Character Building

One in the irregular series about writing

Characters are what make a story. Sure, we must have a good plot and good description, but the thing we usually remember most from an excellent book is the strength of the main characters. We have been on the journey through the words with them. We’ve cheered, sometimes out loud (or is that just me?), when they triumphed against all odds. We’ve cried with them, sobbing huge wet tears into the pillow in the middle of the night when tragedy has been bestowed on them. (The Fault in our Stars, or was that just me as well?). They are pivotal to the story; the fate of the entire book often stands on their shoulders and if you haven’t built them right then they collapse as readily as Humpty Dumpty in a huge smelly mess.

So how do we pick the people who will inhabit our universe? It’s hard sometimes to produce great characters that anyone, apart from ourselves, understands. One way is to fill your story full of people from someone else’s mind. I guess we call this fan-fiction, taking the cast of Harry Potter and writing a new story with them. Some people see this as the easy way out, but, it’s just as hard. You must get them just right, follow the canon of the bookiverse. Not an easy task when the work in question is so well known. I take my hat off, if I had one, to those who can pull this off. Just because you have instantly recognisable characters, doesn’t mean you can skimp on the description as well. It all needs to be followed through, we need to know that Ron has a dumb expression beneath his mop of ginger hair.

One other way is to use characters from the world we live in, or at least use certain traits. One book I wrote ‘Going Underground’, I’ll call it book because I have two printed copies of it, I sprinkled with people I knew from Movellas. It was a very fun book to write, although I think that I only got two characters exactly right. In some ways it failed because I didn’t want to really offend the people in it by giving them negative personalities. Still it’s a bit like a fan fiction in that these are people who were known.

Another way, and it’s the way I tend to go most times, is to base your original characters on certain traits of people you know in real life. Our life is full of real characters, already fleshed out. They might be larger than life, quiet timid people. Everyone we meet is interesting and worthy of careful insertion into the pages of your story. You don’t have to use them whole, just maybe take one or two strands of their looks or personality and inject them carefully into the DNA of your ensemble. Most of the inhabitants of my worlds walk around in some shape or form through my words. Rarely given their true name, some are even huge conglomerations of various people, the looks of one combined with the personality of another, a veritable Frankenstein.

However you choose to populate your story, it’s very important that your readers can relate to them. You should describe them, although you know them inside out your eager reader doesn’t. I never think visually matters very much, a rough guide to what they look like sprinkled around. Please don’t describe your characters in the opening chapter as a list, it’s never done like that in the real world. Don’t put a picture you found on the internet there as well, that stops the reader having their own mental image of that person.

To me the most important traits to get across are their personalities. The body is just a vessel to hold the personality. Give your characters three dimensions, give them vulnerabilities even if they are strong. Insert fragility somewhere, your characters are allowed to surprise you as well as the reader. Remember that although you know them, others don’t. I try to write down the traits somewhere before I start. Scrivener has a great facility for this and Molly Looby produced an excellent one that you should use.

Whichever means you choose, don’t forget that they are your children. You give them life and you take it away. What happens in the period between is down to you, but they only become memorable by your words. Now to go away and try and practice what I preach…

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Shaun Nightshade

Writer, designer, blogger, dreamer

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