In this latest guest blog, novelist Gillian McAllister considers what makes a character come to life
I write the kind of fiction that is character-driven (is there really another kind?), and I’ve spent many hours pondering how some authors seem to be able to create characters which leap off the page, and what it is exactly that makes a vivid character. I once read somewhere that, in the best novels, even the b-list characters should be trying to get an Oscar, and I fully believe in this. Not only that, but they should be able to have a novel of their own.
Here are some things I have (sort of…) figured out during my character research.
1. What do they actually like?
I am drawn to characters with foibles. I don’t really mean giving your heroine a quirky job or making her clumsy. I cast characters who have foibles because I observe in every day life that everybody has them, specifically, they have things that they like. A good friend of mine likes Coke, and he always has a bottle with him – without fail – wherever he goes. He is often trying to quit. A friend of my father’s loves going to Legoland Windsor – he goes every year. But the brilliant thing about fiction is that you can use a quirk to tap into something else entirely. A woman who makes people take their shoes off as soon as they walk in the door. An elderly man who likes to walk the neighbourhood alone, late at night. These characteristics tap into other things: orderliness, eccentricity, loneliness. Sometimes I read books in which the characters do not have any likes of their own (and indeed dislikes). Give them some! Think of how many things you like.
2. Give them one physical trait
As a reader, I find it easier to know somebody’s unusual eye colour or their slim frame. I find it harder when the author is more prescriptive about face shapes and hooked noses and hair colour. A pale, freckled man is far more vivid, to me, than a woman with a heart-shaped face and a cupid’s bow lip.
3. Avoid tropes
On that note… it’s very easy in fiction to tap into tropes. (And it can be useful, too. Dumbledore, for example, is a classic archetype of Jung’s wise old man, and as such the reader places their trust in him, and Dumbledore turning up to conclude each book feels natural). But tropes are well-worn paths and books with them in feel less vivid. The characters could be plucked from other books – the alcoholic maverick detective who gets thrown off the case and solves it anyway. The ditsy female lead who teaches the stoic hero how to have fun again. They worked once – like cliches – but now they are faded and worn, and make our writing so if we use them. If you struggle, start with a stereotypical character, and then change them, or give them a motivation for being the way it is. Look at Dr House. He began, I imagine, as somebody like Sherlock Holmes. But things were added, and taken away, and made more flawed.
Sometimes, when I am really struggling with characterisation, I go on a walk with my characters. I have a conversation with them, as if I were walking with a friend, but all in my head. I ask them about their childhood. Their histories. Their first girlfriends. I find out so much. Not only (see above) the motivation for why they are the way they are, but the incidental stuff, too. The stuff that doesn’t create a plot, and doesn’t need to. A character in my current book is adopted. It’s not a plot point. There’s no big revelation about it. He’s just adopted, and it affects some of the things that he does.
Ah, the big one. Character flaws can be a plotting device, but I’m talking about the regular kind of flaws. They often do lead to the character’s downfall, but they don’t have to. What are your own flaws? And those of the people close to you? I have a hero who is anxious, in Everything But The Truth, and a judgmental hero in my second book (Anything You Do Say). They are traits I’ve observed in people before; traits I’m interested in. Anything to make them seem real. That, after all, is the aim. A character you could bump into in the street, and know them, instantly.
Gillian graduated with an English degree in 2006 and is now a lawyer with a large law firm. Her blog has been featured in various publications including Company magazine and Gillian is represented by literary agent Clare Wallace at Darley Anderson. Gillian tweets @GillianMAuthor and blogs at www.gillianmcallister.com
More posts from Gillian:
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