It’s hard to overstate how important distinctive or relatable characters are to novels. Top agent and Curtis Brown joint-CEO Jonny Geller recently wrote on Twitter that ‘plot is key, but not at the expense of character. We’ll go anywhere with a full character, but question every move with a thin one.’
On our online Starting to Write Your Novel course, tutor Anna Davis puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of building characters that readers are happy to spend time getting to know. Anna sets a number of writing tasks throughout the course aimed at establishing character and building them from the ground up. Here are two interesting examples from our last Starting to Write Your Novel course, which work to build character in different ways. In the first story, a woman comes to a realisation about her friend’s abusive marriage; in the second, a mortician discovers a body in his house.
Julia’s husband was very controlling. It had begun with small things, towels mostly. He liked the gingham dish cloths folded parallel and hung over the oven handle and the bathroom towels evenly draped over the radiator; in the newness of marriage she had found it endearing.
He had a stressful job with a long commute, though the decision to live out in the country had been his idea. He liked not having neighbours nearby, only seeing others when invited, ‘Just me and you,’ he would say. Julia had few friends in the area but recently her old friend, Janice, from school had moved to a cottage three miles away. She had visited a few times, spearing a crack of light into Julia’s closed world.
She had wanted to tell Janice everything but she never managed to even begin, they had made small talk, polite and unobtrusive. Reminiscing and skirting the present. Was that because Janice could see her pain but was afraid to bring it to the surface? Or was it because she kept her drawbridge up, chained and fortified.
Of their eight years of marriage, she had been desperately unhappy for five. Once he started rearranging the saucepan cupboard and turning the tins to face the front, the charm had gone. He would scold her in a way that she had felt unable to challenge. The catch in his voice and the twitch of his head had been warning signs of a far greater anger he was struggling to suppress, so she had always backed down.
Defeat had seeped inside her personality. Eroding her self-esteem. The ‘consent’ had become the ‘endure’. The less love she showed the more aggressively he would ‘love’ her after an argument. Why could she not just tell him to go to hell when he ranted over the miss-matched pillow cases? It was all so pathetic, her mother laughed at her husband’s ridiculous eccentricities. Would Janice?
But it wasn’t funny. Three years ago he had begun to hurt her. She had smeared foundation over a grey bruise on her cheek, could it pass for a shadow? She had worn long sleeves to hide the redness of her arms where his tight grip had burned her skin. Trousers covered kick marks, the continual small reactions just to her presence. Did he hate her now?
Janice had just left. This time Julia’s drawbridge had dropped a little, leaking elements of her predicament, with fragments of bitterness entering the polite conversation. Her hand trembled as she poured another large glass of wine. The emptiness of the self-esteem suitcase spilled out she blinked back tears. ‘It’s my hay fever. Have another glass, you could stay over you know?’ But Janice had not picked up the littering of hints, the signals of a friend too desperate to spell it out. She had left.
Janice drove away, her lights displaying the trees as a tunnel on the narrow country lane. She pulled in to allow an oncoming car to pass by. Julia’s husband. She had a flashback of her own troubled past. As if her own husband had reached out and struck her, she braked hard. The car stalled. She had of course recognised the signs from her first visit, but her demons had stopped her from accepting it. Having escaped from the containment of a violent partner, she had emerged fragile but determined.
She restarted the car and lifted her chest in a deep inhaling of courage. Turning the car around, she drove back fast. She would face her own demons and reach out.
They fell into a routine once Jackie moved in. Graham left early for work while Jackie, always up late, slept into the afternoon. He did little things around the house until Graham got home: took in the mail, scraped the plates left from a half-eaten breakfast. Small regularities and obligations he would not have thought to name. Graham expected to open the door and see Jackie sketching at the kitchen table or killing time on the internet, laptop open.
The lights were off in the kitchen, though, and Graham stepped on a pile of envelopes on the doormat, the snapping give of the paper sickening somehow. His heart lurched into tachycardic overdrive.
“Jackie?” he called into the still house, louder even than he had meant to. There was no noise but the click of the light switch under Graham’s fingers, the clatter of his bag dropped on the wood floor, and the hysterical ring of his own voice. If Jackie could hear him, he was laughing, upstairs and unworried, ready to fold Graham into his arms, gather him up for a kiss, still laughing, so that the air from his lungs would get into Graham’s, fill his chest and slow his breathing. But there was no answering call, so he shouted again, and threw himself up the stairs. Jackie’s door was ajar; Graham pushed in without thinking to knock.
And there he was, on his side, eyes shut, face slack and grey. Graham leant against the door frame to catch his breath. He knew right away.
Even in the dark room, pallor mortis was obvious. Graham moved through the checks he always did when receiving a new body, ungloved now, but equally unhurried. Two fingers up against the jaw to find the carotid pulse stilled. Going to check the pupils, he met resistance from the eyelids. Rigor had already begun. Graham sighed and rolled the body over onto its back and saw the arm it had been laying on already looked a little dark from livor.
The medical examiner’s number was in his phone and his phone was in his pocket so he made the call right then. The receptionist recognised his voice and said, “Oh, Mr. Creer,” before he had a chance to explain anything.
Then Nevins came on the line and the voice of the medical examiner seemed loud in his ear. Graham knocked down the volume and crouched on the floor, listened to Nevins repeat his name.
He didn’t answer right away, but looked at the floor. Jackie had pulled up the carpet to expose the raw wood planking; he painted in the room, and thick drops of pigment escaped his tarping and landed in raised lumps. Graham absently peeled them up while he listened to the now tinny voice in his phone.
“You on the line there?”
Graham put his hand over his face. He felt slow and calm, but he was still shaking.
To learn more about building character in your novel, enrol on our:
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:
Three-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Charlotte Mendelson (deadline for applications is Sun 8 October).
Three-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Nikita Lalwani (deadline for applications is Sun 1 October).
For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 17 Sept).