How to create characters
Read advice on crafting compelling characters from award-winning novelist Ross Raisin
Characters are the lifeblood of fiction. They are primary to our understanding of and our emotional response to a narrative. We can all think of characters from our reading past that have stayed with us, moved us, altered our perception of the world – and we can probably also come up with reasons why those particular characters affect us so much. There is, however, no useful, honest, general guide to the creation of compelling characters, precisely because characters are themselves individuated. Which, in essence, is the most important characteristic of every character you will ever write.
This is, I would argue, as true of a character who appears in only a single sentence as it is of a central protagonist who is present on every page of a 300,000-word novel. Even if we glimpse only a fragment of the life of a character, we should still be able to imaginatively grasp the whole of that life. I have never thought of bit-part characters as having a function, a one-note role to play – E. M. Forster’s theory of ‘flat’ characters, easily recognizable types who carry the purpose of a joke or a plot point in their orbiting of ‘round’ characters, the major players. I believe that if you think of any character as a device, so will your reader. You cannot design a character, of any size, to fit the story. Writing good fiction is not as conveniently neat as that. Characters are the story. To calculate and project them onto a narrative before actually starting to write their stories is a bit like sellotaping swatch samples to an expanse of wall that you intend to paint. You never really know how it’s all going to work out until you begin colouring it in.
Because capturing the full intensity of a life can seem like a pretty daunting task, it may well feel tempting to break down your approach to character creation into a set of considerations: this is the character’s inner conflict; this is what the character looks like; this is the character’s family, education, class, romantic background; this is what they might have in their pockets; and so on. The shortcoming to thinking about characterization as the management of constituent parts, though, is that they turn into different variations of the same building blocks, like Lego figures.
This is where drafting comes in. You may well write many pages of a first draft that are later discarded, but the writing of those pages will develop your knowledge of characters, so that even if some specific events and motivations and backstories do not find their way into the eventual text, the underlying energy of them will. Furthermore, developing characters on the page of a draft, rather than in a notebook, will engender greater complexity than a simple flat /round distinction. Characters who you might at first have imagined to be central, and given thousands of first-draft words to, might in the final reckoning appear only in passing – in a sentence that carries the import of all that imagining you have already done. Or, a character you once thought would be peripheral might grow into the lead.
It’s all very well knowing what’s in their pockets, but it is language that will animate them. So put the sketchbook down and get writing. Get the characters moving with words.
Read This If You Want To Be A Great Writer is published by Laurence King.
If you want to read more of Ross's excellent creative writing advice, you can get 35% off this title by buying it on www.laurenceking.com and quoting the code WRITINGMAG. The offer is valid until 31 December 2108.
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