I’m working on a new novel and, after a couple of breaks, I’ve decided to make it my priority. I love the freedom of writing a novel. Freedom might sound an odd way to describe such a mammoth writing endeavour, but I can still remember the buzz I felt when I’d got about 10,000 words into my first novel. Before that, the only thing I’d written that came close to that length was a dissertation during my final year at Art School. (It was about the way the clothes we wear reflect our lifestyles and values.)
Instead of just hinting at a character, the way I had with short stories, I loved that I now had the chance to really flesh out several characters – to develop backgrounds for them, work out what made them the way they were, really bring them to life and make them my friends. Even the ones I didn’t much like in the beginning I grew to care for. Maybe that’s mad, since they are imaginary people – but if I don’t care for them, how can I expect anyone else to?
Have you ever read a book where a major character died or had something terrible happen to them, and you didn’t even care? It’s happened to me a few times, and I think the reason for this is simple: the author hasn’t taken time to fully know the character or else doesn’t much like him or her. (Even if your main character is a murderer, you need to get your readers on his side, and you won’t do that unless you care for him yourself.)
Years ago I worked as a teacher and although my subject was art, part of my timetable was in a unit for kids with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. I discovered that although the kids we saw in the unit might be bolshie and disruptive in classes, in a one-to-one situation they were mostly polite and co-operative. Underneath the posturing and sullen behaviour were kids who lacked confidence, kids who thought they weren’t good enough, kids who were scared of getting hurt. Sometimes they had been abused, sometimes they had been coping with deaths in their families, sometimes they had parents addicted to booze or drugs. Always they had needs not being met, and feeling being buried.
With possibly one exception, I liked every one of them. That one exception was a child I couldn’t seem to connect with, but even with him I knew there was something lurking underneath the surface, something I couldn’t reach. There was one particularly interesting kid – right after I had him one-to-one in the unit we both went to the art department where I taught his class. In the unit he was quiet, respectful and co-operative. Over in the art room he put on his mask again and switched to disruptive mode.
Sometimes I’d sometimes hear other teachers complain about the kids we saw in the unit. These teachers didn’t know the kids the way those of us who worked there did; what they saw was the disruptive behaviour, the rebellion, the lack of respect. That was part of the kids, it wasn’t all of them.
We need to be special unit teachers with our characters. Perhaps in some genres of fiction it is possible to get away with characters with no redeeming features, but if we want our novels to move readers to care about our characters, I think it’s worth spending time one-to-one with them. This way, just like those kids I worked with, we find out about their backgrounds, we discover why they are the way they are, we find out what they are hiding and why they feel the need to wear a mask. We grow to like to them, to wonder how they will get on when they are no longer with us. Instead of just stereotypes, our characters – even the “baddies” – become real people.
How do you get to know your characters?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Go back in time to before your novel begins, right back to their childhoods, and see what they were like then. Write about their fears as a child, how family members treated them, what made them feel excited. (In Drawings in Sand I included quite a bit of the main character, Stella’s childhood in the form of flashbacks, but I also spent time finding out what other characters were like as children even though their stories don’t feature in the novel.)
- Imagine you are a special unit teacher! What happened to your villains to make them the way they are?
- Let them write to you – write in first person from their perspective, even if your book is in third person. There’s no need to include this in your novel, but it helps to bring them to life in your mind. (I did this with Stella’s daughter, Kirsty. Until I did this I just couldn’t get a strong sense of how she was.)
- Interview your characters. (I haven’t ever done this, but some writers find it useful.)
If you write fiction, how do you get to know your characters? Do you use these techniques or do you have others.
Photo: “Young Couple” by photostock via Freedigital photos