Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Characters rule

Just before I started doing my Sisyphus bit and learning to love my rock, my friend Jean Henry Mead kindly asked me to contribute as a guest on her blog ‘Writing advice and good books’ at http://advicefromeditors.blogspot.com. Luckily, I got the bulk of it done before my publisher placed me at the foot of the hill and said ‘That’s the rock, get rolling’. It’s now appeared on Jean’s site and, just to let you know I’m still around, I’m posting it here too. But it’s existence is thanks to Jean. It goes like this …

When I’m writing about writing or answering questions during talks and workshops, my stress always seems to be on characters. Even in seemingly ‘unrealistic’ genres such as fantasy and vampirism, it’s the people who drive the story and hold the reader’s interest. Plots, themes, descriptions – these and other things all play crucial roles but they need beings moving amongst them to give them their point and focus. Even God realised an empty landscape, however beautiful, needed a bit of drama. It was fine to have all these unnamed animals wandering about in lush pastures. Fine but boring. It needed someone to start asking what the point of it all was, maybe a bit of mindless violence, something to disturb the harmony. So he got the clay, made a bloke, nicked a rib and here we are.

For me, stories rely heavily on credible characters. They don’t have to be good. In fact bad characters are often more interesting. Perhaps I’m just saying that because I happen to write crime fiction but even in other genres and in mainstream ‘literary’ novels, the most memorable characters are frequently those with flaws or nasty habits. Maybe that’s a comment on human nature – perfection or an approximation of it can’t be trusted. Whatever the reason, we need them.

So this is just some random thinking about how writers make their characters live. And, first of all, there’s an alchemy going on that lets us visualise and/or empathise with a character in the act of creation. We become the persons and we know what they’re thinking and feeling. We hear their voices dictating to us. I read one writer somewhere saying that writing is like acting in that respect. And it’s true. The problem is the duality that forces on us. We’re actor and writer simultaneously. Consider this:

Joe watched his wife chopping the onions. Why did she always start cooking when they were in the middle of a row? It never solved anything; just left the enmity simmering. His brown eyes narrowed as he felt his own anger return.

It seems to be an event we’re seeing through Joe’s eyes. But if that’s the case, how do we know they’re brown? If you see the colour of someone’s eyes you’re looking at them not through them. The point being that we need to be both actor and director, which are separate skills.

But there are easier ways round it. Their names for a start. Henrietta Willoughby probably won’t be in the same class at school as Doreen Norsworthy or Sharon Biggs. Jezza Jackson won’t be hanging out with Hugh Denbigh. And they’re subtle separations that can be achieved without resorting to Arthur Wobblebottom or Dickson Ponsonby-Smythe clich├ęs.

Another short cut to characterisation is to use idiosyncrasies and gimmicks. You can give someone a nervous tic, a stutter. He can chew a toothpick, always sit with his feet on his desk, wear strange shirts. It’s a cheap way of creating instant character. The danger is in overdoing it. It’s too easy for such people to be two-dimensional, predictable. They become the tic.

Just as quick but more subtle is to alter some aspect of the setting so that the person inhabiting it has some mystery about them. Look at a normal scene and remove one element from it. A woman may have no photographs in her house, a man comes home and always puts his house keys in a small cupboard high on the wall of the entrance hall. Another wears a small brooch intended for a female and makes sure he always hooks it into any new jacket, sweater or shirt he puts on. When you do this you’re creating characters by making the reader ask WHY?

The importance is in the specificity of the detail. Vagueness and generalities contribute to flat, dull writing. And it brings us to the tired old bit of advice: show don’t tell. It may sound corny but it’s true. Don’t tell the reader that your character’s unhappy; show him with details of behaviour (tears, a trembling lip, angry driving, a clenched fist). Don’t tell him a man is tall. Show the man ducking under an awning, or curling up to get into a small car. Showing gives your story and your characters ambiguity, mystery. When you say ‘George was a miser’, that’s that. But when you say ‘George picked up the coins, felt their hard edges, and, a smile creeping across his lips, dribbled them through his fingers into the box’ you’re getting more than a label. You’re still telling, but you’re telling more. Then, the reader will be pleased to note that George’s mobile always rings just as it’s his round in the pub. They’re just little touches but they give the reader the chance to collaborate with you.

Another example of that sort of collaboration comes when you use the old trick of Typification. Simply by beginning a sentence ‘She was the sort of woman who …’ you invite the reader to supply the personality. Add whatever you like to the formula and you have instant characterisation ‘… always buys organic vegetables’, ‘… wears dresses a size too small’, ‘… plays the men at their own game’. There are several different ways of introducing the idea: ‘Men like him always tend to .…’, ‘He was everything you’d expect of a beer-swilling rugby player’ and so on.

But that’ll only give you the basis. You then need to refine it to keep the reader’s interest. And that’s where (once again) asking ‘WHY?’ is useful. Try giving a character two layers. On the surface, for example, he drinks a lot, spends as much time as possible in the pub, talks rubbish. But when he goes home, he plays Mozart. As a student, I used to work as a builder’s labourer. On one site, I worked with a carpenter who’d read all of Balzac and wished he’d written more. The questions that throws up create instant complexity.

Two final points, a Scottish writer, Isla Dewar, once said at a conference, ‘give your character room to dance.’ That’s a great way of reminding us to let our characters have the space to be themselves. We can kick-start them, but then let them go where they want.

And finally, I can’t resist (yet again) insisting that hell is other people. On the flimsiest of evidence, we’re all ready to ascribe characteristics to people, even ones we don’t know. But this time, it’s in our favour; we can rely on the reader’s anticipations. Give them a hint, then let them do the work.


  1. Great post, as usual, and a very useful, informative read for me personally. thank you!
    More, more, more please!

  2. Be patient Scary. Xmas will soon be here.

  3. Yes, I agree with Scary. That's why I'm going back to the beginning to read all your posts, including may I remind you - the Cake and I, where you remind yourself of the paradox, that people are also heaven.

    One of these days you'll have enough of these entertaining and informative posts to publish a writers guide and all your adoring fans will buy it.

  4. A wee correction to your comment Marley. Since you agree with Scary, it should read 'BOTH your adoring fans'.

  5. Make that all three of your adoring fans, Bill. I'm quite pleased to have posted your article at my Writing Advice and Good Books site. I'm looking forward to writing a review of your next book. When will it be released?


  6. Three fans! That makes me famous. Thanks Jean - but you know that this blog exists mainly because you said it was a good idea for me to write it. Anyway, as far as I can tell, my next release will be the historical novel, The Figurehead, which should appear (as ebook and paperback) next March. And how nice to have a promised review even before it appears.