This month’s guest blogger Steph Newham is chair of Lockerbie Writers, and a lover of short stories and historical fiction. Here, Steph shares her thoughts on where strong characters come from …
As writers we’re encouraged to create strong characters; to give them depth, to develop them.
I was taught that the main elements of a character are: appearance, habits, personal vocabulary, conflicts, goals. The word ‘character’ is interesting; it is dual-edged. Character means ‘person’ but also refers to the mental and moral qualities that make a person distinctive – those qualities that claim our interest. But our characters can be elusive, reluctant to share their lives with us. Well-written characters are usually hard work.
So I think I’ve got a character; but how to make a story from her? Now that’s a challenge!
My characters emerge differently, some by accident, some by design. Little snatches of differing people brought together into a Celia, an Adam or Bert or Jill. Over time I’ve come to recognise my three main types of characters:
- Coming from myself (exploring some part of me),
- Coming from other people (or a composite of various people) I know well,
- A mixture of these two.
For the first type I have to explore how I personally feel about my characters’ issues from the inside, by making connection with similar incidents in my own life.
For the second type, it’s mostly down to observation and empathy to really understand them. I imagine what it would be like to be somebody else, then I change my vocabulary into theirs, and in my mind’s eye watch them perform.
A character outline can be snappy…or it can stretch to many pages. Many writers bypass the outline. Nothing is set in stone; I have come to love some of my characters where I started with just a name and a location and then asked myself the questions: why were they there – who were they?
Writers are often pressurized into thinking they need to understand everything about a character, but is this true? I like to have a strong visual image and my character’s voice and tone easy in my mind, but for me the mysterious part of writing is the excitement of my characters developing, changing as their stories unfold.
I strongly believe that we draw most of our ideas from the people we meet throughout our lives and then mix in a good measure of ourselves. Even if we want to create from scratch, we still use fragments of personas that we have encountered, even those from screen and between the pages of a book.
When developing a character:
- Get inside your character’s head, report their inner thoughts.
- Situate your character in a particular location.
- Smuggle in some details about your character’s back story, their life before we meet them.
- How does your character act in the world; are they overwhelmed or in some sense out of control? They might be optimistic, jealous, stoic, romatic, devious – the possibilities are endless. Enjoy playing with your characters’ personalities.
This is only a brief introduction, so get into the habit of reading to see how other writers reveal their characters. Explore different genres. Read as much as you can.
By Steph Newham, November 2016
Next month: A very special blog post with fresh new writing from our upcoming workshop!
About the Writer
Steph Newham took up writing when she retired from the NHS. She did a Cert in Creative Writing followed by an MA at Lancaster University. She is currently working on a collection of Short Stories as well as a historical novel. She is chairperson of Lockerbie Writers and a member of Powfoot Writers. She has had articles published in newspapers and short stories in an anthology and on-line e-zines. She enjoys running workshops and encouraging others to develop their writing skills.