We want the reader to care what happens to the people in our stories. We want them to care whether they live or die. Our characters may be larger than life but, inside, they are people just like you or me – except that they have everything to lose.
Make the reader care whether they live or die.
What is a story without great characters? How to create memorable characters.
Try this exercise.
Go for a walk and study the first person coming towards you. How are they walking, looking, reacting to their surroundings? What is their expression? What are they wearing? Are they carrying anything? Do they have make-up on?
Study them in as much detail as you can then get out your notebook and describe them. Sketch them. Make a list of things you noticed about them and use that list to start the process of concocting a story. Think about the details – here’s an example:
The woman wore black nail varnish.
Is the choice of nail varnish a nod to something or someone in her past? How does the colour make her feel? Is it her lucky colour and does she need to be lucky today of all days? Where is she going and what is she going there for? What else about her backs up your observations and ideas?
Now if you are a character led person then here is where your story forms!
Even if you are a plot-led person, you will need to get the details right to create great characters and bring your plot to life.
It’s a visual thing. It is so much easier if you have an image to refer to. Start collecting pictures of people that interest you. Pull them out of magazines, download them, take them yourself - just start collecting.
Once you have a face in mind - collect names too and keep a file on them knowing which you’ve used before and in which story. When a name pops into your brain and you think perfect – check it wasn’t perfect last time too (apologies to all those who spotted I had two Mickeys in Dead of Winter and another one in Death Trip!).
Now for traits. Study people. We touched on it in previous blogs – be a detective, ask people about their lives, their work, their dreams, and disappointments, and note everything about them: the way they walk, habits, ticks, etc. even down to the type of coffee they drink. What animal would they be? What toy? What did they want to be when they were a child?
Write it down. Never stop observing and recording.
The way of creating believable characters is to pull out one or two of their most memorable traits to cement in the reader’s mind.
The Main CHARACTER, protagonist, should have a detailed backstory.
A protagonist’s flaws are the same as all of ours but exaggerated and they are not happy people! They are going to have a hell of a journey in your book: grief, dashed hopes, heartaches, and constant worry, not to mention near-death experiences!
They will meet conflict and obstacles all along the way and, in the end, they will have grown, changed, overcome at least some of the odds and maybe have stayed alive!
When coming up with ideas for your main character jot down all the
stereotypes you can and then cross them out and come up with
something new. Editors like something new and fresh – so forget the divorced
detective who drinks too much, unless you can put your unique spin on them.
If this is early days for you, don’t give yourself a hard time by writing a protagonist who is a complete opposite to you, at least have him/her share the same music tastes, film tastes, laugh at the same things, tell the same jokes. Johnny Mann was the most like me. I gave him a love of sci-fi and he drinks my favourite vodka plus he listens to the same music as me.
When it isn’t early days, and you’re a few books down the line, try the opposite - get into the head of someone nothing like you and have fun with it. Research is the key to everything but always apply the Iceberg theory. Just because you have chosen a dentist as your main character, and you’ve spent months researching, we don’t need to know every detail on how to fill a tooth.
Hope to do a series character? They know what they will be doing in ten years time. Plot their life journey through the next six books as well as stories to get them there.
Make the reader will feel invested in their life.
But don’t give it all away in one book and don't make the background and so specific you make life too difficult for yourself. Leave some doors open enough for wiggle room.
Don’t self-sabotage - if this is your first book do not attempt more than one protagonist. Stick to one main character until you are a few books in. I was glad to have started with Johnny Mann for four books before writing my Willis / Carter series. It is hard to juggle two sets of lives and write gripping storylines around both.
Give your Antagonist just as much of a backstory as you did your protagonist. Everyone wants layers to a baddy. We want to know what made them turn out like they are.
The other characters: the witnesses, the masters of their own subplots –
give each character in your book a point of potential conflict with your main character as well as with the other characters. Look for ways friends can become enemies or betrayers. Don’t have too many characters to confuse the reader and spread your time too thin.
Don’t have characters that do the same job as one another and are actually two parts of the same person. Ask yourself, what is that character’s role in my book and is it being done by someone else?
Good Luck see you on the next Blog!