So you are sitting somewhere and a character turns up. They sidle onto the tube. Or they sit down next to you in a bar. You think they’re going to read a book, or order a gin and tonic but they start chugging on a shisha, or texting in Latin, or sliding a flower over to you that you strongly suspect is stolen.
So, you are lying in bed and a character materialises making you get up and turn your laptop on. It’s begun. The years with this character. It’s awful. They’ll turn up any time they want. You better settle in and hope they don’t have any really, really irritating habits. You are going to know them like all the other people you see every day. Best get used to it.
In the kitchen in the morning you are trying to put a washing on, when you realise the thing that has been nagging at you about your character all night is the fact that they can’t see the colour blue without wanting to visit their best friends grave. So there your clothes sit, on the floor, the washing machine door open, while you go and write it down.
Some people have others to do their washing. Real writers do their own. I might get that on a sticker and slap it on the washing machine door.
Characters rarely arrive fully formed. It takes time to work out who they really are. It’s like getting to know a new friend or lover, or becoming a parent. All the experiences you share allow you to get to know someone and it is no different for characters in novels. By putting your character in different situations they reveal new things about themselves.
Be careful to not make your characters just an extension of yourself unless you are doing so deliberately. They need their own political beliefs, quirks, taste in music, likes, dislikes, memories, future goals.
Sometimes you need to let a character be more elusive. Perhaps they are only going to create a particular atmosphere when they enter a page. If your character stays resolutely beige or never develops, it’s okay to drop them off a cliff, with a parachute, saying — belongs elsewhere, do not return to owner.
Your character might change sex, name, hair colour, they might have an affair with a piccolo player in Honolulu, they could have a child growing up in Tipperary. If you act like you know everything about them, they’ll never bring you anything new. When you let them bring you new things, they’ll be much more interesting.
There are lots of tricks people use to develop character. They might write a questionnaire asking their character what their earliest memory is, or what they are afraid of, or why they have a scar on their knee, or who was the first person they kissed. These details may never end up in the story but they will help the writer a lot.
Characters need flaws. They must be in a process of becoming or even a process of never becoming. If your character starts out whole and complete then where is the space for them to grow or change? What’s the point in hanging out with them? People change and so do characters, each day that you write them. Eventually you can begin to imagine what they would think of things in your real life. That can be a little freaky. I had a character who was prominent in early drafts of a novel but by the end he was peripheral. I sat on the tube after deciding to cut most of his chapters and I could see him getting on the tube, sitting down, shaking his head sadly at me.
I mean I couldn’t actually see him!
I could see him the way I do in the books and it gets real enough for them to feel pretty true, especially when you are hanging out with them for five years in an attic.
It’s important to not always just write likeable characters, or even familiar ones. Writing furious, anti-social, frustrated, awkward, real characters is exhilarating. Writing someone who is polite all the time and just wants to be liked isn’t so interesting.
It is the space where imagination and character meet that creates memorable identities. Allow your characters to surprise you. You might have wanted to write one that only ate spaghetti and slept in a round bed but if it turns out they live in a hut on stilts in the forest where bison run underneath then go with it. You might find out they play the mouth organ and they once saved a horse from drowning. They might make you cry. Or, for the rest of your life you will have an image of them holding out their hand, helping someone off the train tracks. Let them be real. Let them be true. Stop trying to make them say things you want to say. Go out and say the things you want to say and let them say things you never knew they were going to say. If you are surprised, the reader will be too.
Some people use their characters as puppets, you can see the author pulling the strings all the way through, it’s hard to make a story feel natural when you can see the strings being pulled to create an effect or serve a purpose, that’s not my favourite kind of writing.
Writing a new character is like going on a first date. You might think this person is really chilled out then you get in a car and they’re a road rage maniac, who knew until you clicked in your seatbelt and sped off through the city at night!