PWS Chapter Six
Get to know your characters
When writing fiction, it is the central character or characters who carry the story. Your readers have to become so involved in their lives that they don’t want to put the book down. When an author does a really good job the reader is sorry when the book ends, it is a physical wrench to tear yourself away from the character. When the author does a bad job the reader quickly loses interest in the book, they don’t care about the character or their life.
What is it about a character that makes us love them – or even love to hate them? Readers want to read about characters they can identify with – characters that are as flawed as real people are, characters that struggle and characters that change through the book.
Most of the time, in fiction the characters are changing for the better. But there’s also room for characters who change for the worse or who are not nice. Of course, there are characters who don’t change – they simply are who they are –for instance a character in a series of books who could be struggling with problems which will never change, what intrigues readers are the challenges they deal with. These characters can be difficult to write well—and they’re more the exception than the rule. Generally, it is the character’s struggle which will grip your readers and bring them on a roller coaster love affair with your protagonist.
When you’re first getting to know your character, you might be tempted to think only about who a character is. But to keep your characters interesting you must also think about what your character can become. How will this character respond when shown they are wrong or dysfunctional in some way and are offered a better alternative. People don’t like to change. It’s so much easier to stay as we are, even if it’s damaging us. People stay forever in dreadful relationships, what is familiar is safe. In fiction, as in life, people resist change.
We resist right up until the moment when it hurts too much. Eventually the pain and consequences become too much and a change is forced. Your job as an author is to force your character to feel that pain. Poke and prod and create emotional pain until the only option for the character is to begin the inner journey to change.
In fiction terms, a character’s transformation is called his inner journey or character arc, an odyssey which sends them through a virtual spin dryer and brings them out the other side stronger and re-born.
A character’s inner journey has five major phases:
Their Initial Condition (the dilemma) The dilemma is the thing that is wrong with your character, the thing that is messing up your character’s life.
The Inciting Event – Inciting Event: As the writer you decide you’re going to force your character to deal with it. So you begin sending difficulties into the character’s life. Make it progressively harder for them to ignore the folly of the choices they are making. Through the course of the novel you will show the character clearly how the situation is harming them and you will show her the way forward.
The Escalation – This is what keeps your readers engaged. The character looks as if they will never attain resolution or reach their goal.
The Moment of Truth – Your novel is about what your main character decides at their moment of truth. Everything else is just the vehicle to drive them to that penultimate moment.
Their Final State. This is the resolution of the story when the character has changed, altered the destructive course of action and become someone different, for good or bad. .
The five phases are steps on a voyage between two points: the dilemma and the moment of truth. The journey itself is a measure of where the character is along the progression between these two points.
In order to write really convincing characters, who you understand enough to put them through a virtual wringer you need to understand, both who they are and their role in the story. It is also important to remember that even minor characters in the plot don’t realise they are minor characters, they need to react as if they are central to their own drama. That is how life is in reality. While we feel for someone who is suffering, we don’t really experience their pain in the same way because we are all living our lives.
It is important, before you start to write to really get inside your character’s heads. If necessary do extensive research. If you are writing about a character who is a detective you need to understand everything about what they do and experience, especially if you aren’t involved in that particular lifestyle.
Even though you might be pressed for time, long to start writing , time spent developing your knowledge of your characters is vital and will pay off in the long run. It is strange character quirks that make them seem real to your readers, just as we all have our strange habits.
The simplest way to really get to know your characters is to write their backstory. You may never use this in the actual novel, but it is important to know it when you are writing as just as in real life, what has happened in the past will affect what happens in the present.
During our day to day lives we experience different types of relationships to other people. You might, for instance, react differently to the man who is valeting your car, then to a bank manager who you want a loan off. A relationship to a parent is different to that of a parent and child.
Be aware and try to avoid the clichés that exist in books, film and drama. The wayward detective and their stupid boss, the jokey sidekick. Once you are aware of these you will see them everywhere. But when writing, avoid them like the plague!
When you begin to write make sure you show how your character gets from A to B mentally. Don’t have someone in an unhappy marriage suddenly leave. We would all have gone through a process, mentally and physically to have brought us to that point. The same needs to happen in your writing. While it is important to show, rather than tell, your reader needs to understand how the protagonist, or other characters have got to the point they are at in the plot.
In your plot the relationships your characters are involved in, both in their social circle and day to day interactions will have an enormous effect on what happens to them. Most have us have probably experienced what happens if one partnership in our social circle breaks up. There are huge waves created as everyone picks sides, forms new allegiances. Imagine you hold a door open for someone and they ignore you. Mostly you don’t care too much, you’d be irritated, but shrug. But imagine the same thing happening if you’ve had a really, really bad day. The careless act absolutely fills you with uncontrollable rage.
When you are getting to know your character – firstly give them a name. Fun, but actually not always as simple as you think. It is hard to see a Daisy for instance as a serial killer. But that could work to your advantage as a writer. You can spend hours looking at name lists on the internet before something grabs you as being suitable. One important point to remember is to ensure the name is historically accurate. A protagonist in an Elizabethan novel wouldn’t have a modern name.
The next point to consider is a character’s physical appearance. It is advisable to write these down as you will need to refer to them during the writing process to ensure your character still has blonde hair and blue eyes on page 200 if they had them on page 20. Some writers make a list, showing the characters, name, age, height, birth sign, hair colour, body type and so on.
Once you have the basics of the character, give them a backstory. This is everything that has happened before the opening line and will affect how the character reacts during the action. Get to know, and write, where and when the character was born, how they were brought up, who by, what happened to them during their lives. Did they overcome big traumas, was their childhood happy or miserable. If they are an adult, what happened to them since childhood?
You will also need to know, although again, these may never come into the book, but their politics, education, what food they like, what they like to read and watch on television. Find out what their skills and talents are, what their goals are for their lives, what do they hate, what are they afraid of. Who are their friends, what are their biggest secrets, what are they most proud of?
There are so many things that you can write about for each character. You will find if you just sit at your desk and open yourself to letting each character tell you about themselves you will be surprised at what you find out. Sometimes you’ll think you know them and then something will come to you that truly surprises you. You’ll realise they are flawed, vulnerable, but so are we all.
Flaws are what make a character human and real, but equally make sure they are not irredeemable. Flaws need to be understandable and forgivable. Don’t give them flaws that are unpleasant or ones we would find hard to deal with in a real person. Make sure your protagonist is likeable, that they aren’t unpleasant, even when they are a serial killer. This is a pure gift of genius from a writer to make us like the truly horrible character, but it is an important part of the novel. Without a likeable character your reader will simply give up.
Draw on your own experience in your work on character development. This is where all of the trauma and hurt you’ve experienced will come in very handy. Nothing for a writer is wasted. If you are writing about a character who lives in the same type of world as you do then that is fine, you have plenty of experience to deal with, but being a writer involves imagination, so obviously you can write about things you don’t know about. Otherwise how would it be possible for us to write science fiction, historical books or the like. But when a writer truly understands their characters, they will learn how they will react in different situations. A prehistoric character facing a sabre toothed tiger will still feel the same fear as a modern day person facing up to someone with a gun, or knife. It is their backstory that will help the writer understand how their protagonist will react in that situation which makes the writing really shine.
While you are writing the story remember that character arc. The protagonist must change, as they face the challenges and overcome them. Your knowledge of the character, from your work on their development will help with this at every stage of the journey. By knowing your characters you will understand how they react with each other. Why does one person hate another. Your reader may not need to know this, but you, as the writer does. Why are they afraid of another person. Again this may not be important for the reader to know, but as writer it is vital.
Re-writes are an integral part of the writing journey for any and all authors. It is not something that can, or should be avoided. The characters, no matter how much pre-plotting has been done, or how well the writer understands them, will always need improving on. The first draft is rather like throwing all of the ingredients into a mixing bowl and seeing what comes out. It is the subsequent re-writes which will actually make the draft into a ‘proper’ book. Having the knowledge of each character will enable the author to understand if they have written the book that the character demanded.
An easy way to get to know your character is to start a new page, either on the computer, or in your notebook if you prefer that. Head it with the character’s name once you have decided upon that. Then work your way though the character’s characteristics, names, nicknames, second names. Carry on with their physical appearance before moving onto their likes and dislikes, their fears and hopes and dreams and finally writing their back story.
Do the same for each of your characters. You may find that there will be two versions of the character bibles, one for the main characters and another for lesser characters. Often you won’t need to know, or understand quite as much about minor characters as you will the main ones.
The work you as writer puts in getting to know the characters will show in your writing. Your reader will appreciate a character who is as deep and human as a work of fiction as a live human being. This will make them feel real. It will also make writing easier as you will understand what motivates them and how they will react in certain situations. You need to know your character well enough to be able to know how they will perform when under pressure. What would happen if they were wrongly accused of shoplifting? How would they react to having to re-take their driving test? Questions like this probably won’t get answered in your novel, but they are ways you can get to know the characters.
You can have great fun doing the character sketches. It can help by finding images in magazines of how you picture each character, copy that onto the character sheets. It is useful when writing to be able to picture them and while you can have the physical characteristics written down to refer to, a picture also helps.
After the character sketches the important work for the writer is to ensure the character changes and develops during the course of the novel. Most of us, even if we don’t realise it, will change over the course of our day, things happen which will affect us. In the office someone becomes ill, a relative of theirs is killed, someone is cruel to another without meaning too. All of those things are absorbed by us and mean that we change emotionally every day to deal with what we learn. We change physically too, unless we are hurt or injured this doesn’t happen instantly, but if your novel takes place over the course of a number of years the characters won’t stay looking the same as they did in the beginning.
Enjoy having fun getting to know your characters.
- Plot. Write. Sell. Chapter Five
- Motivation – how to get it and keep it!