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Shop talk (anything and everything on writing)

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).

About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I lwant to; even when I can't think of much to say. I do a lot of work for local businesses - get in touch if you like my style.


16 thoughts on “Creating characters, part one.

  1. Have you disappeared before Part 2? We miss you!

    Posted by Bruce Goodman | February 27, 2014, 10:38 pm
    • Oh Bruce, how lovely of you! Actually I got a bit sidetracked because I decided to enter a script competition, and I’ve been spending all my time on that. I didn’t think anybody would notice I was gone. I’ll be back in a minute x

      Posted by elainecanham | February 28, 2014, 5:19 pm
  2. Hi Elaine, lots of good info here. Do you teach in real life? I like what you said about telling lies with the utmost truth so the reader can suspend disbelief. I once went to a writing seminar where I learned you can get the reader to believe just about anything, as long as you tell it well. Every now and then, when I find myself thinking – no, nobody’d believe this, I remember that advice and just try a little harder.

    Posted by librarylady | February 6, 2014, 3:19 pm
    • Yes, I do teach in real life. It’s only part time since its my first teaching job since I got my degree, but I love it. And actually, getting people to believe the truth can be a whole lot harder than getting them to believe something made up. You should try working for a newspaper!

      Posted by elainecanham | February 6, 2014, 5:00 pm
  3. Just to let you know your blog has received my nomination. http://barsetshirediaries.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/abc-award/
    xxx Hugs Elaine xxx

    Posted by davidprosser | February 3, 2014, 9:39 pm
  4. Hi, Elaine; I read here what was written and I seemingly find it quite difficult to keep the overwhelming facts all straight and clear. Let me see if I’m following you here.

    Firstly, to come up with a character it has to be one of whom is based upon a lie in order to remain fictitious., although the truthfulness of his personal character, at large, although a lie as well, must be truthfully asserted in order for the lie to seem as though true. Thereby rendering the lie a truth in order to captivate the audience who doubts that the truth is a truth and thereby reminiscent of a lie. Although one’s audience may well perceive the entire matter a falsehood, if not a direct lie, However, since the author lied so well at directing the lie into a sense of truth the entire matter is taken on faith. the character, who was formed through a lie becomes a character in truth and the author is exonerated by his/her beloved audience as a truthful story teller who lies!!!!!

    Smiling… Is that about it?

    Posted by jmcclintock39 | February 2, 2014, 11:27 pm
    • Gold star, jm! However, you failed to take into account that the reader is complicit in the lie and, moreover, wants to be lied to so well that they can conveniently forget that the author or any other readers exist.

      Posted by elainecanham | February 2, 2014, 11:35 pm
    • AHHHHHHhhhhhhhh! Good point. yes, I did somehow miss that very important issue. Thank you, Elaine, for redirecting my thoughts….. smiling……. So, those blokes are in on it too ay! smiling

      Take care, Elaine… and God bless

      Posted by jmcclintock39 | February 2, 2014, 11:39 pm
    • you too, jm

      Posted by elainecanham | February 2, 2014, 11:53 pm
  5. Great thanks – and I believed every word you wrote!

    Posted by Bruce Goodman | February 2, 2014, 2:41 pm
  6. Thanks. A very useful and informative post I’ve no doubt I shall be referring back to from time to time

    Posted by echoesofthepen | February 2, 2014, 2:20 pm
    • Glad its of use. I’ll be posting another one about creating characters in the next few days.

      Posted by elainecanham | February 2, 2014, 3:10 pm
    • Much appreciated; am working on a much longer project than my usual short stories, and the challenges of character and plot are proving quite different so your advise/tips will be very helpful

      Posted by echoesofthepen | February 2, 2014, 3:16 pm


  1. Pingback: How to create interesting characters | The Proof Angel - April 30, 2015

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