Character’s characters

(Originally posted 4th May 2012)

How do we define character in our characters? How do we develop characters that are believable? Characters that the reader believes are comfortable in their own skin? I use several methods to help define my characters. They are not everything and are only meant to provoke ideas – the skeleton upon which I can mould the muscle and skin and features of the characters as they develop.

Origins

There are several aspects to a person’s origins that can help form their character. Are they from the Deep South or Brooklyn? Are they used to life on a ranch or life in the big city? Chances are you won’t have a main character born in the Deep South that is the CEO of a massive company in the new One World Trade Center building – although I guess it’s possible. If they are then there’s a reason for this – the way they were raised made them want to do something different with their life, escape family ties etc. You are highly unlikely to write a successful and believable Mafia hitman as being someone that, five years ago, was a cattle farmer in the Scottish Highlands. Don’t stereotype your characters, but remember that most people turn out like their parents or like the common things that form their surroundings. We are influenced by what we see and experience all the time growing up. So should your characters be. So ask yourself, where was my character born and raised, and what things about his surroundings and his parents/family would most likely influence him? Did he have lots of siblings growing up, or was he an only child? Think of the things that form your character’s character, even if you don’t mention them in the novel.

Voice

From a character’s origins comes knowledge of their accent, the way they speak, and even how words are intoned. For example, a lot of Australian’s sentences will end with the final word’s tone raising. Almost like it’s becoming a question, even if it isn’t. Again though, be careful not to stereotype when using origins to define a character – don’t have your one Australian character saying ‘crikey’ and ‘bonzer’ all the time. OK, mate?

Passions

OK, so above are some of the broad aspects of thinking about a character. But what about the more subtle things? Let me give an example of how I put meat on the bones of a character. I posted an extract the other day in one of my blogs from a scene I had just written. In it was a fifty-something sheriff rocking back in his chair, tapping his foot to Johnny Cash. Now, I’m not fooling myself with the irony of that. I know Johnny Cash had tonnes of songs about people on the wrong side of the law, and when he performed at San Quentin and Folsom and other prisons it was the prisoner’s side he pretended to be on. I say pretended, because there was a serious amount of banter there, and I know Cash had a lot of respect for everyone there. But I digress. If my character, Jim Hoolihan, the Johnny Cash loving sheriff of a small Northern Californian town, loved classical music and showjumping, then I wouldn’t believe him as a character. There’s a certain image attached to Johnny Cash that becomes part of Jim’s character. An attitude, a set of values. When you are passionate about something you normally have things in common with the values that thing or person represents. So, Johnny Cash was always worrying about the poor and the beaten down and always god fearing – Jim Hoolihan carries all of those qualities. A good sheriff should be god fearing. He should be worrying about getting the small man a fair deal. So, there are a couple of things that make him believable. I believe him, and if I do then I think you will. I had a vision of him foot tapping to Johnny Cash, and from that he became a god fearing man who is compassionate and cares for those around him. He also became a man who is massively committed to leading the way and taking care of those in his charge – something that is very important to the group of characters in From The Sky as they try to survive an alien invasion. This suggested to me that he will be a good family man and someone who people look up to, and from there on in, he is able to develop and grow into the situations in which he finds himself, because he is aligned to a set of values from the outset. As I mentioned, Sheriff Jim Hoolihan is one of the main protagonists in From The Sky. You can check it out by clicking on the ‘Books’ tab at the top of the page.

Hobbies

It might sound bizarre to think about what hobbies your character might have. You might be writing about a murder victim who is only in your novel for ten pages. But how does he find himself at the scene of the crime? The chances are, that if you can find a reason for him being there rather than him just being an innocent victim who had just gone out to buy a pint of milk, his presence will be more believable. So, for example, your character, Joe Bloggs, is a major golf fan. Loves watching it, loves to play it. He goes for a round of golf – he meets a beautiful woman. What does that have to do with a murder victim (you might think)? Well, he marries this beautiful woman. But she has an affair with someone at the golf club. This man is an unsavoury character. One love triangle later, and you have your characters, your murderer and your murder victim. It’s not the best analogy, but I’ve almost written a novel for you there off the back of someone being a golf fan!

Finally

The minutiae of a character’s loves and hates, hobbies and love life are the small things that really make him or her believable. They are the things on which a plot can develop, a scene can be set or an emotion or belief revealed. By knowing the small details about your characters you are more likely to help them to develop into full and (did I mention this word yet?) believable people that your reader can connect and empathise with. Sometimes it’s helpful to write scenes that aren’t even going into the novel, to really get to know your character. Think of a couple of the things that might have happened to them in their past, and write that scene. Even better, write it as a first person diary; them recollecting the event and how they felt, how they reacted etc. I guarantee you’ll know them better by the end of it, and I also guarantee you’ll be inspired by doing it.

The origins, early family life, and surroundings in which a character has been raised can directly influence their adult life – their career, their persona, their phobias, their aspirations etc. For my final example: a person who grows up in a large family is more likely to want a large family themselves. They’re more likely to place family values more highly than someone who was an only child and grew up feeling isolated. I wouldn’t have the person from the large family as the killer in a murder novel, I would have the character who grew up as an only child and felt isolated, always on the outside looking in.

Believable?

I don’t know, you tell me. All of this advice is very straightforward, and if all novels conformed to norms then there wouldn’t be much variation. I mentioned the problem of stereotyping a couple of times and it’s true. While you want your characters to be really believable (god, I’m starting to hate that word), don’t feel that there’s never room for scope. You can have a Scottish cattle farmer as a Mafia hitman. Go ahead, be my guest. I won’t ever be having that character in one of my novels, because I could never pull it off. I’m not a good enough writer. But if you are, then do it. If you really believe that character and he or she is very different from the norm, but you seriously think you can/have written the story well enough, then I can’t wait to read it. Because it’s novels like that that win prizes, and we all want to read those. For the rest of us, reaching an audience and making them come back for more is our only goal.

Feel free to listen to all, part, some or none of what I write and the advice I give on writing. I hope one of you, somewhere, gets an idea or something that sparks from my ramblings. If you do, let me know. Or if you have any other comments (positive, negative or constructive) about anything I say then please feel free to post a reply. I will answer them all!

Anyway, you’ve wasted enough time reading this. Shouldn’t you be writing?

The best characters stay with the audience long after they finish reading or watching!

The best characters stay with the audience long after they finish reading or watching!

 

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Posted in David McGowan
7 comments on “Character’s characters
  1. M.S. Fowle says:

    My character’s background usually forms during/after I’ve already started writing about them. I think it’s because I already have an idea of who they are beforehand and the rest comes to me as they are born on paper.
    I do have a question about accents though. In one my books (yet to be released) I have a few characters from various countries. So I’m wondering, how *much* of an accent should I give them in dialogue? For example, a character from England mixed with characters from America, I would want my English character to have a distinct voice, but I certainly don’t want to overdo it and stereotype them. Obviously, accents vary in England as they do here in America (a Boston accent versus a Southern accent)…I guess what I’m asking is, how much is too much? If someone from the UK drops an “H” the way someone from Boston drops an “R”, do I constantly show that in dialogue? The more I try to give my character an accent, the more insulting I feel like I’m being. I don’t mind dropping an “R” from my Boston characters, because I do the same thing in real life. I just don’t want to look like an ass. 😉
    Great post, by the way!

    • davidmcgowan says:

      Thanks! I’d be wary of having one character that is too distinct in their dialogue I think. It depends though. I’m sure there’ll be more than just the accent that will make them distinct. . But:
      *i don’t think they would always have to drop the ‘H’. I’m from Liverpool, and I might drop the ‘H’ sometimes but not all the time. So, if I was in a rush I wouldn’t watch my pronunciation, but if I was at work I would be more likely to be more considered.
      *You’d also have to make sure your readers know that if you don’t drop the ‘H’ it’s not inconsistency. Which also says that you need to be fully in control of the level of consistency. Authors tend to go either all out or not very much (think of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting).
      *In terms of POV it could be a good idea to be bold and use the method of making the character stand out by their accent. It definitely does help to put the reader in their shoes. Just make sure it’s consistent and if you’re not sure then ask someone like me who is from the UK.
      *Don’t worry about offending your characters – you are their God! But be careful they don’t say things that someone from their region would not say. Again, if in doubt, ask!

  2. Dang it! I should be writing . . .but I’m procrastinating. My characters tend to evolve as a write them. I am guilty of breaking several writing rules or guidelines that many “great” authors speak of. This is why I rewrite (edit) several times. As I develop a character they tend to pick up traits, divulge hobbies, tell me their backgrounds. I learn as much about my character while writing, that my readers learn while reading. It may take some editing to fit this traits in in areas I’ve already written, but it works better for me than creating a character on paper like creating an internet dating bio, and then discovering five chapters in that that was not who the character wanted to be. It makes sense in my head.

    • davidmcgowan says:

      That’s the thing with writing – there are no rules! You’re definitely right to say that the characters develop and change, sometimes in different ways to those you imagined initially, as you write. That’s normally good, I find, as they surprise us when that happens and are that much more believable (there’s that word again!). The beauty of it is the fact that we can edit edit edit and see what works and what doesn’t!

      Thanks!

  3. Ray Yanek says:

    A lot of good stuff to ponder here. Thanks for this. In regards to making a character unique and round, one of the things I’ve always read is that a writer should strive to give the character conflicting or oppositional personality traits. Although you don’t explicitely mention that idea here, you model it wonderfully in your Johnny Cash loving sheriff. Even though, on the surface, his job and taste in music seem in opposition I love how you use that opposition to deepen the sheriff. Also, I suppose one could infer from this opposition, that maybe the sheriff doesn’t believe completely that the law is on the side of the little guy. That could also be an avenue to understanding a deeper character conflict, or maybe even the start of a theme.

    Maybe I’m off, and sorry about taking up all this space, but you really got me thinking about how much weight and depth something as seemingly small as a characters love of music can carry. All of which leads to making that character come to life. I’ll remember this and thanks again!

  4. […] talk about this all the time (Here is one example). In order for your characters to have depth, I think you should get to know them before you commit […]

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