Just Do It 2 – starting to write character

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Just Do It…


This is the second in
a short series of posts designed to help people just starting out as writers of
fiction. I don’t claim to be an expert professional but just want to share my
take on the process as a sort of expert novice.

So, you’ve started. You’ve overcome the procrastination and
excuses and you’ve begun to write. You have an idea for a story and are ready
to write a piece of fiction. All you need to do now is to come up with
convincing and engaging characters, a coherent plot, an interesting setting and
an appropriate tone and mood – and, of course, you’ll require a suitable
narrative voice.

In this post I’m going to take a look at the character
element of storywriting.

While it’s true that
some genres such as spy thrillers are more plot than character driven, it’s my
belief that all novels are enhanced by having well drawn characters. In the
crime writing genre, Kate Atkinson’s Jackson
, Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Susan
Hill’s Simon Serailler,  are as much a part of the readers’ enjoyment
as the whodunit plots.

It’s likely that you’ll have more than one character in your
novel. You’ll have a main character, or characters, and probably a supporting
cast as well. There’s a sort of ‘classic’ cast list for novels consisting of the
hero, or main character, and the anti-hero, who is often another main character
and  plays off against the hero, (but not
necessarily in a detrimental or villainous
way). Then there is the  hero’s
helper, who offers love and support, the hero’s champion ,who offers practical
help, the wise elder, who offers knowledge and insight and the joker (who
provides some light relief).

These roles shouldn’t be viewed as having a rigid
demarcation. I offer them as a guideline only. Good authors keep the boundaries
fluid and sometimes assign roles against archetype or stereotype. For example
it might be a child character that has most of the wisdom and insight. You
certainly don’t have to have all the characters on the list and one character
can fill several roles.

But whoever you decide to include, it’s important to get to
know your main character(s) – more than that, you must get inside their heads.
I’ve even heard the process described as falling in love with your character(s).
That doesn’t mean they have to be loveable or even particularly likeable but
there must be chemistry between author and character. If you, as the writer,
aren’t fascinated by your characters, you can’t expect your readers to engage
with them either. The nearest analogy I can come up with to describe the
author/character relationship is that of a method actor with their role. While
you write you are that character, you
experience their emotions and their actions.

So it will be helpful for you to know as much as possible
about your character(s). You should compile a biography for them which includes
age, looks, job (and job-related skills), nationality, family background,
politics, personal qualities/faults, tics such as speech patterns and so on. Give
them a house (what do they see when they wake up in the morning/from the
kitchen window and so on), a journey to work and/or to the shops etc. This list
isn’t exhaustive and you should add on any other category relevant to your

Going through this ‘interview’ process with a character will
allow you to build their backstory and this will lend credibility and
authenticity to their motivation and behaviour. You won’t necessarily include
all the backstory and every little biographical detail, but it’s important to
have them worked out in your own mind.

And finally the main character(s) needs to change during the
course of the novel. They must move from being stuck to unstuck, or from
lacking something – an emotion, a relationship, an understanding, a solution –
to gaining it. You are going to take your character(s) on their unique journey.

The map for the journey will be the basis of the plot. And
in the next ‘Just Do It’ post, I’ll offer some tips on plotting.

4 thoughts on “Just Do It 2 – starting to write character

  1. Thank you for another helpful and insightful post, Anne. I always seem to be fine with the story, but I worry that my characters are cardboard cut outs. Your tips are fantastic I will start using them straight away!

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