About Characters

Peter Beere says:

Get inside your characters

Get inside your characters

Somebody once told me that my novels read like autobiographical fantasy. And I thought that was (A) pretty observant. And (B) pretty cool. Because isn’t that exactly what a novel should be? We’re always told, all the time, ‘inhabit your characters’. And to me that means ‘writing them from the inside’. If you want to write about an elderly woman being muscled aside at the bus stop by a  bunch of youths, you have to think – ‘How would I feel if I was that old lady?’ (Not just how it appears to an observer.)

If I was a pimp bullying a prostitute in a dark alley – how would I feel? (How would I feel if I was the prostitute? Or the married ‘client’ standing next to her?) If I’m a teenage girl/boy (doesn’t matter what gender you are as the author) petrified by the sheer act of being at the school dance, how would I feel? If I was the table in the middle of an argument between two people in a restaurant (some people write that kind of stuff) how would I feel?

If I was the golden retriever that had just been kicked…

If I was the bully slapping about a (‘lesser’) character…

What would I be thinking and feeling – if I was them?

I think that’s what they mean when they talk about ‘inhabiting your characters’.  You have to write your characters from the inside. Otherwise you’re just copying something. Like describing a photograph. (Which has been done a million times before.)

Martine Lillycrop says:

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How you get there is the worthier part.

Characters are the novel’s medium, the vehicle which allows a story or plot to move.  Describe a setting, nothing happens.  Provide exposition: again, nothing happens.  Any part of your book where characters are not involved will bring your plot to a halt, and your reader to the point of wondering whether it’s worth reading further.

Now add a character. Your story instantly becomes dynamic.  Now things can happen.  Now action and dialogue can take place.  Love, anguish, terror, horror, fury, passion and hate can enter your tale and make it live.

A surprisingly large number of writers fail to make the best of this vital ingredient.  It isn’t hard to do.  Use hackneyed tropes, cliched dialogue, obvious plotting devices and characters with super, unassailable skills and abilities.  Result: the characters become wooden, shallow, unbelievable and… well… boring. A reader has to identify with your character and that means your character has to be human.  They need failings, flaws, poor judgement, prejudices.  They must be fallible, despite trying always to do the right thing (unless they’re the villain, of course).

So many readers only reach the final page through their desire to see the characters succeed.  They want them to look adversity in the face, use their wits, will and sheer grit to survive whatever the writer throws at them.  Or, if the character doesn’t survive, then to have made the journey worth it. Fail in that, the reader may never reach that final page, will leave the book unfinished and themselves unsatisfied.

If characters are a story’s vehicle, then you have to choose the right one to get it from Point A to Point Z.  The vehicle has to be able to prove itself over whatever terrain it encounters. It has to get there at the right speed, while providing a thrilling or at least an engaging ride.  It has to have the fuel to get to its destination, and get there on time. That doesn’t mean it won’t have breakdowns, encounter roadblocks, travail narrow roads along precipitous rock faces, but it will do it.  It might come out scratched, dented, flat-tired, with a blown gasket and its muffler dragging on the ground, but it will get there, and the trip will be memorable,. Your reader will thus always think back on it with fondness and the desire to take that road trip again, one day.

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4 thoughts on “About Characters

  1. Does anyone else find though, that you can get TOO inside your character? You start living them, they start growing in ways that you didn’t expect? They can change the story because they have developed characteristics you hadn’t anticipated? Or is that the book/story running away with the writer? !!

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    • That’s a very good thing, Mary. It’s exactly how it should be. Otherwise your characters would be robots.
      A novel is an organic thing which develops as it grows.
      (And it’s not just novels. I bet Romeo was a right bastard when Shakespeare started writing him.)

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  2. Well written, Peter Beere.
    And this internal dialogue can be seen not only by what the character says to herself but in other ways as well–for example, in how she moves and in what she sees.

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  3. Characters are the vehicle for supplying ‘plot’. The old adage is ‘The King died and then the Queen died’ is a story. (A simple chronological sequence of events.) But if you were to say, ‘The King died and then the Queen died from grief’, you have immediately introduced plot. Expanded the story a thousandfold. You want to know a lot more about these characters now. ‘How old was the King? How old was the Queen? Why did he die? She must have loved him a lot…’
    Characters are everything, and the nuances of character are what brings them (and a story) alive.

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