Do you know your neighbour? Do you know the person at the workstation next to yours?
You can tell me what they look like, sure. You can describe the colour of their hair, their penchant for mis-matched clothing, the sound of their laughter, but this is no more than outer signs. This isn’t knowing someone.
Characters who are brought to life from their outer signs alone are good for the length of a short story where readers see no more than a tiny slice of their on-going lives. But a novel is life in depth where characters interact on various levels, probably over an extended period. Characters drawn only to the depth of their visual skins will remain shallow, no matter the twists and turns in the storyline. Readers prepared to invest two or three days of their time on your novel are looking for something more satisfying, and it all begins in the planning.
Torc of Moonlight has three sets of two major characters, plus subsidiaries and walk-ons. The major characters have an A4 sheet dedicated to each, the subsidiaries half a page each, the walk-ons share a page grouped around a setting. Nowhere on any, at least to begin with, is there a physical description. Fitting character traits to appearance is a dangerous game. Fundamentally, a novelist is writing about how people think and act. Cartoons portray baddies with a hunched shoulder and a sneer. Which are you conjuring?
Via the background I’d researched, I knew I needed to tie the main narrator to the previous generation character and to the historical Celt – all male. What could possibly tie a Celt to a 21st century university student? What experiences could they share? A product of his time and upbringing, the Celt was born to protect his people and trained in hand-to-hand combat. Apart from those entering the armed services, what do normal, British, late teens know about hand-to-hand combat? Usually what they learn, or remember, after a mixture of testosterone and alcohol gets the better of them. On the other hand, what would a Celt see in the teen’s life that could relate to his own?
I came up with a group sport, rugby union, with its lack of personal protection, chance of individual glory, its rucks and mauls, and its tendency for brawling. The Celt might consider it poor battle training but the assumption that it was would be enough to tie them together. The question was, why was my student playing the game?
When creating characters why? is the most important question in the universe. Every consideration should be subjected to it so that the finished person lives and breathes as you or I.
From this opening question fanned hundreds of others, each answer producing more questions. Had my character played rugby at school – no – so why did he want to play at university? For a laugh? For the brawling? For the after match drinking? For the camaraderie? To belong? To attract the opposite sex? To prove to himself that he’s tougher than he thought, or feared?
A person’s perception of themselves, and the reasons the perception is held, is the key to unlocking the core of any human, and characters should be no different. We function the way we do because of the experiences we’ve borne during our lives. A slight here, an encouragement there, goes into the emotional bindings we wrap around ourselves. Each is gossamer thin, hardly noticeable on its own, but layer upon layer makes us the complex people we are, makes characters act and think like the human beings they are supposed to be. We know other people from the outside in, but writers should know their characters from the inside out.
The questions ranged far and wide, covering childhood influences and anxieties, hopes and fears, motivations and goals, even to the motivations and goals of parents and siblings. This interrogation was completed for each of the four contemporary main characters, and to a lesser degree for the historical, the answers being correlated with its partner to ensure no gaps, each set checked for links to the other two sets. The role of Nature, something modern people overlook, became a character in itself, and landscape – both city and rural – rose in prominence from a mere backdrop to a pertinent part of the whole. If I’d not subjected each character to such intensive questioning the latter would not have become apparent until well into the writing – and I would have had to decide whether to carry on with gaping holes or rewrite from scratch.
As the process gathered pace the characters took up their names, but even at the start of the writing the only physical description was of Alice, whose pale skin, almost colourless eyes and hair shading through russet and gold was needed for the storyline. Nick, I’d decided, played fly-half, which meant he was slimmer and smaller than most of the team. But the colour of his eyes, the shade of his hair, had no bearing on either the storyline or his thought processes, so why delineate them? Create enough anchors and readers produce mental pictures of their own, just as they do when listening to a radio play. Offer them the experience. Reading should not be a passive activity.
Did the characters change in the writing? Some subsidiaries exchanged roles with walk-ons. The main characters became more multi-faceted, each slight change noted on the character sheets so that the person who said they hated pasta wasn’t choosing it to eat fifty pages later.
Do yourself a favour. Take time to plan your characters thoroughly. The pay-off is in the writing.