I think characterisation is the most important thing in my work. Sure stuff happens, but it’s all pretty vapid unless there’s a character you can love. Do you have to find a good character to read a book? Do your favourite books stick in your mind because of the story or the character? For me when I think of character I think of books where the players were extreme, often infamous characters, Bram Stokers’ Dracula, Patrick Suskind’s Grenouille, Charles Dickens’Josiah Bounderby and Sarah Waters’ Sue Trinder spring to mind. Often villains, but loveable still. (Can’t remember your favourite? Wikipedia has a good list for reference, I couldn’t place very many of them).
Arnold Bennet believes ‘The foundation of good fiction is character-creating and nothing else.’ For a writer the question is – do I establish the character enough, or do I just write his/her actions and hope the way they act is enough? Whilst the golden rule ‘show, don’t tell’ must be kept in mind, (that is show through dialogue and action, rather than spend a paragraph telling us the hair colour and political views of someone) the character must be built and created whether through description, their own thoughts or speech.
When it comes to laying out a character there is direct and indirect characterisation, direct being the author telling the reader something about the character, or indirect, the reader is allowed to work that information out themselves. Short stories are always trying to save space so the more reading between the lines the reader can do the better, so indirect seems the best bet.
For me a good character is decisive, I can’t put up with weak, henpecked characters. Everyone has a type they can feel compassion for. EM Forster describes characters as round – and flat. Flat characters are predictable and stick to their persona, they are close to stereotypes ( or archetypes like the typical policeman, the typical mother, it is too easy for a writer to rehash a well used archetype, it doesn’t give the reader enough reason to want to read on). Round characters are developing; they show change and can surprise the reader (Maud Lilly in Fingersmith).
My writing tips for good characters:
- I hate unpronounceable names or names that are too obscure, pick carefully
- Background reading/writing is important get your facts straight, don’t contradict yourself
- In the past I’ve cut similar looking people to who my characters are out of magazines as a visual reference, this makes description easier, looking at a strangers face can also give you ideas.
- Give them positives but also give them negatives.
- Remember aside from their actions – their voice, their smell, flaws, habits, twitches etc.
- Keep some stuff hidden, they might be very religious and it informs all of their decisions, they may have just been dumped so they’re careful not to commit, hide some stuff and let the reader try to detect what is driving them.
Some other great tips for writers on character can be found here.
I shall post some fiction at the weekend, thanks.