09 August 2018

How to create great characters in fiction

Writing your novel
by Anna Davis From the Agents, How To ..., Writing Tips

All of us need to think hard about how to create striking, memorable characters in our novels and stories. This is something we explore in great detail on our new four-week online course: Character Development – The Deep Dive.

To get you thinking about how to bring your characters to life, here are four pieces of writing advice plus writing exercises from our brilliant tutors and course speakers…

1. Using little everyday details to show character

This writing tip and task comes from CBC tutor Simon Wroe:

Simon’s tip: Consider how people reveal themselves through the everyday – their props and routines. We don’t need a character playing a grand piano or lapsing in gilded reveries: the use of well-chosen commonplace objects can really bring a character to life.

My longer explanation: Think about the picture painted by a character’s environment: their bedroom, their car, the food they eat, their exercise regime … Instead of telling us flatly that your character is obsessively organised and tidy, give us a tour of his carefully alphabetised bookshelves. Show us how, in the kitchen, the mugs are all arranged with their handles pointing the same way. When the character comes into the room, have him stop to adjust the painting that’s already straight.

Look closely at how people do the same basic thing very differently, and what it says about them: Two girls are given satsumas: one of them just breaks it into three chunks and crams them quickly into her mouth, barely getting the peel off. Her friend removes the peel carefully in one long strip, then teases at all the tiny bits of pith, dropping them into a spindly white pile before eating the segments one by one, saving the largest until last. Writers should be keen observers – use detail and specificity to give real texture to your writing and bring your characters fully to life.

Simon’s writing task: Choose an object from your work bag or handbag & describe it in such a way as to show us something of your character – eg how you use it, what it means to you. Don’t use phone or keys – avoid the boring stuff.

2. Subtext in dialogue – and what it reveals about character

This writing tip and task comes from CBC tutor Christopher Wakling:

Chris’s tip: What’s not being said? In good dialogue, pretty much everything. There should be a discernible subtext beneath the surface conversation. Check your dialogue for statements of the obvious and kill them. Create that extra layer of meaning.

My longer explanation: This point is a crucial one to take board whenever you’re writing dialogue in fiction. Think about how we don’t always say what we actually mean – perhaps from good manners, or from fear, or because we are not proud of what we actually think – or because we are downright lying to hide something … This business of subtext, and of what we conceal, is a valuable tool in story-telling and characterisation. And, as Chris says, it adds depth to your dialogue. Fiction is most interesting when it’s operating simultaneously on different levels.
Readers like to work hard. Your reader will enjoy being able to glimpse what’s really being said, rather than having it dished straight up to them. Everything that is both said – and not said – has something to reveal about the speaker, and perhaps also the person who is being spoken to.

Chris’s writing task: Write a conversation between two characters. Do your best to make what’s NOT being said shine through. eg Who has the power in the scene? Does it shift? Can we glimpse what’s REALLY going on?

3. Fully rounded characters – with fully realised lives, revealed in the moment

This writing tip and task comes from CB literary agent and joint CEO Jonny Geller:

Jonny’s tip: Every character you write is living a moment in time and it must be true and real in the moment. It must also hint at a past and to an unknown future that we care about.

My longer explanation: Characters in your novels and stories have to be more than just cardboard cut-outs or vehicles for your story. They must be living, breathing and real. They must inhabit every scene so completely that we are learning about them and coming to know them even as we are utterly drawn in. Every action and every moment must belong to the character fully – we need to believe in their behaviour as being a product of who they are – of their history and of their context. That’s what makes us care about them and invest emotionally in their story. So what does this mean in practical terms?

• Figure out who your characters are. Take time to build a file of information about them. Know what they look like, what food they enjoy, whether they believe in God, what their worst and best childhood memories are etc … Know this for yourself – and then, when you write them, make sure you inhabit them fully – their personality, their mindset, their view on the world. You don’t need to put all of this on the page, but in knowing your character – deeply – you will feel them come alive for you in the writing.

• Show us your character and your character’s history through their actions and behaviour and experiences – rather than giving us long descriptions which tell us flatly about them.

• Be clear of your character’s motivations, at all times. Don’t make them do things just for the convenience of your plot – we have to buy in.

• Your character is not free-floating – they have a context. They are affected by, and to an extent formed by their time and place in the world. Work hard to bring the world of your novel to life.

Jonny’s writing task: Write a character from your novel/story into one of these scenarios, and show us (rather than telling us) who they are: Locked out; haircut disaster; followed home; amazing discovery; scheming revenge. Bring your character fully & vividly to life.

So, take your character – the protagonist of your novel, or a character you’ve enjoyed writing a story about, or maybe even a completely new character, if you prefer – and write a scene in which your character finds themselves in one of these situations. Show us what happens, but also use the scene to show us who your character is – do your best to give us a moment that is truly alive.

4. Get to know your character through their own voice

This writing tip is from me …

Every character has a unique voice and an individual perspective on life – just as every real person does. Find your way into your character by seeing the world through their eyes – and by speaking their thoughts and opinions.

When you invent a character and put them into your story, you sometimes just know them without having to think about them very much. They’re instantly real for you, right down to their bones. But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes you’ll find you need to work hard to bring them to life – but stepping away from your novel or story can give you the space to do that. It’s often a good idea to play with their voice – to explore their lives and memories in the first person (even if your novel is being written in the third person or in the first person voice of another character). When you can’t really see or hear your character, go to your notebook or simply write some free-flowing material from their perspective on your computer. You can even interview your character to find out more about them. I’m not much of a one, generally, for allowing characters to surprise you or take you off in an unexpected direction when writing (I guess it just doesn’t happen that way for me) – but this is one context in which that definitely does occur – and with useful results when you return to your work-in-progress.

My writing task: Interview your character by asking them the following questions and answering them, at length, in their own (first person) voice. Hint – if you find that you are answering as yourself rather than as your character, then you probably haven’t created your character yet .

• What is your earliest memory?

• What is your greatest fear?

• Tell us about your first love – or, if you haven’t been in love, tell us why.

• Who is your closest friend?

• Have you ever had a near-death experience?

• Tell us about how you sleep.

• What makes you really angry?

• Tell us about the day in your life when you have been at your most happy.

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