Midweek Writer-Rummage - Characters

'The King's Henchman' ~ NC Wyeth

Character and plot – the vital ingredients for any story.  It could be said that the main character has to be likeable, someone the reader can empathise with.  But that’s not necessarily the case.  Take Dracula – we don’t necessarily like him or empathise with his blood-sucking tendencies, but he holds our interest because Bram Stoker succeeded in creating a dramatic character filled with presence and personality.  Then there’s Sherlock Holmes – he’s actually quite odd and, usually, not very pleasant.  But he’s written in such a way that the reader is drawn into wanting to know more about him and his world.

When it comes to creating your characters, the advice is always to know them inside and out.  After all, it’s difficult to write about someone you barely know.  A good exercise that’s always recommended is to write detailed character bios.  I admit that’s something I didn’t do when I started writing my first story as I was too lazy and couldn’t be bothered.  But halfway through whichever draft I was working on, I realised I was forgetting key points about the main characters.  I succumbed, got out my notepad and started working on those bios.  Trust me, having character bios before you start writing makes a world of difference.

So, what to include in character bios?

  • Back story – basically the story from birth, including his relationship with his family and what his childhood was like.
  • Appearance – what she looks like.  But don’t just list the obvious of hair and eye colour, and build.  Think about the people you know – everyone has a distinctive characteristic, be it their ears, nose, teeth … And don’t go for the obvious, like a scar.  Look through magazines or Pinterest for someone who could be your character, and work on how you would describe that person.
  • Personality – what kind of person is your character, how sociable is he?  A happy person who laughs easily?  Someone who barely smiles?  Is he sensitive, emotional?  Does he drink or eat to excess?
  • Motivation – what drives her?  Is she a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners type or someone who analyses?  How patient is she when faced with a difficult person or situation?  Is she sympathetic or judgmental?  Working out the character’s motivation is crucial in whether a reader admires or dislikes the character.
  • Relationships – most characters are in a relationship with another, be it familial, friends or lovers.  Work out why they are drawn to certain people; why they choose a particular personality.  Does it link back to something that happened in childhood?  Are they reminded of a person who influenced them greatly?
  • Miscellaneous – although this could be deemed unimportant, it all adds up to knowing your character as much as possible.  Think about what they like to wear, their favourite food.  Are they fussy eaters, sloppy dressers or the height of sophistication?  Are they witty, absent-minded?  How do they feel about physical violence?  How do they handle objects – are they hands-on or do they baulk at touching certain things?  How do they arrange their surroundings – are they neat or do they thrive in organised chaos?
  • Character Arc – this is a must-have.  Without an arc, your character may not develop in a believable, attention-grabbing way.  You might end up sending her off on a tangent that has nothing to do with the story.  Characters must grow and develop – she must be somehow different at the end of the book compared to how she was at the beginning.

Obviously, this list isn’t exhaustive by any means.  My character bios tend to be ‘heavy’ on some details and ‘light’ on others; I believe it’s very much a personal thing.  And don’t forget to do bios for your other main characters, although minor characters don’t need anything as in-depth.  Also, don’t attempt to do it all in one sitting – I usually spread it out over a week, and that’s all the bios.  At the end of it, you may decide that half of what you’ve written is not at all relevant to your story.  But the aim of this exercise is to know your character completely, inside and out.  

What makes a compelling character are his words and actions, coupled with his thoughts and feelings.  Allowing the reader to get inside the character’s head goes a long way in building strong characterisation – having access to a person’s inner world must surely be the best way to truly know him.