Character Building (originally published 30 October 2012)
First published in April 2009 Writers Forum
... here are a few tips on building a memorable character.
What's In A Name?
A name can say a lot about a character, in terms of age (or era), gender, class, status and sometimes personality. Think about all the different names friends, relatives and strangers use for you, including pet names and diminutives. It’s possible different people will also address your character differently.
Dickens was the master of unusual names, which told us everything about that character, like Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times. This is a man who puts children on an educational treadmill, grinding facts into them, so they make the grade. More recently Sarah Waters, in her novel, Fingersmith, has the character of Mrs Sucksby, who is not only a wet nurse, but also someone who suckers people into her schemes. However, it's rare for modern day authors to use this device and I’d advise caution unless it really does fit the tone of your story.
You might want to use the name of your character to challenge expectations, and this is a good idea. If you do call a modern 7-year-old Ethel, do let the reader know pretty soon that you're dealing with a child, unless it’s meant to be a twist at the end. It can drag a reader out of a story to suddenly realise the person they’re reading about isn’t who and what they thought they were.
Do avoid names that start with the same letter, or even the same group of letters. Imagine how confusing it would be to read a story involving three women called Mary, Marian and Marjory.
The Roles People Play
Think of all the roles you play in your life. You might be a husband/wife, son, daughter, mum, dad, granny, employee, employer, friend and lover. Hidden among all the things you are to other people, is the person that you are to yourself.
Now give some thought to one of your favourite fictional characters and the roles they play. One of my favourites is Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus. Rebus is an ex-husband, father, friend, lover, heavy drinker (and whilst some may argue this is more of a character trait, I also believe it's a role that Rebus plays up), football fan, and finally a policeman. It's this last role that he plays to the detriment of all the others. But if Rankin hadn't let us know about all these other roles, we'd have no sense of what Rebus was giving up for his career.
So make a list of all your character's roles. Are they as alive as Rebus? Are they as alive as you? If so then they'll be alive for your reader too.
There are several schools of thought about whether writers should describe their characters in their stories. Some people feel it's trivial. Novelist Kate Long (The Daughter Game, Picador) said, 'It has everything to do with personal choices as a writer, your own style and voice, how the characters come to you, what aspects of them you want to throw into relief or play down, plus narrative pacing.'
Should you want to describe your character it's not as simple as saying: Fred is 6ft tall and has blue eyes and blonde hair. I think we'd all agree that's pretty boring. It helps if your character's appearance also says something about their personality or status.
In my story, The Donkey Driver's Wife, set during the 1980s miners' strikes, I wanted to suggest that the loyalties of one character, Matt, could go either way. Rather than just tell the reader 'Matt's loyalties could go either way', I had the narrator, a miner's wife called Sheila, describe her first sighting of him:
Matt was a good-looking lad in his thirties (any man under fifty was a 'lad' in these parts). One forearm bore the legend 'Julie', the other 'Debbie'. His fingers had 'Love' and 'Hate' tattoos above the knuckles. I remember wondering if he ever made up his mind about anything.
The reader may not know the colour of Matt's eyes, or even what he's wearing, but I hope that description gives a sense of what type of man he is, and that the reader will go on to fill in the blanks, creating their own image of him.
Even if you don't use it, write down a description of your character for yourself. If you know who they are, then it'll be easier to transmit that to your readers.
Light and Shade
We are all many good things and we are also some bad things. Hopefully, we're mostly good things. However, a fictional character who is all good or all bad can be pretty flat. It's up to you as a writer to ensure that doesn't happen. Even if a character is the villain, there must be something more to them than their desire to make the world an unhappy place.
It's important not to generalise or simplify. 99.9% of abused children grow up not to be serial killers. So if you've written a story in which the main character is a killer, it helps if your character has a fatal flaw, and a trigger that turns them to the dark side.
Shakespeare's Othello is a good man with a fatal flaw. This flaw is his jealousy of his beautiful wife, Desdemona. Left to his own devices, Othello might have settled into his marriage, becoming more secure in Desdemona's love for him. After all, not all jealous husbands become killers. But along comes Iago, with his own agenda, fuelling Othello's jealousy with insidious hints and schemes. Iago is the trigger for the events that turn Othello into a murderer.
As a brief exercise, write down two things about your character. One good thing. One bad thing. The bad thing doesn't have to be completely polarised from the good thing - the flaw needn't be fatal - but it needs to be something that would make them behave differently to anyone else facing the same crisis.
Think about your character's history. It's unlikely that she popped out of nowhere, age 30, with all the skills needed to repel evil. Well, unless she's Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element. Your character may just need a bit more development. It's important your character isn't born only to service the needs of your story.
In film, The Wizard of Oz, our part in Dorothy's story begins on the day the tornado hits. But there are enough hints, during the black and white sequence, to give the sense that Dorothy wasn't just born in that moment. She's living with her aunty Em on a farm in Kansas, so we guess without being told, she's an orphan. She's lost her parents, and feels adrift in the world, unsure of her place. There#s an existing relationship with the three farmhands, nasty neighbour, Miss Gulch, and the travelling salesman, Professor Marvel. All of which inform Dorothy's adventures in Oz, when they become, respectively, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, The Wicked Witch and the Wizard. Incidentally, this doubling of characters is not used in the novel but I can't help wondering if L Frank Baum wishes he'd thought of it as it works perfectly. But I think we all agree that, as young as she was, Dorothy was a character with a history.
Of course, you're not going to list, in a short story, all the things that have ever happened to your heroine. That would be boring. But it helps to give the reader some sense that this person has a history. A good exercise is to go through a short story by one of your favourite authors, and make a list of all the things that happened to the main character before the story begins. This can be a life event, or something they've done. What does the author tell you about them, without actually telling you?
Now do the same with your own story. If you can't find any evidence that your character existed before the story, then perhaps you might need to look at how you can give them a history. Throw in a few choice hints to show this is a person who has lived a life before your reader meets them.
It's also a good idea to read lots of novels and stories, or watch film and television, to see how other writers suggest character history. I hope the few ideas I've given you will help you to create richer characters.