19 March 2010

Building Believable Characters

Believable characters are the mainstay of every piece of fiction. Writers know this, but how often are short cuts taken? You know the sort of thing:
A 60 cigarettes a day, overweight PI is spotted by his youthful target as he's being followed along the street. A chase ensues. Passers-by are sent reeling, the PI is attacked by a loose pitbull terrier but manages to shake it off; traffic is negotiated, fences climbed, parklands crossed. The PI makes a magnificently timed rugby tackle to bring down the target, fastens the rogue with his own trouser belt and in a half page of dramatic dialogue exhorts the felon to change his ways.
By all means smile at the clichés, but let's face a few facts. Overweight and on 60 a day, no one short of a cartoon character is going to run 50 metres, never mind shake off pitbulls, climb fences and cross parklands. Have you tried to pull down someone with a rugby tackle? A mouthful of feet - guaranteed. And that half page of dialogue at the end of it all? If the overweight investigator has managed to get that far he is more likely to throw up or succumb to a coronary.

The telling phrase, of course, is cartoon character. The investigator is two-dimensional, good for a quick wry smile but hardly the mainstay of a short story, never mind a novel. If the players in your fiction are not taken seriously by you, the writer, how do you expect your readers to take them seriously? Characters need to be as close a facsimile as you can get to the people you meet in the street.

Who do you know the most about? Easy - yourself. Now for the tricky bit: do you know your true self? I would suggest that anyone who answers yes is, perhaps unwittingly, lying to themselves.

From the moment we first draw breath barriers of one kind or another develop around us. Society in general demands a certain level of behaviour
       stealing an envelope from your employer isn’t regarded as stealing;
       stealing a week’s takings is;
       killing your employer to steal the takings is a definite no-no.
Our perceived position in that society also defines expected behaviour
       not dropping our trousers in public
and our families set all sorts of sometimes absurd demarcation lines based on how they view their own barriers
       “I didn’t go to university, what good do you think it will do you?”

People we meet on the street didn’t become complicated overnight, and the people in your fiction aren’t found, fully clothed, under a gooseberry bush. They have past lives which impact on their current life – the life being examined within the fiction. They were born of parents. Who were those parents? What did they do? Where did they live? How did they react to their child? When were the apron strings cut? Why did the child leave home?

This set of questions needs to be asked about the person’s childhood friends, teenage contemporaries, love affairs, marriage(s), work colleagues, neighbours, badminton partner, ad infinitum, until a point is reached in that person’s life where he/she steps from under the gooseberry bush and on to the page. And not just asked, but written down and studied like an alibi to ensure that there are no loopholes. If that person knows how to defuse a bomb on page 47 of your novel, then he/she had better have had more than a passing acquaintance with an army unit, a terrorist group, or some other organisation equipped with the necessary expertise.

You, the writer, are the core of every person portrayed in your fiction. Male or female, rich or poor, beggar, thief, angel of mercy, serial killer, they are all you. Because each and every person is an extrapolated facet of yourself, there will be certain kinds of people with whom you will feel easier than others. This is only natural. Empathy does know bounds, no matter how great a writer you are.

So when you are scouting for a character to star in your forthcoming opus, pick someone reasonably close to home – not necessarily with the same life experiences, but someone whose hopes and fears are within hailing distance of your own. Then add copious amounts of what if…?

What if…? is the key that unlocks the shackles from a fiction writer’s mind and is just as important as the Who, What, Where, When, How and Why that places the fiction on the page.

What if…the overweight investigator had been the only child of a chain-smoking unmarried mother who had consoled him with sticky buns while she scraped together a living? Is that why he is overweight? Did he initially become a PI in an attempt to find his father?

What if…the investigator, the only child of an unmarried career woman, had enjoyed the companionship and love of a set of doting grandparents who had taken an interest in his hobbies. Would he have become an overweight, 60-a-day man? Would he have become a PI?

What if…as the only child of a widower, he had been at the centre of a psychological tug-of-love war between two sets of doting grandparents? Would he have grown up distrusting the motives of all adults? Did he become a PI as a subliminal reinforcement of his belief that he is right to distrust everyone he meets?

A little What if...? opens all sorts of doors to the people you are auditioning for roles in your fiction. Write it all down. In the cold light of day some of your notes will be discarded, but among the dross will be the gems which will make that person live on the page and in the minds of your readers.

© Linda Acaster

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