Character Building

Book envy? Me?

It’s a strange thing, to dream a person to life. Yet that is what a writer does, creating characters to walk the pages of their book, talking and breathing and thinking and doing. I’ve had to come up with quite a few people for Ambeth, and the interesting and slightly eerie thing is that they seem to have taken on a life of their own. Oh, not in some sort of horror movie way, where I wake in the dead of night to find their hands on my neck (although that’s an idea for a story, isn’t it?) No, it’s a far gentler thing in that they speak through me, letting me know what is right and what is wrong for them, who they are with, who they are interested in and how they relate to other people on the page.

When I started to write about Ambeth I had three characters – the main protagonist and two others. I also had a situation, an idea of how they would combine and then implode, a single event that would change everything. As the story grew around them, more characters joining the cast, this single event did not change – in fact, it became even more pivotal, a jumping off point for much of what was to happen in subsequent stories. So I couldn’t change it; no matter how I looked at it, there was no other way. But the character who precipitated the event did change. He started off life arrogant and not so nice, someone who thought only of himself and his own needs. That was fine, I thought, as it was what I needed him to be. But then he started to become nicer, gentler, more loving. It was as if he were speaking to me, saying ‘I’m not such a bad guy.’ And, looking at it now I can see that this was absolutely true, that he is so much more than the one dimensional villain I dreamed up initially. But what was I to do about the ‘very bad thing’ he needed to do, the point on which the story turned? What was his motivation? A wise friend once said to me, ‘go to sleep on a question, wake with the answer.’ So that’s what I did. I commended my plot problem to the gods of storytelling and went to sleep. I woke the next morning and there it was. The answer. The reason for everything.

So the lesson for me was, as a writer, once you dream your characters onto the stage of your story, stand back a little and let them tell the tale. They will guide you as to what is right.

‘But this I know; the writer who possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not always master–something that at times strangely wills and works for itself.’  Charlotte Bronte

24 thoughts on “Character Building

  1. You dream them to birth ..then hve to get to know them. We may never be able to fully subtract ourselves from our writing… Our own experience of the world is all we have to draw on at the end.. But takung our personal ego out of the tale and learning to allow our characters to be themselves is probably the most crucial part of character building.

  2. Excellent advice. Learned that early on when one of my ‘one scene and toss away’ characters kept turning up. Now she’s top tier supporting cast and might even get her own story. Amazing what happens when you loosen the leash or take it off completely.

  3. I hate them; they’re little runts in the back of my head demanding to take the story where THEY want it. Who do they think they are? Do they own this story? Well yes they do and they’re a writer’s herpes – always there, itching and scratching… Great post Helen to remind us if you itch don’t ignore it…

  4. So true, Helen! And hard to let go to them, if you’re a planner. Easier if you’re a pantser, like me… they create a much better story than I could, and always surprise me.

    1. Oh yes, I’m the same, Ali! I tried planning once and all the characters shouted at me and said they needed to do other things – and it worked out so much better than anything I could have planned 🙂

  5. I can’t help but think that if we let them just go ahead and take the story to where they want to take it, and then we think ‘oh, that’s just right’, it’s because they are part of us. I think that it is terribly difficult to create a character who really has nothing in common with ourselves, especially as we are all multi-dimensional creatures with sides to us that we may be reluctant to acknowledge – or should this be a blog post all on its own?

    1. Ooh yes, that sounds like a whole other blog post! I look forward to reading it, Mick 😉 And I agree, if we don’t connect with the characters on some level, how can we make them real?

  6. This happens all the time with me, too. And they do make a better story better than my conscious brain could think up. I agree with Mick, our characters are facets of ourselves. Like Mick, I have great difficulty writing characters with which I have nothing in common. The more of myself I give to them, not always consciously, and not always a part of me that I’m proud of (!), the easier they are to write, and the richer they become.

    1. Yes, it makes it a lot easier when you can bring something of yourself to the character, and more real for the reader too. I do think we have the potential for just about anyone inside us – the challenge is to dig deep enough to find the point where we and the character meet.

  7. Strong characters are a must for me when I read a book and I have been told by my friends in my writers group that I tend to write well defined characters, so perhaps I stand back and let them tell the tale too!

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