Characters are at the heart of any story and the most fascinating, from Emma to Don Corleone, stay with us forever, be they loathsome or lovable, villains or heroes, or, best of all perhaps, a bit of both. Here’s ten tips on devising them:
1. Real people can inspire our fictional characters and this is one way of creating rounded, believable individuals: it is also a way of losing friends! Try taking elements from several people to create one original character: chose your old teacher’s facial tick and vicious tongue, your fat cousin’s awful knitwear and vodka-habit, and send the result to live in your auntie’s draughty bungalow in Bognor. This will not only keep you out of the libel courts but you may find the character starts to take on a life of its own.
2. Get the name right. Made up names often sound made up, so look in the phone book or your local cemetery – I have first claim on Magenta Sparrowhawk, denizen of a churchyard in Mitcham, who’ll make a splendid fortune-teller. Names can reflect personality as with Martin Amis’s greedy yuppie John Self in Money (1984). A ruthless businessman should be Mr. Steel rather than Mr. Poppett. Names can add comic, satirical overtones like Dickens’ Pecksniff. Remember names reflect period and class– we can’t have a Tudor Britney or an aristocratic Wayne.
3. Ask yourself questions about your character so that you know their background, beliefs, taste in breakfast food. You may never share the answers with your reader but it will help you get to know your character.
4. Get the details right: we all have an idea of what sort of woman lives in a Victorian villa in Hampstead, cooks on an Aga and wears a Hermes scarf. But what if she has a fridge full of products from Lidl instead of Waitrose? She’s either broke or a skinflint which makes her more interesting.
5. Give your characters the right speech patterns for their age, class and background. If they are the narrator, give them a unique voice, a confiding tone, and show us the world through their eyes. Of course the viewpoint is so personal it may not be entirely reliable – think Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like…”
6. Show us how others react to your main protagonists, what they say about them; an extreme example is Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) whom we get to know posthumously.
7. Reveal personality through actions: don’t tell us Billy Bunter is greedy, show us him guzzling sticky buns.
8. Put your character under pressure and see how they react. Take away their money, job, family. Place them in an alien environment – a pacifist in a war zone, a nun in a brothel – and see what happens.
9. Decide what makes your character tick. Writer, Ray Bradbury says ‘First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!’ Think about your character’s wants and needs, which can be in conflict. For example, Scarlett O’Hara wants noble, serious Ashley Wilkesbut she needs worldly, pragmatist Rhett Butler; we readers know this and an interesting tension is created while we wait for Scarlett to realise it too.
10. Create a short story by starting the action at a critical point – a moment of decision – in a character’s life; stories are about change and growth.