Posts Tagged Characters

Write an Epitaph for your Character

Pets' Graveyardat Brodsworth Hall

Pets’ Graveyard at Brodsworth Hall

On Sunday, Andrew Marr was asking Scottish politician Alex Salmond what he would like on his epitaph.

Epitaphs were discussed again on the Today program yesterday and it got me thinking.

An epitaph is a couple of sentences epitomising the dead person i.e. summing up how they lived their life.

It struck me that writing an epitaph might be a good way to get to the heart of a character’s psyche.

I’m sure we’ve all come across those character-creation questionnaires which demand that you fill in everything about your protagonists such as date of birth, hair colour, favourite food, best subject at school and secret fear. I’ve tried doing this but find that I get distracted by stuff that isn’t relevant such as my heroine’s shoe size and what she carries in her handbag.

I feel that what I should be doing is getting to the heart of what my character wants from life, what is stopping him or her from getting it and how they are going to overcome this hurdle by their own efforts. It should be possible to do this in two or three short sentences to fit on a gravestone and then, from these few words, it should be possible to work out what else I need to know about the character’s background.

So I’ve had a quick go at doing this for the hero in my current WIP:

‘A devoted father removed from his son by divorce. He endured unemployment and poverty in order to fulfill his paternal drive.’

Alright, it probably needs polishing and editing before the stone mason gets out his chisel but it helps to focus my mind on what this character wants. Knowing this desire will help to shape his actions through the story and keep him on target to get what he wants.

What about you? Does the twenty (or one hundred) questions method suit your way of working or do you do something completely different to create believable characters?

For those of you who do like the questionnaires as a starting point, there’s a whole array of them here.

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How Do You Create Your Characters?

How do you make the people in your fiction (longer fiction especially) well-rounded, believable individuals that the reader might care about?

In short stories it isn’t always necessary to know all the details about a character, for example it may be enough to know that the heroine is a grandmother and not her exact age or her previous profession (if any). But when attempting to write something longer, facts like these become important so that the writer can concoct a suitable back story for the lady, so it may be useful to know in what decade she was a teenager, at what age she left full-time education and whether or not she became a working mother. The life which the grandmother lived before the novel opens will have a bearing on how she acts and reacts within the story – so both the author and the reader need to know what went before.

Some writers advocate filling in a questionnaire about each character, covering physical appearance, hobbies, education etc (a sample questionnaire can be found on Stewart Ferris’ website here). This is a useful way of keeping track of facts such as eye colour and height (easy things to forget as you get deeper into the plot). 

However, I find it very hard to just jot down a sentence or two about the big things such as a character’s personality, attitude to life and motivation.  In order to get know a protagonist I have to start writing scenes from his or her point of view. It’s only as I write that I realise what I don’t know about a character and therefore what I need to put into their back story to make them act in a certain way in the present. This means I don’t do much planning before I write because I have to write in order to create the characters.

Some writers cut pictures from magazines and use these as prompts for their characters. But this only covers their physical appearance – so I’m not sure it would help me.

Nicola Morgan advocates interviewing your main character (her list of suggested questions is here and they are pretty searching!) Most of these I couldn’t have answered when I initially decided on the people I needed in my story but now I’ve written a bit from each point of view I’m going to pretend I’m a chat show host and start asking questions.

What about you – how do you develop your characters?

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Character or caricature?

Cover of "Filthy Rich"

Cover of Filthy Rich

Many thousands of words have been written on how to create believable characters that will attract the reader’s empathy. Well-honed characters make the reader turn the page and ultimately they linger in the mind long after the book has been finished.

But sometimes authors appear to break the ‘rules’. I’m reading Filthy Rich  by Wendy Holden and several of the characters within this novel are more caricatures than characters with whom that the reader can identify. There is:

  • Alexandra – the stereo-typical footballer’s girlfriend. She’s all shiny bling and would-be celebrity.
  • Beth – an American desperate to mingle with the English aristocracy
  • Morag – the local eco-warrior who insists on an earth closet at the allotments to provide free fertiliser

Initially, I felt these cartoon-like people gave the book a shallow feel and I was tempted to give up on it. However, there are some ‘real’ people in the book – the headmistress who’s falling in love with the widowed solicitor, Mary who’s struggling to save the local stately home plus 8-year-old Sam who’s being fostered. As I got drawn in to the story of the believable characters in their fictional Derbyshire village, I realised that the ‘caricature’ people served a purpose:

  • They add humour
  • They unite the other characters in their battle against them (or against the earth closet in particular!)
  • They provide plot lines as their over-the-top activities impact the village  

So maybe it’s not necessary to make every one of your characters totally authentic. If you want to lighten the mood, advance the plot or bring other characters together then it could be alright to go OTT once in a while.

Plus it could be fun to let your imagination run riot and create a really way-out caricature!