Friday, 7 October 2011

Creating believable characters

The Writing Bit
Have you ever been handed a sheet of paper with a list of questions, like: what is the colour of your character's eyes /hair; where was s/he born; what did his/her parents do for a living; what sort of clothes does s/he wear? Who is his/ her best friend?  And so on.

I know some people find these ‘Character Generators’ genuinely helpful in creating characters, but I personally have a major problem with them, and I think they can sometimes set you off on the wrong track.

I believe that characters in fiction should develop organically; that fictional characters, like real people, are formed partly by where they come from and what their parents did, but also by the things that happen to them and the people they come into contact with. I tend to think about new characters almost as new babies; now if you're a parent, you'll know that a newborn baby, despite being the most precious, wonderful thing that ever happened to you, doesn't appear to have much of a character when it’s first born. But gradually, over the weeks and months, as your child comes into contact with various people, goes to new places and has new experiences, he or she begins to develop a very definite and unique personality and character. If you decide before you start writing how your characters dress, who their friends are, what they eat and so forth, it’s like trying to impose a ready-made character on your newborn baby. Parents help to gently shape their child's character over many years; they don’t dictate it at the moment (or even before!) of birth. 

So before you start writing, by all means decide that you want to write about a forty-something doctor living in a caravan in Aberdeen, or a twenty-something mother at Greenham Common in the eighties. But let the characters themselves tell you the finer details by putting them in situations and seeing how they react. If you send your character on a date or for a job interview, let us see her choosing what outfit she'll wear; if a character has just had some news he needs to share with a friend, let us see who he calls and what he says.

Character should be slowly revealed;  don't tell us she’s shy and lacks confidence; show  her trying to think up excuses to avoid a party, or rejecting a red dress  in favour of something less noticeable. Try to show, through thoughts, action and dialogue, not only how your character acts, but how s/he reacts. Obviously, you need to orchestrate your characters to a certain extent - you don't want to give them a completely free hand, in the same way you don't let your kids do exactly as they please. But if you put your characters in a situation and let them react, hopefully they'll surprise you now and again and do things you didn't expect – and that is the real joy of fiction!

The Reading Bit
I was immediately engaged by Isabel Ashdown's Glasshopper. The narrative alternates between  thirteen-year-old Jake and his alcoholic mother, Mary.  When we first meet Mary, she's recently separated from Jake's father and she's in a bad way. In the absence of a competent parent (Mary spends much of her time in bed, drunk) Jake does his best to hold things together, clearing up his mum's sick, doing the household chores and looking after his younger brother, Andy.  Jake is a thoroughly likeable character but he's not whiter-than-white, so he's convincing. True, he steals from the kindly newsagent a couple of times , and sometimes he thumps his brother unnecessarily. But we forgive him, because he's hard-working and intelligent and kind and vulnerable. 

The book opens in 1985 and goes back in time to Mary's childhood. As we follow her life through her teens, twenties and thirties, we see the choices she's made and the consequences of those choices, and we begin to understand what has led her to the depths she's reached when we first meet her.  Both Jake's and Mary's voices are strong and convincing, and as the family's history unfolds and the narratives move closer together, there are moments of both joy and heartbreak as a number of secrets are revealed.  I enjoyed the period detail, and I loved the minor characters. I felt Jake's voice was slightly stronger than Mary's, but maybe that actually emphasises the fact that Mary is in some ways a slightly diminished  character. I found her story convincing and tragic, and I felt hugely sympathetic to her; if anything, I wanted more of Mary. I found this an immensely engaging and satisfying read.

The Food Bit
Butternut squash and walnut risotto
Even though they can be a faff to make, I absolutely love a good risotto, so when my husband became vegan, I set about trying to find a decent vegan alternative. Now, I have to be honest, real butter and parmesan definitely give this a more gorgeous flavour and texture than the vegan alternative, but this version is really most acceptable, and still counts as comfort food (especially when served with a large glass of red!)

Take one small or half a large butternut squash, peel and dice into cubes a bit bigger than 1cm. Season, coat with olive oil then roast in the oven until soft and slightly caremelised. While the squash is cooking, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a pan, then add a finely chopped shallot (or half an onion). Fry for a couple of minutes. Make about 600ml of vegetable stock in a small saucepan and keep it on a low heat. Add 150g Arborio rice and a crushed clove of garlic to the onions. Stir so the rice is coated in oil. Pour in a slug of white wine (if you’re vegan, check that the wine is suitable) and when that has evaporated, add a ladleful of hot stock. Stir. When this has been absorbed, add another ladleful. Repeat until most of the stock has been absorbed and the rice is cooked, but still ‘al dente’. Stir the risotto every couple of minutes. When the risotto is cooked, add a heaped teaspoon of vegan sunflower spread, a good shake of vegan ‘parmesan’ – it’s called Parmezano and you find it in the ‘free from’ section of the supermarket. Taste to get the amount right. For non-vegans, add butter and grated parmesan at this stage instead. Add the roasted squash , a handful of chopped walnuts and a good grind of coarse black pepper. Serve in the centre of the plate, topped with rocket and drizzled with olive oil.


  1. Susan, I agree with you 100%. When I was a few chapters into my novel (now very nearly finished) I tried doing a 'What's their favourite breakfast cereal, etc?' type list for the two main characters and it didn't inspire me at all so I left it on my PC and forgot about it. The characters came to life over time as I wrote the book, and in the re-write I was able to flesh them out because I 'knew' them so well by that point - which I think is what you call letting them develop organically. Now, of course, I could write those lists easily...but I've got better things to do !

  2. Susan Elliot Wright10 October 2011 at 10:49

    Yes, that's it, isn't it? You need to know them quite well before you can put in those telling little details, and the only way to get to know them is to actually write them.