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C.C. Hogan

Great Characters are born not written

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The best character is the one you didn't expect

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There is nothing guaranteed to get me putting a book back on the shelf faster than "Sue was short, blonde and had a great little figure with pert kneecaps."

This is not to say that I am against short blondes with great little figures as my earliest childhood crush was on a friend who fitted that description perfectly, but for me, that sort of first impression of someone is for the casual glance when you pass someone in the street in real life, and  is just boring in storyland.  

I am rather more inclined to look for which part of a person is going to affect a story and, more to the point, what the other characters think about them. That requires a different approach to not just describing the character but how the character is developed in the first place.

I am not sure if there is such a thing as "Method Writing," but nicking a little from the world of Stanislavski and his idea that it is most important for an actor to connect to the role, is probably not such a bad starting point.  Some actors like to start with a walk, others an affliction or affectation, some with a wardrobe, but the best of actors rarely worry about whether the character is blonde or not; that is the thin, painted coat of appearance, it is not the creature that breathes air and has to live.

I am currently writing a huge, millennia-straddling saga that has, for obvious reasons, rather a lot of characters.  Most of them are incidental, but throughout the course of ten (or more?) books, I am going to have a lot of -important characters and even quite a few starring roles.  Making sure all these characters are unique where they need to be is an interesting challenge, to say the least. 

When I first started writing the saga, I only had one character even mildly developed.  He is a young man of nineteen, strong, poor and struggling, but he has a good sense of humour and is surviving. When we first meet him he is digging a hole and from his effort and strain and manner, we would think he is an old man, simply because that is how he feels at that moment.   That was quite intentional; for a start, I wanted to have a little tease and secondly, it was important for me that the reader appreciated that life for this young man was hard, without me saying, "He was tall, strong, young, but life was hard."

For good or ill, I didn't describe him, at least not all in one go.  Early on in the book, we discover he is unusually tall.  Much later on, we discover he is or was clean shaven because he decides to grow a beard.  At another point, we discover that he is very good looking because a girl gets a crush on him and makes jokes about it.  Chapter fifteen? Somewhere around there.

However, back in chapter one, we discover, more importantly, that he has a short temper, that at nineteen he still fluctuates between maturity and boyishness, and that he gets out of his depth easily, but he is not afraid to ask questions of people who are older and perhaps wiser than he.  These descriptions are important to the story. His height has its uses at the odd point, but aside from jokes about him being good looking, the fact that he is has no bearing on the story what-so-ever.  That is why his temper is in chapter one and his good looks have to wait for seventy thousand words or so.

I am pleased with this character and by the last book of the first series of three, we know him, understand him and love him. 

But there is a problem; this was wonderfully organic and great for one character, but when I am juggling so many, I had to think of a more regimented way of finding my characters without tying myself into restrictive knots.

Characters should be Found and not Invented

See Also:  What's in a Name?

I like names, probably because I like words. Names have associations for people that are wonderfully unfair. In London when I was young, Tracy was a name that instantly conjured up a not very bright girl who elongated the SEE part of her name in an Essex accent (TOWIE, for you Luddites out there). All "Kevins" drove Ford Cortinas and had their name and the name of their "bird" stuck to the windscreen.  Dawn was miserable and Charles was posh and out of touch.  It was totally unfair and unrealistic, but that is how people think.

Dickens to me was the greatest user of names. His characters are defined by, live by and die by their names. He wants us to judge people by their names and if a real one is not good enough, then Dickens would invent one.  A comic genius.

So, I start with a name, which is often how we first get to know people. 

Hello, who are you?
Hello, I am Jane/Wilma/Lady Rosemary/Silvi

I put the same amount of thought into the name of a landlord who says two lines as to the hero that has half the book.  My current work is fantasy and that allows me a lot of latitude that I might not have in a real setting, and that is fun.

But once I have a name, I then need to find out more about my character.

I am a great believer that our creative mind is always one step ahead of our vocal mind; what comes out of our mouths.  In getting to the bones of a character you need to let that out. Now, I am not talking about running off and playing with laudanum or other mind altering substances, but just giving the creative mind its head.  

The way I approach this is to ignore my story, for the greater part, and just try to talk about the character.  How you do this is up to you. I use OneNote and just write, but others might want to use a dictaphone or blackboard or whatever, it doesn't really matter, but whatever you use it should be easy and not restrict you by being complicated to use.

Do not use a template

I have seen templates that have the following guide for developing a character:

  • Name
  • Height
  • Eyecolor
  • Age
  • Favourite music
  • Favourite thing
  • Parents' names
  • Pet?

I assume whoever wrote these are social media addicts.  As soon as you use such a construction you are welding your character to an idea of a person which is not real. Have you ever met someone in real life having read their profile online? I have, though I was interviewing them for a job, to be honest, not dating them. The profile was accurate and I recognised the blue-eyed, REM loving chap that walked into the office.  But once I started talking to him, the rest of his profile was meaningless.

So, don't do it.

Instead just start writing nonsense, rubbish, anything. But be honest.

One of my notes starts:  

Oh, she is really annoying. I bet she won't speak to me until she had coffee poured down her neck.

This was a nuisance as I hadn't wanted an annoying character, but it was the first thing that came into my head, so I ran with it.

She really pisses her father off who doesn't understand her.  She is right though, he is a complete waster and does not think women should take the lead.  Pity, he has missed out.  When she is not annoying she really thinks things through.  Don't always see it though and she comes across as an irresponsible risk taker, but she plans more than she admits.  Not sure if this is because she likes to be seen as reckless or because she doesn't care. It's quite sweet really ...

And so on and on and on.  I can write pages like this really, really quickly.

I have even stopped worrying about whether I contradict myself. That happens in real life; we misunderstand people.  Friends who we have known for years and years suddenly reveal something that we never saw. It can be dramatic like a girlfriend who admitted that she was probably gay and always had been, or another friend who seemed not to care about a soul in the world, and yet she kept a secret diary where she heartached about everyone. 

So, if we do it in real life, why not in our character development? I have even used that in the book in a couple of places. My characters and even my narrator get people wrong and have to reassess them chapters later. If I had mapped out my characters to a template that would not have happened, because my narrator, me, would have known all about them.

Oh yes, I forgot, I don't write up my characters all at once. When I get to the point where I have enough for that part of the story, I go back to writing the story properly. I force myself down a route and will learn more about characters as they have to cope with the story.  It becomes more organic, but because I allow myself the luxury of being wrong about someone, I can surprise myself, the character and, I hope, the reader.

Laughter and Tears

Everybody hurts, says REM.  Stipe is right too. I have spoken about the need to remember that even psychos might giggle about something stupid before and this is all part of the same process.

Do not use a template ... again!

The worst thing you can possibly do is to make a list of things and decide whether your character will find them funny or not or sad or not.

What people find funny or sad is completely unpredictable and far from consistent. For me, I simply do not worry about it but I will let ALL my characters laugh and I will let ALL my characters cry. They might not show it, they might only feel it, but it will happen. It always does. Villains cry when their mothers die, or whoever.

If you don't plan it then it will be more natural.  More than once I have written something very painful, but it was only on the read-through that I realised how much agony must be being suffered by a character at that moment.  Suddenly I realised I had to add "tears ran down his face," or something, because that is what would have happened. 

If I had a rigid development process that said, "this character never shows tears,"  then I would have missed a powerful and important part of that character's story.

Living the Character

This is the method bit.

Writing ad nauseum about a character is great fun, but when you write about them in the actual story, you must inhabit them. If they react to something and we need to know why they reacted in such a way, then you must be them for that moment.

This is hard for a lot of people and it is even hard for a lot of actors who rely on this for their income. 

For me, the only way I can do this is by vocalising, reading out loud.  I act them out, even stand up and play out the scene sometimes. I will walk outside or do something.  I have to get away from the cold writing process for just long enough that I become that character. 

By the way, the very fact that what my characters look like is very low down on the list helps here.  It is easy to play the part of a character who is blonde when you are brunette don't know or care they are blonde.

Sometimes I will intentionally overwrite. I will go into a great long history about why they found this moment so hard to deal with or so funny.  After, I will edit most of it out, of course, though I will probably paste the discarded sections into my notes - important info now!

For me personally, heartache is easier than joy.  When writing I lean towards the comical naturally, but being comical is different from describing why a character might find something funny. The big no-no for me is to rely on "he found this funny because he always found this funny."  That is not believable.  I would find a person who always laughed at the same thing in the same way very boring, so why would I put them in my book? A lot of the time I become the coward and don't explain it at all, but to balance it, I sometimes do not explain the heartache either.

Sometimes it is far better to let the reader decide for themselves; they are a bright lot, normally.


Back to the notepad or blackboard or whatever.  Just keep writing and really don't worry about whether your character makes sense. People do not make sense most of the time, why should characters?

But, and this is a big but, you must keep and use these notes. The one big difference between writing and real life is that real people are responsible for themselves. When you stop writing, the characters stop living for that moment.  They will not remember who they are when you bring them back, that is your job.

I am not convinced my approach is the best way and it seems to fly in the face of a lot of writing advice out there,  but then I am not some hugely successful writer yet. 

I do get a lot of enjoyment from writing, though, and much of that is because I refuse to develop my characters in a strict, limiting fashion. I am quite willing for them to take over sometimes.  I will even talk to them and complain on twitter that my character is grumpy this morning.

Why not? I have a character I am dealing with at the moment who I really am very fond of. Deciding she had a rough night and has woken up in a mood allows me to question her and nag at her and force her to sort her life out.

Who cares that it is really me that is behind her mood or has to do the sorting?

All the reader wants, is to enjoy the result, love the characters as I do and appreciate why I love them so much.


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