It’s a catch-22, but what we can be sure of is that a great story can’t exist without a well-constructed protagonist. They are our eyes and ears in an imagined world, driving the plot and whisking you to places you didn’t know existed.
Tutor Dr. Barbara Henderson explores how best to bring your characters to life.
Let’s get into the purpose of this webinar: to talk about how to create memorable characters. This, of all the writing skills you need to pick up, is the most important.
F Scott Fitzgerald is credited with saying ‘Character is plot, plot is character.’
What he means is this: you might have a fantastic idea for a story, full of exciting and dramatic events.
But if your characters are ones that a reader doesn’t care about, then they won’t stay with the story either. That’s not to say that your characters have to be loveable or even likeable: only that the reader has to engage with them in some way and truly care what happens to them and whether they will survive all the drama that you are plotting.
That’s why we start our Beginners’ Course with an in-depth look at the central character that you want to write about, getting you to answer some searching questions to show how well you know them – and their potential for development as the story progresses. When you start, you may not know the answer to all of those questions, but that’s OK. You will get to know them. You may not use much of the information and back story that you develop for your character – but that’s OK too. This deep examination of your character will pay off, when it comes to creating someone who’s rounded, fully developed and who matters to a reader.
To give you a clue – if you have a character in mind to write about, start asking yourself what you know about them. About their family tree. About their childhood and their earliest memories. About the things that scare them and the things that bring them joy. Sometimes, these questions reveal some holes in their story and that’s when you, the writer, have to make changes and ensure that everything about your character is credible.
When I say credible – it doesn’t matter if you are writing a realistic or a fantasy story. Your character may have a magical superpower or they may live in a dystopian society a hundred years from now; they may be real people who lived hundreds of years ago, like Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell – they may even be animals, with anthropomorphic or human traits, like the rabbits in Watership Down – but as characters, they still will have wants and desires and goals and fears, and these are the things that will make them connect with a reader.
So it’s fine to have a great idea for a plot – but before you put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, the most important thing is to decide who that story is about. And yes, that does mean knowing what they were like before Page 1 when the story (or the events) start to happen. In any plot, the character’s internal struggle drives the action, which then further provokes the struggle – back and forth – from beginning to end, until you reach a conclusion.
It is the characters that will make your story matter and make it memorable.
If you can, get your hands on the RSC’s script version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, because at the beginning, the author writes a short pen portrait of each character for the benefit of the actors who will play them. For example, of Henry VIII, she explains:
“You are a charmer and have been charming people since you were a baby…Even as a child you behaved more like a king that your elder brother did. Arthur was dutiful and reserved, whereas you were left with the women, a bonny, boisterous child, able to command attention. You were only ten when your brother married the Spanish princess Katherine, but when you danced at the wedding, all eyes were on you… You are religious, superstitious, vulnerable to panic.”
And of Anne Boleyn:
“Charm only thinly disguises your will to win. You are the most sophisticated woman at Henry’s court, with polished manners and just the suggestion of a French accent. Unlike your sister Mary, you have kept your name clean. …But you are (especially as the story progresses) inclined to frayed nerves and shaking hands.”
These little pen portraits are quite a good model for you to follow when thinking about your own characters, not to include in the finished manuscript, as it would summarise too much, but to keep in your mind as you write their actions and their thoughts as the story progresses.
You may also decide to describe your characters, physically, not just to help the reader get a picture in their heads, but because sometimes, a clever physical description can give away something about a character’s personality. Let me give you some of my favourite examples from fiction:
” His hair was wiry and gingerish and brushed backward from the temples. His skin seemed to be pulled backward from the nose. There was something very slightly odd about him, but it was difficult to say what it was. Perhaps it was that his eyes didn’t seem to blink often enough and when you talked to him for any length of time your eyes began involuntarily to water on his behalf. Perhaps it was that he smiled slightly too broadly and gave people the unnerving impression that he was about to go for their neck.”
This is from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:
“Up close she looks about ten. She …stands tilted up on her toes with arms slightly extended to her sides, as if ready to take wing at the slightest sound. It’s impossible not to think of a bird.”
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin:
“Fifteen years past, when they had ridden forth to win a throne, the Lord of Storm’s End had been clean-shaven, clear-eyed, and muscled like a maiden’s fantasy. Six and a half feet tall, he towered over lesser men, and when he donned the armor and the great antlered helmet of his house, he became a veritable giant. He’d had a giant’s strength too, his weapon of choice a spiked iron warhammer that Ned could scarcely lift. In those days, the smell of leather and blood had clung to him like perfume.
So you might like to think about your character’s physical appearance and how it might reflect their personality. Here are some aspects to consider.
Gender – Age – Height – Weight – Ethnicity – Hair colour – Hair Length – Facial Hair Style – Eye Colour – Tattoos – Piercings – Makeup – Accessories – Posture – Scars
When you are describing people, try to be interesting and original. Something to avoid is the use of vague, abstract descriptive words, such as tall or beautiful or handsome or ugly – these tell the reader very little. Instead, find little details about your character’s appearance, such as the way they wear their hair, or the way they smell or the locket they always wear or the shape of their teeth, and use these to show, rather than tell, that these people are beautiful or handsome or ugly.
Let’s go back to that very profound F Scott Fitzgerald quote: Character is plot, plot is character’.
What’s going to happen to your character? The important things to remember are that the plot comes about, usually, because of who your character is and what they are like.
It may be, at the beginning of the novel or short story, something unexpected or unusual happens to them (they get a letter telling them they’re actually a young wizard; they witness a crime and fear for their own safety; they fall in love with the wrong person). But whatever happens after that, happens because they are the way they are – because of how they respond to the events that happen to them, because of the choices only they would make. If Mr Darcy wasn’t a snob and Lizzie Bennett a little bit stroppy, the plot of Pride and Prejudice would fall to pieces, because that’s where the conflict lies. If Harry Potter wasn’t bereaved, bent on revenge and also very brave, the series would have ended at Book 1.
You may have read From Pitch to Publication by the late Carole Blake, a very respected agent, which is something of a bible for new writers looking to have their work accepted. She says that any synopsis should answer the following key questions:
• Whose story is it?
• What do they want and what stops them getting it?
• How do they get it?
It’s all about the conflict – and that has to come because of who the character is and how they beat their demons, whether those demons are real, like Voldemort in Harry Potter, or whether they’re internal, such as a battle against depression.
So a key tip as you write is to ask that question about the main character: what do they want? Love? Success? To solve a crime? And what is stopping them from getting it? If you are clear about your answers, then you are clear about your plot.
As I said, at the beginning of every story is what’s sometimes called the Inciting Incident – the thing that happens to set a character off on their journey. But whatever happens at the end has to happen because of the character’s motivations and actions – they have to make it happen.
It’s cheating to create an ending that has nothing to do with character – they win the Lottery and all their problems are solved, or even worse, it was all a dream anyway. So as you write, make sure your characters act in a way that’s consistent with how they are. But they should also change and grow a little. By the end of the novel, your main character will have done things that they never imagined; they will know themselves better – and they will never be quite the same again.
Plot is character – character is plot.
I’m going to move on now to questions of voice.
In the Beginners course and the more advanced Constructing a Novel course, we look at the two aspects of this: dialogue, or how your characters sound and narrative voice, which is all about how the writer’s voice impacts on the telling of the story.
Sometimes, these are the same thing – look at Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, or Emma Donoghue’s Room, where strong, memorable first person narrators carry the story from beginning to end. These sorts of narratives are sometimes called “noisy” – it doesn’t mean they’re shouting but it does mean that a reader ‘hears’ their voice, very clearly, as they read the story, and that it tends to stay with a reader long after they have finished the book.
Have a think about the writers whose style you love, or the character voices that have stayed with you. What is it about them that made them unique and memorable? Try to keep these strengths in mind – not to copy other writers, but to learn from them.
What Mark Haddon and Emma Donoghue did is quite an advanced trick to pull off, of course. You may prefer to write in the third person point of view – in other words, he or she instead of I – and so your characters’ voices will be heard via dialogue. That means it’s crucial to find them a distinctive voice.
The next time you’re in a public place, listen to how people chat to each other. How do two very similar people – say, two teenage girls – talk to each other and how would you tell one speaker from the other, just by listening? What are the subtle differences in their speech patterns? Do they use slang, or dialect words?
As a writer, you have to walk the tightrope between making your dialogue sound authentic, but also tidying up the way your characters speak. We often don’t finish our sentences, or we repeat ourselves, or fill our speech with umms and errs and meaningless words like ‘well’ or ‘so’. I used to work for BBC radio and we would edit these words out of a recorded interview, whenever we could, because they are time wasters. In fiction, a reader doesn’t need to see anything in your character’s speech that doesn’t serve a purpose – to show character or drive on the plot.
A great tip is always to read your dialogue out loud. And be honest – does it sound like something someone would say, or is it too formal and writer-ly? Can you say your own dialogue, without tripping over your tongue or running out of breath?
Here’s another good exercise to try out. Think of someone you know, either personally or someone perhaps on TV, who has some distinctive ways of speaking. Maybe it’s a grandparent who has some colourful expressions or uses dialect words, for example. Write a short passage in which they are ‘speaking’ to you. See how it is possible to make speech distinctive, rhythmical and interesting.
And finally on dialogue: it may sound a little dull, but it’s vital to learn how to format it on the page. There are so many conventions on formatting dialogue that if you ignore them, you can really confuse a reader about meaning and even about who is speaking. So when you’re reading printed books – rather than e-books, as the formatting sometimes goes awry – try to notice how the speech is set out – and you can find formatting guidelines online, too.
All of these tips, of course, don’t just apply to your main character. I bet all of us have read a book where the antagonist –or the baddie – is two-dimensional and hard to believe – a pantomime villain. Or where the ‘best friend/confidante’ character feels like they’ve been written to a formula. But these days, readers are very sophisticated. We no longer think that heroes are perfect or baddies are rotten through and through. So we have to know them all well in all their faults and merits – and by doing so, create believable people who readers remember long after they’ve read the book.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with your characters. Some of my favourite books have unreliable narrators, for example – we start by believing them as they tell a story but gradually come to realise they are not all they seem.
For great examples of this, try Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, or E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars – one of the most famous is probably Nabokov’s Lolita.
Or have a principal character who’s really hard to like, such as both the main characters in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. We may not like them but we certainly remember them.
Try writing something from the point of view of someone who’s not telling the truth. How does it feel? Does it give you some insights into their psyche and why they might be lying?
It’s hard to say as much as I would like about creating character in a short presentation. There is so much to think about. But I very much hope that I’ve given you some inspiration and some ideas to try.