Tips on technique 1: Characters

Extract from: The Writing Book by Kate Grenville

Personally, I resist the idea of 'characterisation' as if it's something that you can smear on a bit of writing and produce characters. Characters are not people, but they are like people in being, finally, mysterious. Their delicate mechanisms can't be summed up neatly in formulas or rules.

Characterisation is all the things writers do to build up the characters they want. Characterisation is the process that transforms real-life people into characters in fiction.

On the subject of characters, those voices from Chapter 1 may be heard again. They may be saying things like these:

'Characters should be drawn from life'

As a writer, you're in the luxurious position of being able to take from life whatever you want, but to ignore life if you want to. You may find that a real person makes a good basis for a character but you only have to use the parts of that person that you want to. You can make up the rest, or combine elements from several real people to make one character.

Characters that are drawn too closely and literally from life run the risk of not working as fiction, for several reasons:

Writers drawing on a person they know are likely to assume a lot about them and forget to tell the reader;

Real life and real people are sometimes stranger and more interesting than fiction, but one of the reasons we read books is that life is often a lot less interesting than fiction. Even if a person is fascinating in life, simply transferring them to fiction is no guarantee that they'll be interesting on the page. Things that we accept in real life we don't necessarily accept in fiction. It's not enough just to draw a portrait of an odd person from life and say 'but they're really like that'. Life can get away with it: fiction can't. So it's not enough for characters to be drawn from life for them to work as fiction. But on the other hand, if nothing about them is drawn from life, other problems can arise.

It's very hard to produce an interesting character completely out of your own imagination. The danger here is that the character becomes a lifeless mouthpiece for the writer's ideas.

A writer might, perhaps unconsciously, be using second-hand characters - not using people from real life as a basis, but characters from other books or TV. These characters have already been pruned and shaped to fit the context of their original story and if you transfer them to yours they will be very thin and shadowy.

'Characters should be thoroughly described and explained'

Getting to know a character is similar to getting to know a person: the pleasure is in gradually finding things out and piecing them together for yourself ...

'Characters must be lifelike'

What does it mean to be 'lifelike'? Life is like so many different things.

Characters do have to be convincing, which is a different thing. Characters can be unlike anyone we have ever met and yet we can believe in them within the pages of the story. Characters in fiction don’t have to work as people: they only have to work as characters in fiction.

'Characters must be consistent'

Consistent characters run the risk of being boring characters. People aren't consistent and characters don't have to be either. Inconsistencies can make characters interesting, as long as they're inconsistent in a way that adds something to the story.

While perfectly consistent characters may be boring, perfectly inconsistent ones may be frustrating to a reader: they never add up to a coherent personality. Inconsistencies can add depth to a character, but they have to be carefully controlled by the writer.

The Writing Book

by Kate Grenville

A completely practical workbook that offers down-to-earth ideas and suggestions for writers or aspiring writers to get you started and to keep you going.

More details

 

Extract from: Writing Feature Stories by Matthew Ricketson

When can I put myself in the story?

The first of the 21 cautionary hints E.B. White offers writers is to place yourself in the background of the piece. Feature writers sometimes ask, however, is there a time to put yourself in the foreground? They have rejected the hard news model as restrictive; they may have read Hunter S. Thompson's wild gonzo prose or Danny Katz's humourous columns and think feature writing is where they are going to unleash their hidden creativity. A hard lesson for any writer to learn is that the principles of good writing and storytelling are sound and not in need of overhaul. Harder still is the lesson that at the outset writers do not really know much about writing. Hardest of all, learning to write well takes time, is essentially a solo journey and invariably includes numerous crash landings ...

The simple question to ask when considering whether to put yourself in a feature story is: will my presence improve the story? If you cannot answer yes confidently, don't put yourself in. The most important thing is not you but the story.

Writing Feature Stories

by Matthew Ricketson

A practical guide to all aspects of feature writing for journalists and freelance writers.

More details

 

Extract from: Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Wolff

If you ask most people about their favourite book or film, usually they will talk more about the characters than the details of the story. They remember Jack Sparrow long after they've forgotten the plot details of Pirates of the Caribbean. They can tell you about Elizabeth Bennet years after they had to read Pride and Prejudice in school, even if they don't remember what actually happened in the book. In non-fiction as well, it's the writer's ability to introduce us to memorable people that makes an event come alive, especially concerning tragedies like (for example) Hurricane Katrina. ...

Character analysis
  1. Name
  2. Gender
  3. Age
  4. Physical appearance
  5. How does the character feel about his or her appearance?
  6. Describe the character's childhood in terms of:
    1. relationship to parents
    2. relationship to siblings (if any)
    3. relationship to other key people from his or her youth
    4. lifestyle while growing up
    5. education
    6. childhood activities (hobbies, interests)
    7. location(s) where he or she grew up
  7. Describe the character's education during and after the teen years, as well as any military service
  8. Describe the character's current relationships with:
    1. parents
    2. siblings
    3. other key people from his or her youth
  9. Describe the character's romantic life (married? involved?) and any relevant background (eg, previous marriages, affairs)
  10. Describe the character's sex life and moral beliefs
  11. Does the character have children? If so, describe his or her relationship to them. If not, how does he or she feel about children?
  12. What is the character's religious background? Current beliefs?
  13. What is the character's occupation?
  14. Describe the character's relationship to his or her boss and co-workers?
  15. How does the character feel about his or her job?
  16. What are the character's current hobbies or non-work activities?
  17. Describe the character's philosophy of life
  18. Describe the character's political views
  19. Sum up the main aspects of the character's personality (optimist or pessimist? introvert or extrovert?)
  20. What is this character proud of?
  21. What is this character ashamed of?
  22. What is his or her state of health?
  23. How intelligent is he or she?
  24. Summarise the character's relationship to the other major characters in your story