Who are you? Getting to grips with characters

I never quite got it when authors said their characters took over or had a life of their own. For years I struggled with my main protagonists. Armed with a list of character traits, physical descriptions, job titles, star signs and family tree I tried to write largely without realising I didn’t have their voice and didn’t understand who they were.

Getting to grips fully with a character before starting a novel is the best advice I can give any new author as it is vital to understanding what makes a character tick and you certainly won’t be short of material to write about. Who is this person right now, before the novel starts? 

It’s not about what they are. In The Taste of Ash, my main character, Zoë, is a 28 year old graphic designer. At the start of the novel she is living in a flat in Lee-on-Solent, has lots of friends and an active social life. She has a long-term boyfriend who wants them to move in together. But that doesn’t really show the reader who she really is or what she believes in.

Here are some questions that help to bring a character alive:barbie-doll-1749181_960_720

  • What do they want from life?
  • How do they feel about their current situation?
  • What motivates them, money, creativity, health?
  • What do they fear most in life?
  • What type of friends do they have?
  • Do they like their job?
  • How do they get on with their family?
  • What hobbies do they have?
  • Do they keep up with the fashions?
  • How are they with animals?
  • Is there something they always wanted to do?
  • How do they respond to different situations?
  • In what situation would they feel out of their depth?
  • Do they have any regrets?

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list but some of the kind of questions that help to identify who a person really is deep down. I now work more on the character than the plot, spending significant time writing about what makes them tick and creating a backstory even though most of it will be discarded. Why? Because without the character there is nothing to drive the plot.

In The Taste of Ash, Zoë was originally very different. I had loosely based her on a couple of people I know (which for me is a bad idea). As the book progressed I quickly found I really didn’t like Zoë. She was wet and submissive. She came across as needy and irritating and that wasn’t the character I wanted for my story, which is about strength and coping. So I redesigned my character and started again.

Zoë is now much more independent. In the first couple of chapters the reader learns that her mother died of cancer and she is estranged from her stepfather. Why do we need to know something like that? Because when she is taken to hospital after escaping from a fire she finds the hospital more freaky than being trapped in a burning building. She associates hospitals with death rather than healing and a whole load of memories come flooding back. Here’s another part of who she is, Zoë has never had anything to do with her biological father and when her mother was ill her father had an affair. The result is that Zoë is mistrustful of relationships with men and can’t take the next step to move in with her boyfriend.

One small fact that, allbeit something huge like the death of a parent in this instance, changes my characters whole outlook throughout my book. It explains to some degree why she is so health conscious and although in the book she never questions why she runs it is likely that she keeps fit and healthy because she subconsciously fears getting sick. Take away something that is important to a character and there are a whole heap of repercussions to explore.

Adding in all this background baggage helps to build understanding and empathy. It layers a character and influences their decisions during the action of a book and brings the pages alive.

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