Building a Character

Yet another BBC – Get Writing article! I tell you, they have some great stuff. This is about building a character, by Rose Tremain, author of Sacred Country. Original article here.

Essentials for Beginning
The process of building a character whose journey will form the basis of a novel is a long business. It shouldn’t be rushed, any more than getting to know a new real person should be rushed.

What may be there in your mind at the start are gender, physical features, age, and status in life. Perhaps a particular mannerism or tone of voice will also be there. You, the author will also have decided if this is a character that you and the reader are going to love or going to love to hate. It is important to determine at the start where you want reader sympathy to lie. Readers are sophisticated and easily bored. Getting the reader to care about a character is not necessarily an easy task and much thought should be given about how you are going to address this hurdle. Failure to care on the part of the reader will almost certainly bring about the long-term critical and commercial failure of your book. So ideally, every character in the novel – whether hero or anti-hero or downright villain – will have something vibrant and unique about him or her which will first grab and then retain the reader’s interest right through to the last page. Even a character whose chief predicament is a tendency to bore everyone else in the book should not be boring to the reader.

One of your earliest decisions may be to give the narration duties to a character, rather than an authorial voice. The choice of narrator is bound by no convention that I know of. A story can be told by a dog, a wardrobe or a shopping trolley, if that’s your wish or your whim. But I think it’s wise to know why you’re choosing Narrator X over Narrator Y, so that you can first of all see and then make use of all the possibilities.

You could choose – as many writers do – to have the central character narrate the entire thing. Classic first person narrators abound in fiction, from Tristram Shandy to Catcher in the Rye. Remember here, however, if this is your choice of narrator, that nothing in the book can happen which is not witnessed directly or indirectly by the narrator. We have to see the world entirely and absolutely through his or her eyes. And the voice – if we are not to weary of it – needs to posses the kind of quirky uniqueness that made both Tristram Shandy and Catcher in the Rye so famously funny and beguiling.

Bearing all this in mind, then, you, the author, can now become God. You can create and unmake at will. All the decisions are yours. And this, of course, is what makes writing fiction so infinitely absorbing and enjoyable. But it’s also difficult work. You have to turn ‘airy nothings’ into flesh and blood. And to do this I believe that it’s necessary to know far more about that would-be flesh and blood than you are ever going to reveal. In this way, knowing what came before and knowing what comes after, you’re never teetering on the edge of the unknown, but on the contrary sure and certain about how character X would react in situation Y and how character Z would react to this reaction – and so on.

Out and About: Observation
Writers are gawpers. They stare and ponder and note and worry all the time. It’s a habit that’s impossible to break. If you’ve decided you’re a writer, then you’re probably already the kind of person who tries to invent private lives for the people you see on the tube. So it won’t be difficult to come up with the questions that are going to be useful to you. I tend to try to read levels of happiness/unhappiness in the faces of strangers. Other writers will be asking questions about success/failure, sexual preference, parentage, ambition, lovability, fashion sense, reading habits or pet preferences. The list can be as long as you want it to be.My very first published short story was inspired by the observation of a group of two couples at an adjacent table in a London restaurant and it might be useful to describe how this unfolded. Here’s the scene (the data): what I see is a man in his sixties, in a wheelchair, who has difficulty sipping from his glass and cutting up his food. His wife, blonde and forty-something, has to do most of this for him, but she does it impatiently, not lovingly. She talks with an Eastern European accent.

She wears a ton of gold jewellery. Their lunch companions are two young, fresh-faced Australians, who looked embarrassed and uncomfortable all the way through the meal.

That’s more or less it. At a certain point in my lunch, I moved my chair round so that I could no longer see the group. I knew that I just the right amount of outside material for my imagination to work with. I didn’t want to hear or see anything more. (In data-gathering mode, you sometimes have to shout: ‘Stop now! That’s all I want to know!’)

When I sat down to plan and write, the man in the wheelchair became the wealthy owner of a nickel mine in Australia. He, who is the narrator of the story, falls in love with a Paris whore of Russian origin and comes to need her so much that he marries her and takes her from poverty to great material splendour. Then he has a stroke and she is faced with the repetitive, empty life of the nurse. She takes lovers. He knows she takes lovers but he continues to love and need her. The story, which I called ‘My Wife is a White Russian’, moves towards the man’s understanding of his own culpability. He decides that he’s guilty of bringing this tragedy on himself by his nickel-hard ambition to be rich. The Australians, who have jobs connected to the mine, and who are very happy with each other, are innocent witnesses both of the narrator’s materialism, his physical deterioration and the barely concealed tragedy of his marriage.

I can still see the real people in my mind. Or can I? Perhaps what I see are actually the fictional constructs – with all the back-story and other detail grafted onto them. I don’t know. But I do think that it’s often in that blurring between the real and the invented thing, that moment when you turn your back on the real and move towards the imaginary, that stories and the characters in them begin to struggle into life.

Planning: Asking Questions
Before attempting to get a character down on the page, it’s crucially important to begin to feel as he or she does. Writing ‘My Wife is a White Russian’ was primarily an exercise in imagining feelings. I think, therefore, that it’s interesting and helpful to pose for the character in a number of different dilemmas and see how he/she reacts to these. For instance, where is his anger level? How might he react to someone stealing his parking space or stealing his wife? Is he a person – like you, or unlike you – who has a calm inner centre or who walks the world on the end of a short fuse?As you plan, keep asking the question, ‘Who is this?’ Invent scenarios and place the characters in these and then decide what they’re going to do or say. Ask yourself who your characters were as children and who they will be when they’re old.

Know what terrifies them and what comforts them. Know how much they love the world and how much they despise it. Do they like or detest animals? Do they have a god? If so, what kind of god? Keep trucking with this level of enquiry until a real picture begins to emerge. Then magnify the picture. See them in close up. See the colour of their eyes and the shape of their lips. Reduce it again. See them from far away, within a landscape and among in a crowd. How do they move? How do they appear in silhouette? Start hearing their voices. How do these characters use language? Are they articulate, verbose, mannered, pompous, shy, foul-mouthed, witty, jargon-bound, repetitious, self-referring, spooky or what? Do some dialogue>. Do more dialogue. Do monologue. Are any of the voices acquiring anything unique yet? If the answer is no, then try to decide why. Is it that they are still at the caricature stage – with no depth to them or singularity? Have you misunderstood one crucial element in their make-up? And, if so, what is that element likely to be?

What are his territorial preferences? Is he a city dweller, who can’t bear to be more than a short walk away from his favourite local restaurant, or is he a countryman who loves the sound of water or the cry of winter birds? How does he like to decorate a room? Are his tastes fashionably minimalist or Victorian cosy or ethnic shimmery or what? Is he untidy or ordered? Is he a hoarder? If so, what does he hoard? What would you find if you opened cupboards in his bedroom or kitchen?

Seeing the character in his actual environment and understanding how he relates to it is a vital part of becoming him. In some ways, this ability to visualise is similar to the way an actor prepares for a role. This preparation goes way beyond the actual scenes to be played. Yet much of the preparation remains, in a sense, invisible. What the reader/audience will experience is a character who seems real.

Research and Personal Experience
Having the answers to these and many other questions, the idea that you can feed ‘chunks’ of data into the creation of a character is a dangerous one. Chunks tend to be indigestible and what I believe has to happen between the period of researching a book and the period of writing it is precisely the digestion of all the acquired data, so that, by the time it is recycled as story, that data has become invisible to the reader. (See Fact into Fiction.)Data should be big in the notebooks. Long research is good. The larder has to be filled up. But then select carefully and cleverly from the larder and let this selection appear small or even be virtually invisible in the novel. For everything you take from your own memory bank or from any other ‘real’ source, try inventing a parallel thing. Fiction can draw on any kind of human experience and any mode of information-getting to fill the research larder, but all of that will remain inert unless your imagination can begin to work with it.

If you decide to take your own childhood experience, say, as the basis for the childhood experience of your character, then I believe this should be drip-fed very very slowly – like oil into egg yolks to make mayonnaise – into the scheme of the book, so that inventions can begin to walk parallel to it and a kind of alchemy can occur. If you discover, as you may if you grab for chunks, that you’re entirely relying on your own biography and your imagination is standing idly by, then it’s likely that the character you’re bringing into being is going to sound and look and feel and think very like you. There will be no alchemy to give the character life, no transformation, no mayonnaise, just a curdled kind of you. You will be writing a displaced memoir, not a novel.

So try taking one minute incident out of your childhood and then altering it just enough so that it can be owned by someone else. Re-imagine it with your character and not you at the centre of it. Re-imagine it with a slightly different outcome.

Turn what was happy into something frightening or disturbing or what was worrying into something consoling. Then see what all of this reveals to you about the character and how it has or has not moved your knowledge of the character forwards.

New characters always disturb the surface of a narrative. The reader has to be persuaded to look in a new direction at a moment when he’s grown accustomed to a view with which he was becoming comfortable. He may therefore be resistant to doing this. And this resistance will only be overcome if the reader trusts the author not to waste his time populating a book with characters superfluous to the story. Thus, deft integration of the new with the already-known characters is paramount.The reader needs speedy reassurance that another piece of the story is being nudged into place – another piece of this story and not an alternative one which has suddenly become mixed up with this one.

Jane Austen was extremely skilled at integrating new characters into her novels. She often gives them an initial role which has immediate impact, as a catalyst – rescuer, admirer, jealous rival – and then we watch as these roles change and develop and find essential integration with the core dilemmas explored in the novel. Giving a new character a task or role, then, via which they come bursting onto the scene may be one way to ensure that reader resistance is swiftly and effectively overcome and that the new character has immediate life. Jane Austen brilliantly understood that with the appearance of the new, we anticipate change or movement or alteration of some kind as, for instance, the lives of the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility are altered for ever by the appearance of the faithless Willoughby. Here, the new has disturbed the surface of the narrative to brilliant and devastating effect.

If we think of a narrative in musical terms, it can be extremely effective to give to the new arrival a new and different tone or pace. Perhaps he brings seriousness to what was a fast-moving scene or subversive wit to a slow-paced one. Perhaps the cadences of his speech have a particularity which sets him apart from everybody we’ve met up till now. Perhaps he brings with him a sudden change of emotional key, steering the narrative towards terror or sorrow, trouble or salvation.

Remember, above everything, that long, detailed descriptions of new characters are likely to be indigestible (and therefore not absorbed by the reader) and to slow the narrative. Only tell us what we need to know in order to be able to visualise or hear the new arrival at the point of his entry into the story. Reveal all the rest slowly, at moments when these revelations will have meaning and consequence. We can’t – and don’t want to – know everything about a new acquaintance in our real lives the moment we set eyes on him; we enjoy making our own slow discoveries. So, in fiction, gaining deep knowledge of a character is rewarding and absorbing and the reader shouldn’t be denied this pleasure.

The Journey and the Process
Some writers, the late Malcolm Bradbury among them, have told me that they have to know the ending to a novel in advance of writing, otherwise they don’t know what they’re driving towards. Bradbury suggested that, sometimes, a novel is more or less written backwards, from that known ending. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be a fruitful way to work. But I would find it very difficult to know precisely how the story was going to end up. For me, the discovery of what happens is one of the greatest delights of writing fiction. I would find it too imprisoning to plan an ending from which I wasn’t able to deviate.I know also, that characters almost invariably develop on the page. You, the author, will know a certain amount about them before introducing them, but they will undergo some change as the ‘journey’ of the book unfolds. Be alert to this alteration and make sure they don’t start doing improbable things or suddenly take on a fatal invisibility where once they were vibrant and alive.

When I was working on my novel, Restoration, I imagined that, by the end of the story, the anti-hero, Merivel would, through the good offices of his Quaker friend, Pearce, have been able to rid himself of his tendency to yearn for material possessions and for proof of the King’s affection. By page 100 or so, I realised that what I had created in the character Merivel was a man who – however much he strove to be dutiful – would always deviate in some measure from that honourable path. And it was precisely in this deviation that his humanity lay, not to mention his wit and his ability to survive. Thus, the envisaged ending had to be completely revised.

Ian McEwan has said that the endings to novels ‘have to be earned’. By this, he meant that only by actually writing the book, by laying down all its various and complex threads, can you, the author, be absolutely sure where the work is leading and into what shape those threads have to be gathered. Novels are long and complex. Characters and their stories change, develop, turn back upon themselves, take roads unforeseen at the start of the writing process. I think it’s not called a process for nothing. This word – for me, anyway – presupposes an evolution, the working-out of complicated experiment. And this experiment, however difficult it seems day by day, provides the human mind with some of its most fascinating and absorbing work.

General Tips

  • Motivation: What drives your characters along are the things that motivate them. Essentially, there are seven main motivators: Love, Money, Power, Survival, Revenge, Glory and Self-integrity (a sort of psychological survival). These need not be extremes – glory, for example, might involve something as simple as seeking praise from someone important to your character, not the search for fame – but shades of these motivators underlie most human actions.
  • Point of View: Before you start to write any story, you are going to have to decide on a point of view and find an appropriate narrative voice to focus that point of view. The narrative voice has a bearing on how you describe a character. It’s hard to describe the physicality of a character using the first person voice. It might seem unrealistic for her to tell you what her face looked like at a given moment, because she can’t see herself. You might be able to do this with a third person voice, ‘shock flashed across her eyes’, but this will depend on how subjective or objective our voice is. It will give you a constraint, but within that constraint you will know exactly what you can or cannot describe.
  • Discretion: Write about who you know and what you know, BUT not necessarily about individuals who you know; don’t use your friends and then tell them or make it obvious by physical clues or events (they will always be offended). Make character stew with your observations of strangers and tidbits about those closer to you.
  • Voice: ow a character speaks, both in dialogue and internally, will be informed by where she is from, how she was educated and what she does for a living. Narrative voice also plays a part here. If a character is telling a story, from where are they telling it? What is the narrative distance? After the events? Is so, how far away are we from the events? The tone of voice of an old man telling a story from his boyhood will differ from the same story told from a closer vantage point. Or is the story set very much in the present, as if we are inside the character’s head as things are happening to her? This will obviously have an effect on the diction and on the extent to which you can meditate.
  • Show, Don’t Tell: Some descriptive statement is essential, but be careful not to tell the reader things that can be suggested. Make the reader work, engage their imagination. Don’t tell the reader that someone is ‘a jealous tyrant’, instead show the reader the person behaving jealously and tyrannically. Describe what they do, not what they are. Don’t tell the reader that someone is fabulously rich, show the reader how the person lives. Describe their surroundings. Don’t tell the reader that someone is beautiful. Describe them, and underline the impression that the reader receives by describing other characters’ reactions to them.