Warning: This piece involves a lot of waffling.
- Great Characters are Born not Written
- Don't forget to let your characters be silly
- Dealing with ancient characters
I like a cuddle. That does not mean I want to run round cuddling people all the time, far from it, but I appreciate a good cuddle when it comes my way. Touch is one of the most vital of our hundreds of senses, as it is with most of the animal kingdom, and it is how we take the step between appreciating another person and truly understanding them. Sadly, it is one of the problems with making friends on the internet; without that ability to touch, we are missing one big lump of clues about the person we are talking to.
Think of a scene that most people experience in one way or another. You get to know someone through work or play and then the two of you decide to have a coffee together or something; this is not romance, though it could be. You share an interest and you talk and laugh about it. At some point contact is made. If it is two blokes, one pats the other on the shoulder. If it is a girl and a bloke or two girls, one may put their hand briefly on the other's arm as they make some trivial observation. However it happens, that moment of touch is a game changer and where that friendship heads, for that is what it now is, is anyones guess; any plot is possible.
When we are told to write what we know about, the first place to start is with relationships. We all have relationships of one sort of another. We might treat people differently, we may be gregarious or reserved, but at some level, relationships are involved. So, this is a good place to start and is where I suspect nearly all writers start. They probably also start with not the relationships between one character and another, but between themselves as the writer and the character. If you are to give a character the benefit of the story, then you need to really know them; you need to be able to hear their voice, understand their fashion sense, get a grip on their idiosyncrasies and, most importantly, you need to be able to touch and feel them. Hero or villain, if that character is going to live and breathe for the author, then they and the author are going to need that touch in a cafe moment.
Well, that is fine; we all have good imaginations or we would not be trying to write in the first place. So, we close our eyes, give our character a name, an eye colour, a nice fetching wart on the nose and we share a joke with them and a moment of contact. And a chasm opens up under our feet and we all fall to our writing deaths.
Getting to know your character is one thing, allowing your reader to get to know your character is another thing entirely.
The problem is that bloody annoying touch thing again. The easiest way to convey something is to make a comparison. The band sounded like Mick Jagger being strangled. The smell was like the finest roast beef. The colour was as bright as a stop sign. Her touch was like another person who had skin. Oh.
Assuming that all our characters are human here, generally speaking one person's hand is pretty similar to another's. They have skin wrapped around bone and hopefully understand the difference between a subtle stroke and a punch. There are some clues as to who is touching you should you have your eyes closed; your girlfriend possibly has softer skin than your boyfriend, though not guaranteed and where they touch you might give you a clue as to how intimate you are with the other; again, not guaranteed.
So, back to writing what we know about, or more to the point, what the reader knows about. Human beings share much more than they sometimes wish to admit to. We have the same needs, the same characteristics, the same abilities and the same starting point. When you look at two people naked, their ages might be different and their figures might be different, but the fundamentals are all the same; even your common and garden psychopathic axe murderer will complain if his central heating breaks down midwinter and he is cold.
Since we are all pretty much the same, then we share common ideas about people and what it is liked to be touched by them; we know that touch in a cafe moment. So, we can use it.
All my characters are based on people I have known or a combination of people and I make no attempt at doing otherwise. Even my baddies are based on friends; just because my character is going to do something wicked, does not mean I have to find a wicked person to base them on. You see, I reckon that my friendships with people over the years have been pretty much the same as everyone else's friendships over the years and the variation between us all is a lot smaller than we like to believe. We might all wish to think of ourselves or someone we admire or hate as really unique, as "totally different man," but in reality it is a lot of bollocks. The things that seem to make us completely different are really very small things indeed and we all have far more in common than we have differences.
And thank the gods for that! Because otherwise fiction would be in right trouble and the world would be full of people reading books with puzzled expressions as they completely failed to understand even the most basic relationships between the characters.
So, use what you know. Touch your characters and find ways of getting your readers to touch them too. Use common ideas that we all recognise, common experiences that we all share and common people that we all know. Don't try and explain everything or detail every hair on the arm that was excited or repelled by the touch of another, but rely on the commonality between you and your reader and both of you and your characters. You don't need to worry about whether your reader is imaginative or not, or very streetwise or not, you only have to worry about whether they are human or not; in other words, another version of you.
The reason why writing about what, or rather who you know about is such good advice is because that means you are also writing about who your reader knows about.
How comforting. Now, who wants a cuddle?