As I’m going to be chatting about creating great characters with Richard Beard, from the National Academy of Writing, and Patricia Ferguson, author of, The Midwife’s Daughter at the Bristol Festival of Literature I thought I’d share with you some of my ideas before the big day.
‘I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it….I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders.’
Gillian Flynn, best-selling author of Gone Girl, has created some memorable characters: this is Libby Day, the protagonist in Dark Places. It’s a punch-in-the-face first line and, in one fell stroke, shows Libby’s central character trait (mean anger), why she is the way she is (her family were all murdered), her inner conflict (pretty hard to remain mean and angry and have a decent life) plus tantalises us with the possibility for change. It also highlights the fact you can have an unsympathetic central protagonist – as long as we have empathy for him or her.
So where do you start when you’re creating a new character?
Characterisation is, ‘the sum of all observable qualities, the combination of which makes your character unique’ according to Robert McKee, author of Story.
One way to create a memorable character is to start from the outside and work in, beginning with characterisation: your protagonist’s name, appearance, mannerisms, speech, gestures, sexuality, gender, IQ, occupation, where and how she lives.
Then dig a bit deeper. How did she get like this? What is her background, religion, values, attitudes? What are her parents like? Where did she grow up?
Think about what kind of character traits he or she has. Is he disorganised, chaotic, rational, emotional, shy, obsessive?
But true character lies beneath characterisation and only emerges during conflict.
‘True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.’ Robert McKee
The difference between what a character has and what they want is the basis for conflict and there is no story without conflict. It is only by forcing characters into difficult circumstances where they have to choose how to behave, that their true nature is revealed.
For example, in my third novel, The Naked Name of Love, the protagonist, Joseph, is a Jesuit priest. He starts out with internal conflict – he believes in God and evolution, an heretical concept for 1859. As he crosses Outer Mongolia, he battles with external conflict – environmental forces and violent adversaries. He struggles with social conflict – relying on companions who do not appear to share his religious beliefs and values. Finally, he encounters heightened internal conflict: he falls in love, which is against everything he and those within his faith believe in. Joseph’s real character is revealed in his responses to these levels of conflict and results in change and self-awareness.
I don’t believe most real people in real life change dramatically, but for the purposes of a good story, we want to see a character pushed to the limit and to undergo some kind of transformation. Joseph doesn’t appear to alter utterly as he cannot admit his sacrilegious love – the internal conflict is too deep – but his behaviour shows us how he truly feels. His actions, not his words, indicate to us how much he has learned and changed.
‘As he knelt, he seemed to hear words on the wind, the feral voice of the Yolros lama who had said to him, “You will journey beyond the boundaries of your imagination. You will meet and seize your heart’s desire. It will be the death of your soul.”’