Getting to Know You

Characters are people who just happen to live in stories and books.

Jesse Lee Kercheval

It is said that fiction is about people. If you don’t have good characters you don’t have good fiction. Story characters must think, aspire, love, cry and feel pain (or cause it). They’re expected to perform heroic deeds, or perhaps base misdeeds, but most importantly, they must trigger readers’ emotions.

I’ve always found the character creation process to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of fiction writing.

In The Art and Craft of Novel Writing, Oakley Hall observed:

It is not sufficient to assemble a character by adding characteristics as grilles and fenders might be added on an assembly line: a big nose, duck-like walk, houndstooth check jacket, taste for Beethoven and the Red Sox, and a foolish fidelity to a faithless wife. The character must be produced on the page, whole and alive, his breath congealing in the air.

Just as in any relationship, there’s always more for a writer to discover about his or her characters. It’s therefore a good idea to do character-building exercises before writing those personas into a story. Many such exercises are available in the fiction-writer’s toolbox.

One tool that leads to a deeper acquaintance is the list. For example:

  • List ten books on the character’s book shelf.
  • The character’s top five favourite movies.
  • List ten items in his/her shopping cart.
  • The most recent entries in the character’s credit card statement.
  • List ten items found in the character’s ‘fridge.

The list of lists is inexhaustible. One-word answers to a few key questions also reveal details that character templates fail to divulge. Such as:

  • An item of clothing that may suggest their personality.
  • A revealing gesture.
  • A regularly-used expression, curse or slang term.
  • A favourite possession.

Writing a character bio is also a sound idea. Although it will be unnecessary to replicate all the information within the story, the bio is a means for the writer and character to get acquainted. This is vital if the writer is to tell their story and tell it convincingly.

The more detailed the bio, the greater the writer’s understanding of the character. This insight may then be reflected onto the page.

A further understanding may be obtained using other, perhaps unconventional methods. One such may be to allow the character to write their own obituary. This exercise allows the writer to ‘get inside the head’ of the character, revealing their hopes, aspirations … and regrets.

Another useful tool – and one I particularly enjoyed employing – is the character interview.

This is where the writer sits at the typewriter and ‘pretends’ to be a journalist interviewing the character. By ‘journalist’ I don’t mean an easy-going hack but a ruthless, prying investigator, determined to ask searching questions and obtain answers to them.

The exterior tells only part of the story. To develop truly complex and satisfying characters, we must develop interior lives for them, revealing their thoughts, memories, dreams and imaginings.

Jesse Lee Kercheval – Building Fiction

I commence each of these interviews in the manner that I embark on any creative visualisation exercise, by first of all clearing my mind of unwanted clutter and adopting a ‘dreamy’ state of mind. As I elect to conduct all such interviews at a specific location, I use my imagination to transport myself to where a solitary stone cottage sits on a hillside overlooking a tidal loch in the Scottish highlands.

There is a grassy meadow out front, pine woods to the left and right and an unobstructed view down to the loch far below.

The cottage is one I ‘discovered’ within the pages of ‘A Last Wild Place’ by Mike Tomkies.

Wildernesse, the name I had already given to the old cottage and the two small woods that flanked it, stood below a deep cleft in the Inverness-shire mountains in one of the largest uninhabited areas left in the British Isles. It was the only surviving dwelling in fifteen miles of roadless loch shore, and while I was used to isolation it would clearly be the wildest, loneliest place in which I had ever lived.

Mike Tomkies – A Last Wild Place

The cottage has been a perfect location for my ‘interviews’ – imaginary exchanges which never, ever failed to provide surprises. Characters for who I’d written bios, sketched their blueprint into templates, written lists and so on always managed to reveal so much more during their interview.

Take the fox ranger Deepdale, for example, one of the key characters in my debut children’s novel, The Door to Caellfyon’.

During my interview with this apparent loner he revealed that he once had a sweetheart back in his home town of Wickstane – a pretty vixen by the name of Henna Flaxendock. Prior to our ‘chat’ I’d had no idea of this. When questioned further, Deepdale touchingly revealed to me that he’d left her to follow his ranger calling.

Whilst this information had been disclosed during the interview, it never reached the pages of my book. There was, however, one scene in which Deepdale provided a clue to this secret past love. When returning to the village of Skenmarris following a sword-fighting lesson, my protagonist Levi asked Deepdale whether he was sorry to have left his parents to become a ranger.

Deepdale turned towards the boy. He pawed at his beaded braids as his voice took on a dreamy tone.

‘Not really lad. We weren’t that close. Besides, sometimes you have to move on an’ only you know when. There’s always someone as says they know best, but there comes a point when you have t’ steer your own course. And make your own mistakes, too, right enough. You learn from mistakes.’ Deepdale stared off into the shadows. The fire appeared to have gone from his eyes.

‘But there was someone, right?’ said Levi. ‘Someone close, I mean.’ He nodded towards the fox’s braids. ‘And she gave you those?’

Deepdale paused as he regarded Levi, thoughtfully. ‘Aye lad, that’s right.’

Something in the ranger’s voice stopped Levi from asking more questions and the pair walked on in silence until they neared the hall’s gate. Once there Deepdale suddenly perked up

‘C’mon, lad,’ he said, skipping the last few yards to the door. ‘Let’s get some grub. Me belly’s flappin’ against me bloomin’ backbone.


Chapter Eight, the latest instalment of The Door to Caellfyon is now available on this site. Access it using the menu or, for a free downloadable PDF, click this link.

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