|By Antonio Litterio|
What do the names Ebenezer Scrooge or Scarlett O’Hara mean to you? Whether or not you’ve read either A Christmas Carol or Gone With The Wind, I’ll bet pictures of a mean old man, or a wilful Southern Belle jumped straight into your mind.
Scrooge and Scarlett were so perfectly drawn by their respective authors, Charles Dickens and Margaret Mitchell, we feel we know them. Their characters stay with us once we’ve finished a book, and long after we’ve forgotten its plot.
If you read the first part of my Birth Of A Book series (which appeared here), you’ll have been collecting your thoughts and making plenty of notes. A good fund of ideas stops you being stunned by your first sight of a blank sheet of paper, so by now you should be raring to go.
Before you tap out your first words, you’ve got one more job to do. Characters give your work heart and soul.You might have a plot all planned out in your head, but if your central figures don’t capture your reader’s imagination, your book may be abandoned after they’ve read your first few pages. Readers need to care enough about your hero to follow them through the ups and downs of a story, which might be hundreds of pages long. Use the three C’s—Characterisation, Credibility and Consistency—to keep your readers keen.
Take the time to build up a detailed picture of your main characters. I used to work in Marketing Research, and used customer profiling to build up a picture of our clients. When I started writing novels, the sort of forms I’d designed in my office job came in handy for making sure my fictional people had a good grounding in reality.
Start off by cataloguing your character’s appearance. It’s a bit of a cliche to make heroes perfect and handsome, while every villain is rotten to the core and ugly with it, so mix and match. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo, managed some heroic deeds, while Paul Freeman’s handsome Bellocq in Raiders Of The Lost Ark was a mercenary with no morals.
Create a complete fictional past for your characters, right down to the pets they kept as children, and the schools they attended. Wondering why that’s important? Imagine the contrast in outlook a strict faith school gives, compared to one where free expression rules. How someone reacts to rules and regulations early in life sets the scene for conflicts later on.
What does your character do when they have some spare time? How do they relate to other people—are they sociable, or a loner? Do they hate their job, or are they the sort who loves their work? Do they do voluntary work? The more questions you can invent, the more detailed your characterisation will be.
Send an email with the words Character Sheet in the subject line to christinahollis(at)hotmail.co.uk, I’ll send you a copy of the form I fill in for each of my fictional characters.
Nobody in real life is perfect, so give your hero a flaw or two. It makes them more human, and three-dimensional.
To go back to Ebenezer Scrooge, he’s a horrible character. What is there to like about someone who hates Christmas, and treats his poor overworked, underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit like a slave? Well, not much. But there can’t be many people who haven’t been in such a bad mood they wanted to turn down an invitation from an over-jolly relative, or scowled at the sight of yet another expensive charity advert produced by big business and “posed by models”. Dickens has recognised faults we all have, packed them into one man, then magnified them to create the monster Scrooge.
Scarlett O’Hara has faults, too. Most people have bent the truth, been stubborn, or shallow, at some time in their life. Anyone reading about her may be driven mad by some of the things she does, but deep down they’ll recognise what it’s like to be young and capricious. None of us alive today lived through the American Civil War, but we all know what it’s like to feel hard-done by, or to be overtaken by some mad yearning. Scarlett’s turmoil is far more outrageous than ours, but it still has that kernel of familiarity. That’s one reason why we read to the end of the book.
The way a character develops (for better or worse) during a story is all part of the roller-coaster ride which keeps us hanging on right to the end of the line. It’s important these changes happen in a believable way. That’s not to say each chapter of your book should be a similar-sized step along the character arc, pointed out with neon signalling. Mix up the big ways and small ways. Your character may be caught up in a national disaster, or they may not be able to pay a gas bill. The way they react to these situations may be completely transformed over the course of your book, but be careful their reactions and attitudes don’t see-saw too wildly in between, unless there’s a cast-iron reason. In my next release, His Majesty’s Secret Passion, Leo manages to unwind stressed-out Sara a bit at a time. Gradually, they reach the point where her fury at uncovering the secret Leo’s been keeping from her is defused by the way they must both adapt to changing circumstances. All through the book their attitudes to each other soften, but although this happens at different rates at different times, they always behave in character.
To keep up with the progress of His Majesty’s Secret Passion, visit my author page here and click on the “like” button for updates.