A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Because, if you were to ask me (not that you are, but I’m pretending you are), strong characters are not just characters. Not to me. A strong character is a memorable one. A complicated one. A real one.
I don’t mean they’re real in a literal sense. I mean they feel real to you or to me or to anyone else who reads the book they live in. My favourite characters are ones I feel like I know personally. The ones I don’t just wish existed in real life – I actually believe they do exist in real life. (I’m not crazy, I promise.) They feel so utterly real to me that it’s almost impossible to think that they aren’t.
How, then, do you develop characters like these? How do I develop them?
(Disclaimer: I feel somewhat presumptuous answering that question, because it’s kind of like I’m all “hey! I write strong characters!” and that’s not really how I feel. I don’t know how readers feel about my characters. All I know is how I feel about them and they are incredibly real to me. So the question I’m really answering is “how do I develop characters that feel so utterly real to me that sometimes I can’t actually bring myself to kill one of them off even in spite of knowing that this was the plan all along?”)
For me, this kind of happens after the story and its characters are already battling away in my head. I know them already. I know who they are and I love them. Or I don’t love them, in which case I know they’re not strong enough yet. Most of time I’ve also written more than half the book by the time I stop and sit back and think about whether these characters live and breathe on paper the way they do in my head. This is the point at which I pretend I’m a stranger to the book and ask a few questions.
1. Do I know what X Character wants?
2. Do I understand what he or she wants?
3. Do I have strong feelings about X Character?
If the answer to any of those questions is a no, I know my character just isn’t strong enough. He or she doesn’t feel like a real, well-rounded person. I know I need to go back and either figure out the answers myself or figure out why those things aren’t coming across. Am I being too vague? Too mysterious? Is the motivation a little too hard to believe? Does it all feel a little silly?
The thing is, a lot of things make a strong character. Personality. Their desires. The way they go about achieving their desires. Their relationships with other characters. But on a really basic level, I think those three things up there matter most of all. If you don’t know what a character wants after reading about them for a little while, they are either supposed to be a mystery on purpose (which is fine) or you just don’t know and that means you can’t care. Moreover, if you know what they want but can’t understand it at all (it’s too far-fetched, it’s absurd, it’s silly, it’s just plain odd) you can’t care. And if you can’t care, you won’t have strong feelings about the character.
And that’s it there, a very simple thing at the heart of it all: strong characters make you feel. Er, strongly.
Sangu Mandanna was four years old when she was chased by an elephant and wrote her first story about it and decided that this was what she wanted to do with her life. Seventeen years later, she read Frankenstein. It sent her into a writing frenzy that became The Lost Girl, a novel about death and love and the tie that binds the two together.The Lost Girl is out now from HarperCollins Children’s Books (North America), Random House Children’s Books (UK and Commonwealth) and in translation. Sangu lives in Norwich, England with her husband and baby son. Find Sangu online at www.sangumandanna.com or on Twitter (@SanguMandanna).