Some thoughts on creating characters

Have you ever been handed a sheet of paper in a writing workshop with a list of questions, such as: what is the colour of your character’s eyes /hair? Where was s/he born? What did his/her parents do for a living? What sort of clothes does s/he wear? Who is his/ her best friend?  And so on…

Some people find these ‘Character Generators’ genuinely helpful in creating characters, but I personally have a major problem with them, and I think they can sometimes set you off on the wrong track.

I believe that characters in fiction should develop organically; that fictional characters, like real people, are formed partly by where they come from and what their parents did, but also by the things that happen to them and the people they come into contact with. I tend to think about new characters as new babies. If you’re a parent (or if you’ve had close contact with a newborn) you’ll know that a new baby, despite being the most precious, wonderful thing you ever saw, doesn’t appear to have much in the way of character/personality at first.  But gradually, as that child comes into contact with various people, goes to new places and has new experiences over time, he or she begins to develop a very definite and unique personality and character.

If you decide before you start writing how your characters dress, who their friends are, what they eat and so forth, it’s like trying to impose a ready-made character on a newborn baby. Parents help to gently shape their child’s character over many years; they don’t dictate it at the moment (or even before!) of birth.

So before you start writing, by all means decide that you want to write about a forty-something doctor living in a caravan in Aberdeen, or a twenty-something mother at Greenham Common in the eighties. But let the characters themselves tell you the finer details by putting them in situations and seeing how they react. If you send your character on a date or for a job interview, let us see her choosing what outfit she’ll wear; if a character has just had some news he needs to share with a friend, let us see who he calls and what he says.

Character should be slowly revealed through thought, action and dialogue. Don’t tell us she’s shy and lacks confidence – show her trying to think up excuses to avoid a party, or rejecting a red dress in favour of something less noticeable. Show us how she acts and reacts.

Obviously, you need to orchestrate your characters to a certain extent – you don’t want to give them a completely free hand, in the same way you don’t let your kids do exactly as they please. But if you put your characters in a situation and let them react, hopefully they’ll surprise you now and again and do things you didn’t expect – and that is the real joy of fiction!