Creating characters

This weekend I’m participating in Melbourne’s wonderful Emerging Writers’ Festival, an annual event for writers, by writers. It’s a terrific program, and the section in which I’m involved is called Living Library. It’s like speed mentoring: you book a 15 minute session with one or more of a range of experienced writers and publishers and ask them any questions you like on specific themes. Great idea.

I’m one of the Books you can borrow from the Library and am answering questions on creating characters.

I figured I may as well post some general thoughts, although for those people who came along and asked questions, I did rummage around in my head and rustle up more specific discussions connected to their own work.

So, some brief and random ideas and advice:

Bad guys
No matter how evil your baddie, you – at least, if not the reader – need to know why he or she is that way. Very few people in history are evil simply because they are evil – unless you’re actually writing about a psychopath (in which case, research the state very well). You don’t have to invent gratuitous redeeming features, but at least allow a little chink in the armour or a little glimmer of insight.

How much? That depends in part on the age group for which you’re writing. Younger readers like well-rounded characters as much as anyone, and they do need to understand motivation. Adult and young adult readers expect to be able to understand why each character behaves the way they do – without being banged over the head with it.

Baddies don’t need to have hearts of gold or tragic childhood circumstances. It may be that they do evil things simply because they are greedy. Or jealous. Or furious at the world. Or lack empathy.

Good guys
Flipside: your protagonists need to have chinks in their armour too. Nobody wants to read about a brilliant student/writer/mathematician/train driver/surfer who is perfect in every way.

What’s the catch? The fatal flaw? It doesn’t have to be something that renders them unsympathetic. It might be fear. Anger. Not listening. Being random. A bit ditzy. Not returning phone calls. Immobility in the face of danger. Uncertainty. Preoccupation. Lack of understanding about certain plot elements.

What mistake do they make that changes the course of their lives, or the plot? What don’t they notice?  Do they let someone down? What is the conflict or pressure they have to live with or resolve? What drives them, gets them out of bed each day? Why on earth would anybody want to read a whole book about them?

So long as they don’t let the reader down. Some people may want to read about a protagonist who verges on insufferable – think of Lolita or, less extreme, Madame Bovary – but you have to be a genius to get away with it. For the rest of us, flaws and insecurities will be enough.

Everyone figures out their characters differently – there are no rules. I heard Geraldine Brooks speak this week, and she does months or years of historical research before writing, then waits to hear a first person voice in her head – and she really does hear it – and the voice tells her the character and the character (and, in her case, historical fact) leads her through the plot.

Some authors write out extensive back stories for each character before they even start drafting. It’s kind of Method. You learn/imagine everything you can about these people before you can understand them enough to portray them.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I tend to hear a voice and see a character in a situation, in an instant, then flesh out the main characters and some of the minor ones in some detail, as well as figuring out narrative. Some of this I do before I draft too much; some of it as I work; and I get as surprised as anyone else by where those voices go sometimes.

How to write specific voices is another topic altogether, but if there are any rules about voice and dialogue, they are:

  • Don’t let everyone sound the same
  • Don’t let everyone sound like you
  • Don’t try to do fake authenticity in historical voices.

If you’re not a writer that hears voices, at least make some notes about how the voice should sound. Just list words that embody the voice. Then make a list for another character, and you will see at a glance how different they need to sound.

Because I work mostly in historical fiction, I also have to understand a great deal of context before I can imagine how the characters might look and dress and behave. What kind of houses do they live in? How do they sound? How often do they wash their hair? What books will you find on their bookshelves? Even if you are writing contemporary fiction, this is still valuable.

I keep a source book – it might just be a folder in your computer – with clippings, images, quotes, contemporary diary extracts and letters. My folder for the protagonist Isabella in Act of Faith, for example, includes a great many paintings by the Dutch artists of the 17th century, including this:

It’s a detail from Girl Interrupted at Her Music, by Vermeer, it’s Isabella’s face as far as I’m concerned, albeit a bit young, and I kept it in my mind and on my desk throughout the initial drafting process. Vulnerability, intellect and wisdom.

I’m happier once I have a face to think about. It can be imagined or it can be someone that looks just a bit like your character – so borrow a face, any face. Nobody else ever need know. Look at a photo stock site such as stock xchng, flick through art books, browse Flickr, until you find someone who has the right feel to them.

But everyone’s different. Last week at the Reading Matters conference, Ursula Dubosarsky said she never sees the faces of her characters – they are like shadows to her. But she was inspired, when writing The Golden Day, by Blackman’s paintings of schoolgirls and the Alice series. It’s easy to see how the very facelessness is intrinsic to the grace of her work.

Drawings, doodles, lists, pictures, postcards, recipes, dry cleaning receipts, anything can help you flesh out your characters. I remember hearing Victoria Glendinning recount how she spent months working her way through Leonard Woolf’s papers and he kept every receipt, so that became one way for us to know him through her biography: he was the kind of man who carefully filed his receipts for lawn mower maintenance.

Using it
On a practical level, I have used index cards to keep track of the back stories and now I use Evernote, but if you use Scrivener for your drafting, it has the character profile modules built in. It doesn’t matter how you organise it – use notebooks, mind maps, index cards, spreadsheets, corkboards, sheets of cardboard with everything stuck on to them – whatever works for you.

Your next decision, then, is how much back story to include. The general answer is: not much.

My back story for Master de Aquila in Act of Faith includes his childhood in Cordoba as a converso; his father’s arrest by the Inquisition; his own escape to Amsterdam; his happy marriage to a Dutch Protestant which lasted for many years until she died of cancer at sixty; his grief; his disconnection from any formal religion; his hair, clothes, shoes, reading habits and preferred meals. All that was imagined, but some was derived from historical fact. His life story was based in part on a generation of Jewish printers who fled to Amsterdam from Spain, and so I researched the books they printed, their family histories, their business arrangements. Only hints of this ended up in the text. I hope.

The readers need to learn about the characters slowly, just as we learn about people in real life. You will never (please) use all the back story, but those elements that are used are best revealed slowly – a hint here and there, maybe an outburst under pressure.

Surprise us, and let your characters surprise even themselves.

Then we’ll all be happy.

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