Clare Dowling


Archive for May, 2014

Coming up with characters

Posted by Clare D under Uncategorized

We all remember them – the outstanding fictional characters who stay with us for years afterwards.  Here are just a few of my favourites: Hermione Granger, Bridget Jones (and Mark Darcy of course!), the Walsh sisters, Lisbeth Salander, Hannibal Lecter, Elizabeth Bennet ….the list goes on.

Pippi Longstocking was probably my earliest fictional heroine.  What a girl – baking millions of cookies and fighting off robbers single-handed, with not an adult in sight.

Whether funny, tragic, powerful or too fond of Chardonnay, these are all characters who’ve hijacked our imagination and more than made their mark.  As a reader this is fantastic.  As a writer facing into a new book, these iconic lads and ladies can make the task of creating our own characters a little, well, daunting.

So what do we want in our characters?  They should be well-rounded, complex and interesting. They should be capable of sustaining secrets and intrigue.  Readers should want to know what happens to them, even if they hate their guts and want to see them destroyed. The last thing we want is for them to fizzle out halfway through, because we haven’t given them an engine big enough to power them through to the end.

Having written ten novels, and for television and theatre for twenty years, here’s a simple checklist of things I do for every character I create.

Assign a character function. What is their purpose in the book?  Hero or anti-heroine? Are they an agitator, a confidante, a comic foil?  Each character has to earn their place in the story and giving them a label will help.

Interview them.  What do they eat for breakfast, do they own a pet, have they ever been cheated upon and what has their buy avodart response been?  It’s good fun and helps round your characters out.  Their responses will often surprise you and that’s when your character begins to take on a life of their own.

Write a biography. I do this in conjunction with interviewing them.  Even if you never directly use the information in the book, give them birth dates and childhoods and a three-legged dog, or whatever else takes your fancy.  All of it creates colour and a history.

Choose names carefully. It really does make a difference. Sometimes a character who is elusive and difficult to get a handle on is just struggling against the name Maureen, or whatever it is you’ve given her.  Maybe she’s really a Marilyn.  Take a step back and see if your character is actually someone else.

Give every character a journey. Some mightn’t have a huge part in the plot, but giving them their own arc, however small, will give them purpose and keep them relevant.

Choose your conflict. Adversity brings out people’s true nature, so decide what challenges and conflict you’re going to throw at your character, and see if they sink or swim.

Give your characters room to breathe.  It’s annoying when you get halfway through a book and realise that your main character just isn’t playing ball with the plot you’ve so carefully mapped out. But this is a time to regroup and look at your character’s construction.  You may have missed a step along the way.  Or the story they’re suggesting might actually be the one you need to write.

Love your characters.  If you don’t, nobody else will. Get to know them and feel passionately about them, and that will translate to the page.

Happy writing!