I have blogged about my love of the research phase of writing – the trail of knowledge that sparks new ideas is quite delicious. Now, however, I am on to a harder part of the writing journey – establishing characters. I like to write myself a ‘bible’ for each project, that helps to guide me as I write. Establishing a strong set of characters is crucially important. If the reader does not care about the characters, it does not matter how exciting the action is. Thin characters, badly drawn, loses readers in a heart beat.
I start with names; I often struggle with this for some reason. I have even been known to change the names of characters as I write. If they are adults, I think about their occupations next. To me, that can give readers a good clue about their character – or can be a splendid red herring. Then I move on to their appearance, I spend some time on this. I start a notebook and jot down descriptions, adding details of mannerisms and habits. Getting this down on paper helps me to build the picture growing in my head. Sometimes I use ‘parts’ of real people that I know, or have met, but never copy anyone wholesale. Apart from potentially leading me into legal problems later on, I don’t like to feel bound by what I know of any real person’s character.
I know some writers look for photos of people online who ‘fit’ the growing idea of their character’s appearance. I don’t do that, preferring to keep the character forming in my head and on the page. Even once I am writing the story, I add to my ‘character bible’ – I like to keep a record of what happens to each character so that I don’t make any glaring errors in continuity.
The character bible also helps me to stay true to my characters. I find it horribly distracting when I am reading a book, or watching a film, and a character suddenly acts in a way that doesn’t feel ‘right.’ Obviously people can act ‘out of character’ for a plot device, as long as the rest of the characters notice that they are acting strangely, or if the character has hidden qualities, but unless this is written in a sensitive way, it just rips the reader out of the story, spluttering ‘But they wouldn’t do that!’ – it is often as a result of lazy writing and the need to shoehorn a character into doing something to further the plot.
I give my characters a back-story; I make notes on their life so far; their family; where they live; how they live…and (I hope)it all comes together to create believable people. So, that is how I will spend my day: creating rich characters. If you see someone staring at you in a coffee shop, or listening a little intently on a bus, it may just be a nosy person – or it may be me, building characters!