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Creating characters, part one.


Telling one teeny lie can get you into all sorts of difficulty, as I discovered when I began the process of buying a vintage motorbike for my husband. I had to get a friend of a friend to collect it and, not surprisingly, him indoors wanted to know why I was on the phone all the time to another bloke.

It all worked out ok, but the stress was tremendous. So why do we choose to write stories that are constructed from a whole pile of lies that all have to mesh seamlessly? Dunno, is the answer to that one. But I can say this, as writers, we have to tell those lies with the utmost truth, or the reader just won’t bother to keep reading. After all, if they are willing to suspend their disbelief, the least we can do is not waste their time. We need to take them into this world that we have constructed and keep them in until the end. We don’t, under any circumstances want them asking the kind of questions that begin with, ‘Yes, but why did…?’ or ‘Didn’t Lady Romilda have blue hair in chapter one?’ or ‘I thought Smithers’ mother was a wandering gypsy with a limp?’

There are exceptions to this rule. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was always forgetting exactly in which leg Dr Watson had been hit with a Jezail bullet in Afghanistan, and some really geeky types have proved that it is practically impossible to work out the room plan of Blandings Castle from PG Wodehouse’s descriptions. Neither of these points detract from the stories (the variations are visible from story to story not within each one), but you can bet your blog stats even these masters of storytelling got plenty of complaints.

Constructing characters can be the biggest problem for most writers, even though they are really the most important part of a novel, as they drive the plot. When I started writing Mills and Boon novels I would think of a sort of scenario; Caribbean island, pirate/property tycoon and virginal but feisty heroine and just go for it. Of course, by chapter three I was in a terrible tangle, because I kept changing my characters’ backgrounds, and by chapter four the whole thing was imploding. Was the heroine a librarian or a secret agent, and how could the villain be in two places at once?

I used to think planning was beneath me. I thought it would take all the spontaneity out of my writing. I thought I ought to be able to sustain a story from beginning to end without the need for notes. (Yeah, right, Ed.) Although it has to be said that you can do this if:

  • you are prepared to re-write your story from the beginning every time you work on it (which adds months to the completion date and years to your life);
  • you work out the entire story in your head before you begin (and even people who do that, such as JK Rowling, still make a plan).

Constructing characters can be really good fun, especially when you’re feeling really blank and dull. The first method you can use is defining a character by their possessions. Make lists of 20 things you might keep in your handbag, or your fridge, or the attic. Or make lists of expensive things, or creepy things (if you’re writing a horror story) or things that would fit in your hand or your pocket. This is surprisingly absorbing, there’s no pressure to write anything (which is always handy if you have writer’s block) and it really does kick start the imagination. Then all you have to do is choose two or three things, from each of the lists you’ve created, as possessions of one of your characters. It’s amazing what you can come up with.

Once you have a character complete with stuff in his/her pockets/attic/fridge, then you can go on and give them an appearance, and a place to live in, and excitingly, a secret (This is important, because every good story needs conflict). By this time, it becomes easy to visualise this person’s family or close friends, and then you can start thinking of what is going to happen to them.

Try it. Let me know how you do. I’ll post some more ideas next week.

jkRowling lesson plan

JK Rowling’s story plan for The Order of The Phoenix, taken from Chandler Baker’s post

If you are a teacher and are looking for inspiration for a lesson plan, you can use the idea of telling lies as an icebreaker, with the students disclosing three things about themselves, one of which is a lie, which the other students have to guess. Making lists of possessions also works really well as a competition between groups of students (ie, the first group to come up with 20 particular things).


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