and fears. Some people want to change the world. Some want to take it over. Some only want to make that special someone fall in love with them or get the latest Playstation game. But mostly, all anyone wants to do is make the best of what they’ve got and live happily ever after.
It’s also worth bearing in mind – particularly when writing secondary and tertiary characters - that everyone’s agenda is different. In a way, everyone is the star of their own story, even if our paths cross from time to time. In the words of Stephen King, “In life, all of us consider ourselves to be the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby.” Okay, anyone who’s watched Kingdom Hospital may not think he’s the best person to take advice from, but he’s got a good point here.
To illustrate this point, let’s go back to our man Mark – our protagonist, if we want to sound like we know what we’re talking about – and let’s imagine that he’s going for a big promotion at work. Company car, use of the executive box at Everton; double the money for half the work; this one’s a beauty. Lucy’s already started planning how to spend Mark’s executive pay packet, in fact. It means a lot to him.
Now let’s invent an antagonist – a baddie, if you want. Let’s call him Eric. Eric wants this promotion too, y’see. And he wants it bad. Bad enough to start a smear campaign designed to get Mark into the shit? Very possibly. We’ve got a conflict now, and conflict is the root of drama. We’ve got a good, character driven, idea for a story now.
Let’s hold back for a moment though, before we paint Mark’s rival as a pantomime villain, and think about why Eric would want to do this. Maybe he’s a competitive guy who thinks he’s earned this promotion, but is bitter at the very idea of that layabout Mark’s name being in the frame. Maybe he’s insecure... maybe his whole self-respect and plans for the future are wrapped up in this job, so much so he’s willing to go to some pretty drastic means.
We’re getting an idea of Eric’s character now, through his attitudes and his actions... and attitudes and actions should always define character, not the other way round. He’s obviously morally weak and perhaps not the nicest person on the planet, but at least there’s some sort of interior logic behind his actions, whichever of the two paths you may want to choose: if he’s angry because workshy Mark is even being considered as a candidate for this wonder-job, there’s a reason for his actions. Maybe you can even make the reader feel some sympathy for Eric here. If he’s setting out to wreck Mark’s career because of his own insecurity, then he’s a pretty pathetic, pitiable creature. It’s not noble what he’s doing, but at least there’s some sort of solid reason for it.
Remember this too: people always try to do what they think is best. It’s not always for pure or worthy reasons, but that’s what people are like. And that’s what we want, isn’t it? To make these little inventions of ours as much like real people, with all their downsides and inglorious quirks as we can. And the more our characters resemble real people, the harder it is for them to be mistaken for a part of the scenery.
That’s it for part one. Part two will concentrate on the dreaded Mary Sue (and how to avoid her), the little details and fine touches that help give your characters that extra layer of realism, and, well anything else you might want me to verbosely pontificate about.
If you do have any suggestions or comments, you can either post in this thread, or failing that, email me at email@example.com - although if you’re selling Viagra, I’m not interested, thanks. If, on the other hand, you’re a Nigerian prince who needs to transfer large amounts of money into a western bank account, please tell me more...
- Kif White
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I couldn't have put it better myself. Excellent article there.
"Know the conflict within before facing the conflict without."
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And I'm in full agreement when you said that writing a history with every single aspect of the characters planned in advance is dull. I like very much to put the characters in a given situation and figuring our how they react, as I write, as if my story is a big laboratory of sorts. I feel the characters are developed in a more natural way.
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