Unforgettable Characters

In the first part of the chapter on creating character, here are some tips on writing a character biography and a couple of exercises that can be done on the commute to or from work.  Let me know what you think….

Creating Unforgettable Characters

Of the last ten books you read how may plots of those books can you recall? Now try the same exercise again, only this time think back over the last few years.  What makes a novel memorable? Is it the setting, the language, the writing or because it was the most hyped book of the year? There is no doubt that it is these elements will greatly enhance your enjoyment of a book but they soon fade away once you become engrossed in a new novel.  More than likely it is the characters that stay in our minds long after we have forgotten the plot details.

Lee Hall, perhaps best known for writing Billy Elliot is adept at making young voices heard.  He created a character, a young girl with autism, who was dying. To bring such a character to an audience required a tremendous amount of highly sensitive, and I imagine, harrowing research.  Spoonface Steinberg was originally broadcast as a radio play on BBC Radio 4.  The public response to the monologue, performed by a gifted child actor was immediate.  One lorry driver had to pull his vehicle over to the side of the road; so moved was he by what he was hearing. Other listeners reported that instead of going to work, they sat in the car park just so they could hear the end.

So how do you go about creating characters that tap into our psyche to such an extent that even grown men reach for the tissue box?


Building a character outline

Choose a person you know well and try to describe them. Your description might include information such as their height, age, hairstyle, or even the colour of their eyes. Then you might want to add in details about their profession, the kind of car they drive or the house they live in. This, though hardly reflects their personality and could apply to any number of people.  But then you recall a laugh or a certain mannerism or even an attitude or belief that makes that person as individual as you are.  That is, in summary how you go about creating a character.


People watching exercise – creating a character

Who hasn’t tried to guess what a random stranger does for a living from their appearance? Take that concept a little further with the following exercise:  It is important that the person you choose is unknown to you.  How old do you think they are? What line of work do you think they might be in? Are there any visual clues that could assist you here? Look at their clothes. What type of a house do they live in and what kind of car they drive? What are their hobbies or interests? What issues do they care about?


Consciously or not, our characters grow from real people we have met. That is not to say that you will base a character on any one person in particular, rather they may well be a composite, drawn from any number of people you have met.  Each social occasion you attend gives every writer the chance to observe human behaviour.  An eye for detail is important as it is the little quirks that make a character credible.


Character biography

If you have a great many characters in your novel, and have to write a number of character biographies, one way of livening up the process is to assume the role of the  character and that you are being asked a list of questions by an interviewer.

Here are some questions you might try:

1 As you are now

What age are you? What gender are you? Your name? What do you look like? Where do you live?


2 Family background

Where were you born? How many siblings do you have and what is your position (eldest, middle or youngest)  in the family you were born into? What social and economic group were you born into? What did your parents do for a living? What kind of education did you have? Were you brought up in the city, suburbia or the country? What kind of background did your parents have? Were they born in the same place or did they move here?

3 Professional life

What kind of job or career do you have? Are you happy in your work or are you planning a change?

4 Personality

Are you an ambitious person or are you the kind who is content with what they have? An adventurer or a home body? Are you a perfectionist? Introvert or extrovert? Are you someone who is able to coolly weigh up each side of an argument or are you a hothead, the type that jumps to conclusions and speaks out before thinking the matter through? What are your desirable characteristics? Loyalty, discretion? What are the undesirable ones? A poor time keeper, a complainer who enjoys moaning but who won’t do something about their problems?

5 Likes and dislikes

What drives you to distraction? What kind of hobbies and interests do you have? Are you conservative or open to change? What makes you laugh? What makes you cry?

Don’t forget that it is the attitudes, emotions and beliefs that provide us with the clues to a character’s behaviour.  Even for minor characters, their physical characteristics are less important than what they think, feel and believe.

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