I think our characters are the most important element in our stories. Our descriptions may be wonderful, but these just set the scene. Our dialogue may be scintillating, but who are these people who are speaking? The action may be the most exciting ever, but readers need to care about who is escaping, fighting or saving the day.
We may be familiar with the encouragement to make our characters “real”. But what does that mean? We may have come across checklists of how to round out our characters’ backstories. What is their favourite colour, or pet, or food? What sort of school did they attend, their best subject, how sporty, how popular? This sort of thing may help you, but to be honest, I don’t do this in such detail with my characters. After all, in a medieval fantasy world, I’m a bit stuck answering what car my heroine might like to drive! 🙂
I’ve ended up adopting a different approach. In the same way that we might imagine the scenes in our writing by drawing upon memories of actual places, I suggest we do the same with our characters.
If our main character, or sidekick, or villain, is like someone we know, or someone we’ve met, or hate, then we can draw upon our experiences with those people to inform our characterisation. A word of caution: don’t make your arch-villain too much like someone you know, or you might be sued. You’ll need to do more than just change their name, so make them up from a composite of different people you’ve despised.
This is an excellent excuse for people-watching. Sit in a town centre cafe and make notes on the people you see. If we can capture someone’s attire, facial expressions, gestures, accent, turn of phrase or way of walking, then we’re building up a character. Practise trying to describe in words the people you pass in the street. I should add not to say anything or you may end up trying hospital food.
But unfortunately we may never meet someone like our main characters. In Destiny’s Rebel, my heroine is Princess Katelin, the heiress to the Kingdom of Anestra in my imaginary medieval fantasy world. And there aren’t enough medieval fantasy princesses frequenting our shopping centres these days.
So what was I to do? I’ve had to imagine her to be as real as someone I’ve met. I have to write her as though I’m remembering the conversations we’ve had, the times we’ve spent together, the adventures we’ve shared. So yes, I talk with my characters, dream about them, listen in on their imaginary conversations. I realise this may sound like the beginnings of mental illness, or that I’ve taken leave of reality in order to indulge in my writerly fantasies, but maybe that’s what we’re called to do.
Our characters need to be as real to us as the people we’ve met. If we don’t believe in them, how will our readers believe in them too? It was a breakthrough in getting the right emotions in my stories when my characters became real. Some authors talk about their characters coming to life and directing their own stories, but I think of them as becoming real so that we go on their journeys together.
Recently I spoke with classes of Primary School children about pretending. At that age they love “the dressing-up box”, and making up games in the playground. They delight to pretend to be a pirate, or a fairy-tale princess, or a superhero, or whatever it might be, to dress up accordingly and to imagine they are the heroes of their own stories.
So I told them I’m a grown-up who has never stopped pretending. They laughed when I said I would love a dressing-up box, so I could pretend to be my characters as I write (although the medieval princess dresses might be a problem…). I think they understood that writing, and reading, is the next stage up from dressing up and the playground in our pretending to be heroes and heroines.
So as well as pretending to be Princess Katelin, I also get to be a mercenary swordsman, a middle-aged cleric of the Divine, a young barbarian hunter woman, the first mate of a merchant galleon, the abbot of a monastery, and so on. How much fun is that?
It helps that Katelin has been my heroine for the last six years, so I feel I’ve got to know her as a friend over that time. She’s also the main character in my first three books, so I’ve imagined lots of different scenes and situations with her along the way.
I’m counting down to my first Book Launch in September, but I’m surprised at my varying and mixed up emotions about it. Most authors feel nervous about how their story will be received, and whether anyone will like it. But feel free to laugh at me when I say it’s as though Katelin is my teenage daughter, leaving home and going out on her own into the world for the first time. Part of me is like her father, letting her go from the cosy, family home relationship we’ve enjoyed so far, and sharing her with others. You’ll be nice to her, won’t you? And kind? And look after her? Although of course my Katelin is quite capable of taking care of herself… 🙂
Next time we’ll look at another essential writer’s attribute: Bloody-mindedness!