Hey, it works for Dan Brown so I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.
But for us mere mortals, who want to create believable characters, especially in the world of horror, then good, strong and believable characters is what it’s all about.
So here are some ideas to get your characters thumping into the psyche of your unsuspecting readership...
Don’t try to know everything about your character to begin with: This may upset some of you who like to map everything out in the beginning, including Ted’s favourite colour and where he likes to eat. Developing your character is a journey and you should get to know him or her over time. You can lock onto their most important traits but don’t get hung up on the minutiae, they’ll just get in the way.
If the lead character is YOU then be honest. Don’t start leaping tall buildings if you’d more likely be sitting in a pool of pee when the monster suddenly comes round the corner. Explore your own reactions to the incidents in your story and ask yourself: Honestly, how would I react if this really happened? That doesn’t mean you won’t overcome your fear and beat the bad guy, it just means you won’t let Superman or woman do it for you. I guess the lesson is this: Be true to your character. Don’t make them do something they wouldn’t dream of or be capable of.
Talk to your characters. As your story progresses, have a chat with your characters. You’ll find out a helluva lot more about them and it will help grow your story beyond its initial cardboard cutout. Your good girls and boys should have at least one bad trait and your bad girls and boys should have at least one good trait. As Bob Hoskins says: It’s good to talk! So don’t be afraid to have a glass of wine and pass some time chatting with your lock-jawed hero or your boss-eyed heroine.
Define the essence of your characters in a few lines: When I start to write I usually stick up an A4 sheet of paper on my wall with a photograph and short biography for each of my main characters. It keeps them focussed in my head while I’m writing and stops me going off message. For my novel Clubland the main characters are:
- Charlie Trent, Private Detective: Cynical, wise-cracking and on the edge of the abyss. Haunted by the death of his daughter and spiralling down into the abyss.
- Isobelle, the Grevin Witch: Ditzy, impulsive, fearless. Has the power to heal with a touch. A storm is coming and her growing power holds the key.
- Emily, flesh eating dead girl: Comes to life seeking revenge on serial killer Caufield Hynes. Animalistic and tortured soul.
- Caufield Hynes, serial killer: Driven by mystic forces, Caufield increasingly finds it difficult to keep his two lives separate as the world closes in on him.
- Silas Marston, Gangland Kingpin: Isobelle’s ward. Ruthless, charming, intelligent. Owes his power to his ward Isobelle. Can’t trust him but has a vested interest in keeping Charlie alive.
For me, having strong characters that you believe in has one drawback if you like to map out the details of your book before you write (which, you may gather, I don’t). Strong characters should help your book develop and, if you’ve got the conflict right between them, it can make your story head in different directions to the one you originally intended.
My advice: Don’t let that scare you.
To me, this is the joy of writing. I have a vague idea where it’s heading but I’m not sure. And at any moment one of my characters could do something utterly fantastic and change the course of the story’s history. If I go back to reread my first draft and it surprises me, I know I’ve done something good.
There’s another thing about creating strong characters and that’s the conflict between them and YOU. Yes I know all the conflict should be between the characters on the pages. But writers often ignore the conflict between creation and creator: Are you going to allow your characters to do what they want all the time? Or will you reign them in? Do your characters control you? Or do you control them?
Don’t underestimate the power of yourself as creator and certainly don’t underestimate the power of your precious creations to lead you into dark corners from which there seems to be no escape.
Getting the balance right on this is the difference between good characterisation and bad. That’s why I think heavily pre-plotted books sometimes have their characters behaving like robots – cliché ridden, automatic drivel that anyone could write. Okay, so it may sell in billions but if you’re a writer worth your salt, you’ll want more than that.
What the Twitter-verse says:
@CharmedLassie For all characters other than my protagonist I imagine what traits would cause the most conflict with my main character.
@leapetra For me, they just come to me. Usually the name and an image in my head. The rest starts to form on paper.
@LynneaAnnette Sleep when tired; eat when hungry. Characters can't emerge when we are grouchy
@TSIjack Don't try to make them into something, let them tell you what they want to be and the rest will flow from there.
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