I have one consistent in most reviews of my books – people seem to like my characterisation. Certainly, as a reader, I select books pretty well based on the level of characterisation. I’ll read any genre, any length, for any age group - but I won’t read anything where I don’t care about the characters.
So, when I came to write a blog on something I might be able to be helpful about, I chose ‘writing characters who feel real’. I sat down, started typing and then had a most awful thought:
I’m not sure anything I’m going to say is helpful. (However, I’m going to go for it anyway. Someone might get something from it.)
I’m not going to propose you write out character sheets, outlining motivations and beliefs. If you asked me what my characters’ favourite colours were, I don’t know. (What a minute… Kare says he likes aqua shades, and Lichio is into purple. Sonly’s a yellow kind of person.) I don’t know what their favourite dinner is. I don’t have a list of character traits, and yet these are the sort of suggestions I come across when people are struggling to devise characters.
Instead of anything so nice and neat (and by all means, if it works for you, go with it) I have a mind full of voices. So, um… now I’m suggesting you all go and commune with imaginary voices. This is going well.
Anyhow, this is what I do: I go into my mind and be that character. Like Daniel Day-Lewis, except on a PC.
At this point, I’m going to sidetrack some 20 odd years to when I was at university. I majored in, of all things, theatre studies. Of the stage sort, not the operating theatre.
Now, I am not a good actor. I get self-conscious on stage, I am wooden, I can’t do it. But I did learn some of the skills that makes a good actor – the ability to reach into our own memories and inbue the character with the right emotions. The ability to not respond as ourselves, but as the character; to use mannerisms different from our own; to feel comfortable in another’s skin.
These are what I use when I’m writing characters. So, that’s my first piece of pseudo-advice, if you will. If you want to write believable characters, leave yourself on the front step. You can reinhabit your body later. Let the character come to the fore, and try to be them when you’re writing.
I occasionally start a book in first person to get this flowing. Which is fine, except I write multi-pov stories for a reason – I like the reader to know some things the protagonist doesn’t, and third is a nice way of doing that. Which is also fine, if you only have one or two characters you want to pretend to be.
So, let’s see. I’ve had around twenty-three point of view characters in my published/ coming out soon books. I have another few books at various stages of completion, with around another 12 or so characters in them. And that’s not counting short stories.
Every single one of those characters is different. Each one has their own mannerisms, and quirks, and things that irk me about them. (Kare, make a sodding decision without thinking about it for an hour; John, for goodness sake think for two minutes before you…)
So, like a good actor, I need to inhabit those characters before I can get their voice. To be Lichio, I imagine a slightly laconic edge to the voice, long legs and a body that’s loose and limber. To be Sonly, I draw my top around me a little snugger and sniff in a slightly offended manner. To be the Empress I march through the house, telling my children they are snivelling brats (joking! Joking!)
PLOT VS CHARACTER
There are people out there who can plot, and then there’s me.
I can plot. I do plot. I know, albeit vaguely, where things are going. At each plot point, however, there is a character. And what that character might do in any situation is different.
Take entering our garage, for instance. My husband is not afraid of spiders: I am, very much so. He would stride into the garage, I’d creep in. He’d be confident, hunting for the collar to tame the Nazgul (needed in the next chapter); I’d be moving single items and jumping each time anything fell.
Suddenly, he’s brought half the garage down around him and is trapped in a mountain of rubble because of his gung-ho manner. I, meanwhile, have decided to use a different means of Nazgul-whispering and have scarpered, leading to an ensuing crises of faith which means I may not succeed in my quest.
That’s what actually happens in life. Different events occur because of the people involved. Any study of history covers that – events occur because people were involved and took actions based on their beliefs, their strengths and weaknesses, and the others involved.
So, how to marry the need to be true to the character vs the need for the plot to – vaguely; I’m realistic – in the right direction.
When I reach a plot-deviation, whatever we want to call it – the bit where more than one thing can happen – I sit down with a piece of paper. Several, actually. In the centre of it I put a character’s name, and add the dilemma facing them. And then I work out what they might actually do, if facing it. I work out what a man with PTSD might do to make it through to the end of the day. I figure out what a woman deprived of love might find her way to.
In short, I decide how the character might respond, and why – and then I choose whichever one rings both true and moves the character on.
After that, in all honesty, if I need to, I adapt the plot. Because I’d rather have a plot point that has to shift than to be untrue to the character.
That might be the most salient point of all, actually. The key, for me, to good characterisation is staying true to the person.
I read and loved The Martian recently – and for one key reason. At no point in that story did Mark Watney feel like anything other than the Mark Watney we met on page one. Everything he did stayed in character. The humour, the problem solving, the approach to death, danger and disco music. Nothing happened to jar me out of his perspective.
I will live with many things in a book being stretched, but not the character. If you have a nervy, needy heroine (or hero – I also hate the idea that our gender makes us more prone to a behaviour) who suddenly comes good and gets rid of all those nerves, the book’s out my window pretty quickly. That brings me to the last point (which I might have decided is the most important, after all)
IT’S OKAY TO NOT BE PERFECT
People are not perfect. They make mistakes, they have annoying habits, they snore, they steal the bedcovers, they even leave the toilet seat up, darn them.
Characters with no ‘sides’ to them aren’t real. Characters who draw us in and make us feel like we can feel their fears and emotions, who we feel we know as we read, aren’t perfect.
I said I read lots of genres, and here’s where I prove it. Scarlet O’Hara isn’t perfect. She’s not even nice. She’s self-centred, bossy, lacks empathy, is jealous and cruel. But she’s also brave, indomitable, fair (she’s pretty mean to everyone), and resourceful. Do I like her less because of her faults? No. I like her more.
Ditto the bad guys – give me a rounded one anyday of the week. In fact, throw me a baddy I can follow and sympathise with (Heathcliff, anyone?) and I’ll be a happy reader.
Now, I could bore about lots of techniques, about voices and traits and tics, but I’m only going to mention one. If you can nail this, you’ll have nailed most of close writing.
Kill your filter/veil words. If you’re watching, or hearing, or feeling what your character is experiencing, you’re in the audience. You’re not the actor. And if you’re in the audience, you’re not close enough.
Your character doesn’t hear the train in the distance. There’s a hoot, carrying in the clear night air. He or she doesn’t watch the bird in the garden – it’s just there, before them, enjoying a dust bath.
Don’t watch your character; be them. Say their words, in their voice. Experience what they do.
So, there you go. Embrace your inner voices, don’t be afraid to prance around the house in character, stop watching and start being them, and don’t ever waiver, even for the sake of the plot. That’s how I write characters. It might not be what works for anyone else, but it does for me.
More about my character-led stories can be found here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jo-Zebedee/e/B00VM61TZG