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Storytelling mini-course: Lesson one – Character

Welcome to our mini-course led by author and CBC tutor Simon Wroe. Today Simon's diving into character: how to come up with characters, how to make them believable, how to make them compelling for readers.
Simon Wroe, Author

Hello everyone, a very warm welcome! I’m Simon Wroe, author of the novels Chop Chop and Here Comes Trouble. I’ve been teaching at CBC for over six years and I’m here to share my thoughts on three topics I think are essential for unlocking your story’s potential and finding the way in. Don’t worry if you don’t have a clear idea for a story yet. Think of these lessons as building blocks. Week by week we’ll be adding to the picture, developing something with form and purpose. I hope to get you enthused, inspired and writing with abandon…

In this lesson of our mini-course, we’re going to be looking at character: how to come up with characters, how to make them believable, how to make them compelling for readers. We’ll often be talking about this in relation to the main character (or characters – you can have more than one main character). This character is known as the protagonist. However, all the tips here can be applied, to a greater or lesser extent, to any of your characters. If you’re not working on a novel, never fear! Character is so important in stories of all shapes and sizes. Whether you are writing a short story or a memoir, these tips will help you bring characters to life.

There’s no pressure. See how you go. I know this is not an easy time for anyone, and it can be difficult to concentrate with so much going on in the world. But writing need not be a burden. You don’t need to set yourself targets or write reams and reams of words. It can simply be a thoughtful exercise you do in quiet moments: hold up one of your characters in your mind, think about how they feel about things, how they see the world, why they are the way they are. Spend time with them. Get to know them.

The blank page

It’s never easy knowing where to start with a story. You might have a good idea but not know the vehicle, the way it would be best told. You might have a line of dialogue, or an event you want to describe. For me, the story begins with character. Who is the protagonist? Who are we, the reader, going to follow? What is going on with them at this moment in their lives that we should pick up their story? Who are the characters around this main character? How do they support or obstruct them? What do they reveal about this central character’s true nature? This is where the story comes to life.

A lot of people tell me, ‘I just need to work on the plot. Plot’s the big problem’. But good plot comes from good characters. If you know and believe in your characters, you will know how they will act in a given situation. If you know how they will act, you can apply them to the story you wish to tell and see the sparks fly – or you can start putting conflict and difficulty in their way and see the story emerge through their actions. The writer’s work, then, is choosing the right set of characters to go with the right set of circumstances. 

Seek and ye shall find

How do we find these characters? A common misconception about the writing process is that you need a great imagination, and that all characters should be crafted in this great forge of imagination that every writer has. Not true! This emphasis on imagination, on total originality, is a myth. Far too many writers, when they are starting out, beat themselves up about this, holding themselves up to an impossible ideal, berating themselves to have more original thoughts. Please don’t worry! Writing is not about inventing everything from scratch. It is about looking, describing, and representing the world we live in.

The characters of our stories can come from all around us. We might read about them in the news, we might see them in the street. They might be people we know – friends and work colleagues and family members – though if that’s your approach, it’s usually a good idea to borrow aspects rather than lift a character wholesale. They might have certain characteristics from other works of literature or film (again, not to lift anything wholesale, but there’s nothing wrong with reinvention – Hamlet as a 21st-century teenager, Odysseus as an immigrant trying to cross the oceans etc.). Or, the character might be very close to ourselves. After all, there’s no one whose qualities and foibles we know as well as the person in the mirror.

Desire

Desire drives the narrative forward; it makes our characters live and breathe. What do our characters want and need and dream of? What is their goal or objective or yearning? That’s one reason crime and thriller narratives are so compelling, and why shows about lawyers and police and doctors are so popular on television: the goals for the central characters are usually clear and vigorous. They must solve the murder, save the patient, win the case, and so on.

It doesn’t have to be bluntly stated. You don’t have to tell the reader: ‘X had always wanted to be a ballerina’. Yet that desire should be demonstrated by your protagonist’s actions.

Ask yourself:

  • What does my character want?
  • What is stopping them from getting it?
  • How can I make the reader care that my character wants this?

Desire, part 2

Think about desire in your other characters too. Each character comes into a scene with a desire. How they express that desire will depend on who they’re talking to, their emotional state, what they want to hide. Often it is the clash between one character’s desire and another’s desire that produces the conflict in our story ­– and conflict is another bona fide ‘good thing’ for stories.

Make your characters want things, make them choose between things. Make their choices have consequences.

Empathy and likeability

Another big question in fiction is, ‘Do characters have to be likeable?’ I would say no: characters do not have to be nice or decent or friendly. We do not have to want what they want. We do not have to feel sorry for them. We do not have to be attracted to them. But we do want them to be interesting and compelling. Generally (apart from when it’s better for the story to hide it) we should be able to see their reasoning, and to understand it, even if we would not agree with it ourselves. This is a good base for empathising with a character.

Backstory

Where did your character come from? What has happened to them in their lives that has made them who they are, and want the things they want? It is definitely worth thinking about these questions, but it is often wise not to put too much of this on the page. It can slow the action down, and take us out of the present of the story.

I like to think a character’s past should be like an iceberg, with just the tip visible but most of it hidden, beneath the surface. You may find you don’t need to show it at all. (Think of what we know of Travis Bickle’s backstory in Taxi Driver. Nothing. We don’t need it. Yet we know him all the same.)

Baudelaire, in an early example of literary trolling, said the only good bits of a book are the explanations that are left out. This is obviously very harsh(!) – and please don’t let gloomy Baudelaire get you down – but the point, that too often writers feel obliged to explain everything to the reader, is a good one. Instead, present the characters to us, show us their actions, their desires, their fears – show us these things faithfully and accurately, without judgement or unnecessary exposition, then let the reader make up their minds.

Always ask yourself:

  • Is this necessary?
  • Is this the best way of showing my protagonist?
  • Are there subtler ways to convey this without rolling out the full backstory?

Characteristics to avoid

Here are some personality traits to avoid or be particularly careful about, particularly in your protagonist:

  • coldness

If you show the reader what your character is feeling, you stand a much better chance of making the reader feel things on that character’s behalf.

  • vagueness

When characters don’t really know who they are, this often means the reader doesn’t know who they are either.

  • moaning

No one likes a moaner! It is very hard to spend 300 pages listen to someone complaining…

  • total isolation

If you give your character no family or friends, we are going to be in for a lot of telling and not much showing. Everything will be in their heads.

Questions to build character

Another good way to build character is through thinking about their likes and dislikes. What are their hobbies? What newspaper do they read? What TV shows do they watch? What car do they drive? How do they spend Sunday mornings? Do they drink? Do they have nightmares? Do they have secrets? The list is endless.

Deciding on the details is important. Just one or two well-picked choices can lift everything: the genius of Paddington Bear is that he likes marmalade and wears a duffel coat.

These questions can be extended to thinking about your character’s emotional reactions to big events, for instance how they would react to a difficult moral decision.

Exercise

I’d like you to focus on this last approach. Take your central protagonist (or choose one if you have more than one) and pick one of the following questions to consider:

  • Who do they love?
  • What would they do if they found someone’s wallet in the street?
  • What would they do if they saw a dog being beaten by its owner?
  • What would they do if they saw a child being screamed at by their mother?
  • What’s the one thing they would rescue from their home if it was on fire?
  • If their mother was sick in the hospital, would they go? If so, what would they bring?
  • Their neighbours are having a loud party. What would they do?
  • What is their earliest memory?
  • What would they do if their lawnmower/car/washing machine broke?

I’d like you to write a short scene about whichever question you choose. It doesn’t have to be long or super-polished (500-700 words would be ample). It’s just a sketch to get you thinking about character from another angle. Maybe set yourself a timer and give yourself twenty minutes. If you find you don’t have much to say, try another question from the list. And you can write it however you wish. You could write it in the moment; or you could set it in reported speech, with one character telling another character how they saved the dog from being beaten etc.; you could write in in third person (he/she/they) or in first person (I) or even in second (you); you could write it in present tense or in past – even in future! Whatever works for you.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this lesson. See you next time, where we’ll be looking at beginnings: how we open our stories, novels, or memoirs.


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