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.

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