A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Developing Strong Characters Through Writing

I find the idea behind this week’s blog topic – developing strong characters through writing or drawing – a particularly brilliant one (and I’m not afraid to say it, since I’m not the one who came up with it :)).

At first glance you might wonder why. What is different about this idea? After all, there’s a lot of advice about characterisation out there for writers (both aspiring and established) to absorb, and the best of it usually centres on creating fully rounded and realised fictional entities who have complex motivations and an inner life. If you’re lucky, some of this discussion might even admit that characters are more convincing in general when they’re in a world which is diverse and offers a realistic range of skin colours, races, religions, gender-presentations, physicalities, mental landscapes, and sexualities.

So what is it about this topic that I like so much? The way it’s phrased. It uses two key words: ‘developing’ and ‘through’ instead of the more common ‘creating’ and ‘in’. By putting it that way, we’re admitting that most characters don’t just pop into an author or illustrator’s head fully formed, and that giving readers one of those complex and fully realised (and hopefully diverse) characters happens via a process, through the writing itself, not through some instinctive talent or in a blast of inspiration.

Yes, yes, I know it’s disappointing. I know you’ve heard that J.K. Rowling imagined Harry Potter, head to foot, heart and soul, on her famous train journey, and that Stephenie Meyer created both Bella and Edward in her subconcious mind in the course of a single dream. There’s this idea that the best characters almost invent themselves without any effort from the writer at all (and in some senses that can feel true – more on this in a minute). That it might even be cheating to try to tell characters who to be or how to react – that to be true to your fictional people you must leave them exactly the way they first impinged on your imagination.

But if you expect your characters to do all the hard work for you, the chances are that you will not end up with an international bestseller stuffed with quirky, complex characters that jump off the page so beautifully they become beloved of millions. No. The chances are that you will end up with cast of cardboard. Flat, unconvincing, one dimensional. Because characters don’t really create themselves in some magical, alchemical process. You, the writer, must develop them.

When I say ‘develop’ characters, by the way, I’m not talking about filling in a three-hundred-question fact sheet in which you list their favourite colour, most-remembered childhood trauma, and the names of their imaginary friends when they were six, as well as the exact number of their freckles, whether their cowlick is clock or anti-clockwise, and their blood-type. The problem with all that stuff is: it’s all the things you’ve either already decided/assumed about your characters, or the stuff you can make up on the spur of the moment to fit in with those decisions/assumptions.

And it’s really amazing how often the decisions and assumptions you first make about characters turn out to be nothing but cliches and stereotypes.

I often have the sensation that my characters are really alive somewhere out there on some slightly different plane of existence, and I’m just tapping into their internal monologues in order to write about their adventures. It’s a lovely feeling; this sense that I instinctively know everything about them and exactly how they would react in any given situation without even thinking about it. However, this feeling is deceptive. If it were true that I instinctively knew everything about my characters and just how they would react, then why do they always start changing as soon as I start writing about them? Why do they suddenly develop new traits, unexpected motivations, and awkward backstories which warp my plot out of all recognition the moment I start writing about them, as opposed to just thinking about them?

I’ll tell you why. Because that lovely instinctive sense of knowing these characters – perfectly and without question – comes from not really knowing them at all. It’s like passing a girl on the street and looking at her little pixie face and bright red hair and her Goth clothes and thinking that of course you know everything about her and who she is, just from that fleeting glimpse.

People do this all the time in real life. They make assumptions. They make guesses. They use their entire library of cliched stereotypes, which have been built up over a lifetime of reading and watching TV and movies and being advertised to, to decide what this girl’s character must be in thirty seconds or less. The little pixie face means she’s probably wilful and a bit childlike, maybe flakey too. The red hair means she’s got a fiery temper. The Goth outfit means she’s a rebel and probably obsessed with vampires. Done. Sorted. It’s all Common Sense and just The Way Things Are.

When you make assumptions about people based on cliches, you honestly have about as much chance of getting anything substantially right as I do of finding Napal if I approach a map with my eyes closed and a pin clutched in my hand. Even if my pin does somehow land on the right country, it was about pure chance –  not about actual knowledge.

Developing characters, then – getting to know them – is really like getting to know people in real life. It’s a process of letting go of all the assumptions that you made about them when their shadows first began to darken the doorstep of your mind. Yes, this girl may have announced her arrival in your imagination by kicking a door open and shouting ‘This is a stick-up!’ She may be wearing black leather and rather a lot of eyeliner, and have a purple Mohican haircut. This may seem to sum up everything that everyone could ever need or want to know about her.

But just like in real life, it tells you nothing about who she *is*. It doesn’t tell you about her soft heart that sees her visiting her grandpa to cook him nutritious meals for his freezer twice a week, and rescuing butterflies from cobwebs. It doesn’t tell you that she’s addicted to cheesy romance novels and is deeply defensive about it. It doesn’t tell you that she learned to play the piano when she was five, from her mum, and that she still sneaks into piano shops to furtively play broken fragments of Chopin and Beethoven whenever she feels sad. It doesn’t tell you that she’s in love with her gay best friend, and that sometimes she cries herself to sleep at night over the fact that she’ll never know what it feels like to kiss him and have him kiss her back.

Wonderful, vibrant, emotionally engaging characters do not happen by accident. Writers sometimes claim that they do, and construct wonderful narratives around them to make it seem convincing. But underneath they know – we all know – that while these characters may have arrived in a blaze of glory that set the writer’s brain on fire, long after that fire was put out the writer was shifting through the ashes and the half-burned debris trying to figure out who the heck this person really IS and what their story should be.

Don’t let your first guesses about who your fictional people are dictate the way you write them. Don’t let your choices about their stories be informed by cliche and stereotype and The Way Things Are. The Way Things are isn’t Common Sense. It’s prejudice and it’s BORING.

Your red-headed Goth girl with the pixie face might be a sweet-tempered, level-headed mathematician who expresses her creativity by chosing a different style of dress every day (and if you’d walked past her on a different day you’d have seen her in a tailored business suit, or a flowery dress). Your leather-wearing, purple-Mohican’d robber might be a secret romantic who’d cut her own arm off rather than really hurt someone. Your slender, pale, dark-haired girl who ‘doesn’t think she’s pretty’ could actually be a fascinating hot-bed of seething envy and repressed sexuality, who manipulates everyone around her in order to justify her rapacious sense of entitlement.

It’s your job as a writer to find out the truth.

We, the readers, can’t know anything about your characters unless you show it to us. And your characters can’t tell you anything about themselves unless you’re willing to let them show you who they really are inside. Open your mind. Open your heart. You might be surprised who your characters turn out to be once you start writing.

Good luck!

10 comments on “Developing Strong Characters Through Writing

  1. Liz de Jager (@LizUK)
    April 15, 2013

    Such a great blog! Thanks for the this, Zoe!

  2. dansmithsbooks
    April 15, 2013

    Great post. I always have to write a first draft before I get to know my characters – and even then, they often surprise me.

  3. zdmarriott
    April 16, 2013

    I normally manage to key into them properly somewhere in the middle of the first draft – and then, of course, the first half of the book is completely wrong. I hate beginnings.

  4. zdmarriott
    April 16, 2013

    Thanks, Liz 🙂

  5. Patchi
    April 16, 2013

    Love this post. Like many, met my characters in a dream, but it took me years of thinking and writing to get to *know* them.

  6. Isabel
    April 17, 2013

    Amazing advice, Zoe! Thanks for the post!

  7. dansmithsbooks
    April 17, 2013

    Oh, yes, there’s always that rejigging to do when you realise ‘No, my character wouldn’t do that . . .’

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