24 October 2010

Creating Believable Characters – Part 2: Making Individuals Out Of Mist

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.

1 October 2010

Creating Believable Characters – Part 1: Laying the Foundations

With most typescripts that cross my desk, the problems filter down to the fact that the main characters lack enough depth to carry their novel the required distance.

Consider that sentence again. Not the novel, but their novel. This, I find, is the biggest mistake beginner writers make, to believe, to act as if, the novel they are writing belongs to them. Like shoes, like an overcoat, the novel is treated as a possession, the characters mere appendages to enable the possession to function.

You are writing a Crime/Mystery, so you have a police officer who is a cynical loner with an overblown sense of moral standing. You are writing a contemporary Romance, so you have a sassy, nubile, twenty-something with a penchant for witty one-liners. What you have, in fact, are not characters but clichés, interchangeable clichés at that.

Most novelists start with a storyline premise which opens a door on a possible genre label, even if it is Mainstream or Literary. These two elements are guidelines, established to keep the writer in the same ballpark for the length of the novel. Within these guidelines the main characters are sought.

Within the premise for what became Torc of Moonlight I was conjuring with contemporary people witnessing, and being embraced by, the resurrection of a Celtic water goddess.  I’d been reading about Romano-British Celtic belief systems, and the inspiration for the novel had sprung from there. Liberally seeding what if…? had borne fruit. I knew the novel would be a Thriller, but the term covers a wide range of sub-genres and guidelines are meant to be flexible.

It was at this idea-illuminating stage that I returned to the research, both casting wider my research net and re-reading with an eye for different criteria, searching for pointers to possible characters. What sort of people – as in gender, education, age-group, up-bringing – would be liable to find themselves on the periphery of such an event?

A water goddess was/is, among other things, a fertility goddess, so it followed that I needed a matching female and male lead. In Britain, the belief in water deities stretches back beyond the mists of the Celtic period and forward to modern day where, in Derbyshire and Staffordshire in particular, wells, springs and watercourses are decked out annually with elaborate pictures of Christian teachings made from flower petals pressed into wet clay. So as to reflect this continuing belief system I decided on two sets of male-female characters separated by a generation, thus immediately delineating the age groups.

Simultaneously, I was researching possible settings, again with an eye to the historical and the modern, again for the characters each might produce. For readers to accept the possibility of a water deity’s existence, I felt I had to show it in an historical context, preferably at a point of crisis for its adherents. It became fairly obvious that a crisis point readers could readily grasp would be during the Romano-British period when not only were the native Celts having to adjust to overseas political domination but their belief system was being suppressed in favour of a pantheon of new deities. Who, in terms of characters, might support this, especially with inducements, and who might resist it, perhaps with all to lose? In determining this – a third male-female character set – it helped confine my setting to the north of England as well as flagging the importance of the triple in the Celtic belief system which I determined would need to be echoed in the novel.

A trip to my local university inadvertently coalesced the modern setting – one of those happy co-incidences – and a few days poring over Ordnance Survey maps highlighted not only possible historical settings but future modern settings for what will eventually become a trilogy, further emphasising the iconic Celtic three-fold.

The point is… have you lost interest yet? In your own writing, do you follow a planning route akin to this, or are you hit by a storyline, grab at the first available characters and write in the white heat of creativity? This is the reason the majority of typescripts that cross my desk have problems, problems that once the characters have been reconsidered and realigned nearly always requires a rewrite of the novel.

My weighing information against possibilities was not undertaken one wet weekend but was spread over some weeks. I not only knew, but understood, the novel’s landscapes, and had a broad-stroke view of my main character sets, which had expanded from two to six and, if you’ve been following closely, had shifted from female-male to male-female, thus re-aligning a possible narrative voice. It was time, I felt, to take them individually.

Next post: join me to see not what these characters look like, but how they became individuals in their own novel.