One of my favourite parts of being a writer is creating characters. In fact, most of my stories begin with a character and I build the story around them. I see someone in the street and think they are interesting. I daydream about a person and wonder where the thoughts come from. I see a picture of a creature or person who is so strange looking I think they should be in a book. I read a name and that triggers a new character. I read a street sign and think: ‘That’s a great name for someone.’ The characters pop into my head and mull about in there and won’t leave and torment me until I write down their stories.
I begin by asking myself:
• who is this person?
• what type of person are they? Are they good or bad? Hero/heroine or someone you want to hiss and boo at?
• what is their story?
• where do they live and where are they going?
• what’s going to happen to them?
• how does it happen and why?
• when is it going to happen and is the timing significant (for instance, to coincide with an anniversary date or something else happening?)?
Yes, it’s those words again: who, what, why, where, when and how?
So you’ve got a character in your mind. Let’s say it’s a boy or girl and they are the hero or heroine of your story. How do you go about making them real to your reader? How do you get your reader’s sympathy to their plight and make them root for them when things get tough?
Well firstly, you need to ensure they are characters your readers will relate to. Give them nice aspects of their character, but give them flaws too. There’s nothing worse than a goody two-shoes! You want your reader to like your character, not roll their eyes every time he or she does something perfectly.
Let your characters change and develop. You might want to start off that your character is timid and weak and through their trials and tribulations, they become stronger and less afraid. Maybe your ‘baddy’ is horrible because of something that happened to them when they were little, maybe they become nice towards the end of your story thanks to your hero or heroine. Maybe your baddy just stays a baddy and gets their come-uppance.
Put across their views on life and their feelings by ‘showing not telling’ – that is, how they do things, what they say and their actions/reactions. This is an oldie but a goody! You’ll often hear writers or writing tutors saying this and that’s because it’s good advice. Think about how you want to get your character across: if they are angry, you might want to show them kicking something in temper or shouting instead of saying ‘Jeannie was angry’. Maybe they sing all the time showing that they are happy. Perhaps they behave in a spoiled manner revealing a horrible side to their character. Have a think about how you can get their personalities and views across by their actions rather than baldly stating the fact. This will give your story more depth and make your character more believable.
Think about how your characters talk and what they talk about? Do they have a certain way of saying things? Do they have a stutter? Are they quiet spoken or loud? Maybe they are shy or have a lisp? Be careful if you are using local accents…strong accents don’t always translate well into print and can be confusing to the reader. Better to have the odd word of colloquialism than several.
What motivates your character? Why does he or she do the things they do? What is their agenda? How does that agenda come across in the story? It could be the way they treat others (for instance, kindly, nastily, sneakily, manipulatively, strongly) or the things they say and do (maybe they are the type to whisper nasty poisonous things in someone’s ear that causes trouble for your main character). Perhaps your character is driven by guilt or an urge to put things right. Maybe they are just thrown into an adventure and the only way they can get back is by going on the quest? Perhaps they are a jealous type and show this by the way they are horrible to other people.
Make them rounded individuals. Give them hobbies or preferences for things. Perhaps their hobby or preference comes in handy at some point in the story, perhaps not. I love to put things in my stories that are personal favourites of mine, like Shona the dragon’s love of pickles and macaroni cheese! I think it’s good to put in these little touches to show the character as a person not a two dimensional fantasy. She also has a fear of rats, which makes it difficult to be around one of the other main characters, Aldiss, who is a very lively rat. He loves to wind her up about it.
Observe other people and use their mannerisms when creating your own characters. For instance, perhaps they are shifty individuals who find it difficult to look people in the eye. Is that what’s causing them to act this way or are they just shy? Maybe they have a habit of sniffing all the time or rubbing their nose when they are lying. Have they got a limp caused by a fight with a dark knight? Do they crack their knuckles driving everyone insane with the sound? They could be warm and friendly and this is shown by the way they greet people or touch them a lot in a friendly manner. Maybe your character has a sneaky, creepy sort of smile or laugh. Perhaps they stink and you can smell them coming a mile off. Have fun with this one and really give your characters their own personalities.
Names are really important in books. So, where do you get the ideas for your names? I always find it a struggle to come up with good names. Believe it or not it’s one of the things I find most difficult, so I’ve worked out ways of finding names that takes the stress out of it. Before I continue, the first thing I’d say is that I wouldn’t suggest using the names of people you know and like/dislike for your characters…that might bite you in the backside at some point in the future. Here’s where I get ideas for my names: book characters; television; reading newspapers and the website; old and not-so-old names from online lists of baby names; a twist on real names and words (for instance, writing a name backwards often throws up unique new monikers); the phone book; street names; car number plates (as a kid I used to make up names from the letters in number plates); the dictionary; and place names.
Where does your character live? A Castle? The Suburbs? Space? Make it somewhere quite ordinary or somewhere fantastical. It’s your story, it’s up to you.
What job does your character do? Where does the money to live on come from? Maybe they are mysterious and you never find out where they are from… that would certainly add something secretive and thrilling to your story. You could leave the discovery of the character’s origin right to the end. Perhaps they don’t even know themselves and this is what the quest is all about?
Don’t allow your characters to know something they shouldn’t or do something that doesn’t fit in with the story. For instance, if you’re writing an historical novel, don’t have them talking about the internet or using a mobile phone.
Use the characters to move the story along through what they say or do. They shouldn’t be there just for the sake of it. If you need to put in a minor character once, someone that you won’t see again (for instance, a bus driver or waiter or a policeman), by all means let them be there provided they are needed for that part of the story, but don’t go into a great deal of description about them. You don’t need to and adding in all that extra text will slow the pace of your book down.
Still stuck for a character? Get out of the house and go somewhere that’s busy with people. Look around you. Who is about? Are they interesting looking? Interesting enough to maybe become a character in your story?