Part 5. Creating Realistic Characters
Central to your story are the people, the characters, through whose eyes, actions and reactions your story will be told. The nature of your plot will determine the type of characters you will need to create. It will be easier for you to be in control and certainly simpler for the reader to follow the story if you do not crowd too many characters into your novel. There will be minor characters on the periphery of the main action that do not have to be developed in great depth. We all know the type of novel where even the walk-on characters are described in great detail (Russian novels often fall into this category) and one has no sooner committed to memory details of the character’s parentage, his grandmother’s liking for boiled beetroot, the state of his marriage and the size of the carbuncle on his nose than the realisation dawns that we are never to have a sight of him again. This, obviously, tends to make the reader less attentive when a character, that is to be of importance in the novel, is introduced.
Your central character should make an early appearance. Introduce the supporting cast by degrees so that your reader is not overwhelmed by too much information too early on in the story.
Getting to know your characters
You can only bring forth that which has been previously fed into your mind. Your characters will be the product of your observation of other people, and, equally important, a knowledge of the various facets of your own character. Once you embark upon examining yourself you may be surprised (sometimes unnerved!) to discover the potential within yourself.
When you have sketched a character in your mind, allow that image to grow. Invite him in, keep asking yourself how he would react to this or that. Almost imperceptibly he will begin to come to life, appear to you in appropriate clothes, develop mannerisms, likes and dislikes.
It is helpful to write short biographies of each of your main characters. As they develop in your mind (and writing these notes will help the development process) write down everything that occurs to you about them. Your character’s date of birth, the circumstances of his childhood, what he likes to eat, to wear, his prejudices, his job, how he spends his leisure, his fears and aspirations. Most of this information will not be exhaustively conveyed in your novel. But you, the writer, must know far more details about the central characters than will ever be written explicitly in the novel.
Resist the temptation to transfer directly on to paper some person you believe you know well. You will find yourself inhibited by such knowledge as you have and hampered in your own creativity by too great an observation of the actuality. Your plot might necessitate some act or decision of which you feel the person you know is not capable. If you stick too rigidly to the actuality you might be tempted to omit something vital to the success of your story.
Also, on a much more practical level, you might find yourself being sued for libel if the person recognises himself and does not like how he is portrayed. So be warned. Your characters must, ultimately, be your own creation – only then will you be in control of them.
The same, of course, applies in your choice of names for your characters and we shall be looking at this in more detail later.
Some writers complain that a character took over. For goodness sake, who is in charge of the barrel-organ – the chap who turns the handle or the monkey perched on top?
Your created character may well possess your mind to an uncomfortable degree but that is a price you may have to pay. You might create a thoroughly unlikeable character that becomes so real in your mind that you begin to dread meeting him in the local pub. But when it comes to pinning him down on paper just remember who is boss!
Letting your characters develop
You will find, of course, that there are some things which you simply can’t make certain characters do or think because you know that, within the boundaries you have set them, it would not be credible for them to behave or think like that. But it is you, the writer in control and not the character, who is, after all, your creation.
Remember that in real life every person is different. In the novel your characters have to be believable and act and react in such a way within the plot that your reader accepts them as real people.
Just as people change, are open to persuasion, can drop their guard, be corrupted, disheartened or enriched by certain experiences, so must your characters be capable of development. The woman who is down-trodden may find that the last straw, far from breaking her back, has the effect of making her divest herself of the burden she has meekly borne. The ambitious, self-regarding man may find himself facing a stark experience which makes him revise his previous sense of values.
The naturally courageous may, at least temporarily, lose their courage when they have over-taxed their resources. The result may look as if they are acting out of character but, in fact, they are just demonstrating the unpredictability of human behaviour under certain circumstances. It is up to the writer to make the reader realise why such a departure from the character’s normal behaviour could occur.
If a metamorphosis is going to occur in one of your characters, don’t spring this upon the reader as a total surprise. Pave the way earlier by dropping hints or providing probable motives. Then, when the leopard appears to change his spots he will not lose credibility at the same time.
Don’t forget the old adage expressed in Edward Hoch’s verse:
There is so much good in the worst of us,
And so much bad in the best of us,
That it hardly becomes any of us
To talk about the rest of us.
Sometimes it is difficult to subscribe to the belief expressed in the first two lines and, certainly, if the writer were to obey the injunction contained in the last two lines he would find himself with nothing left to write about. If you create a character whom you simply cannot reconcile with the idea that there is so much good in the worst of us, then at least give the reader an explanation as to why the character is so bad, what makes him behave so atrociously, otherwise he will lose his credibility. Introduce some compassion for his condition. This is where the biographical notes (discussed earlier) which you have made for yourself may well prove useful.
The writer cannot expect the reader to care about the characters in the novel if the author himself is unconcerned about their fate. To create a fully developed character the writer must live with that character in his own mind and employ his imagination in endowing him with some sympathetic attributes. Share such aspects with your reader. Use your inventive powers to convey to your reader some words or deeds on the part of your character – that aspect of his personality or experience with which the reader can sympathise or empathise. Easier said than done, you may think! But it is precisely such skills which are required of a writer and which you must endeavour to develop from your own inner resources and sympathetic observation and understanding of other people. No mentor can hand you ready-made rules or solutions, but the necessity to work at developing such skills must be impressed upon apprentice writers.
How your characters will look and think
Unless the physical appearance of a character has a very direct bearing upon the plot there is no need to indulge in a catalogue of description. A passing reference to one or two physical characteristics may serve your purpose adequately. The way a character moves, the sort of clothes he favours, the way he eats his food may all convey far more about him than a description of the colour of his eyes or the size of his ears. Remember too to leave room for your reader’s imagination to breathe.
It can sometimes be a good device to introduce some physical, psychological or sartorial quirk that sticks in your reader’s mind. To give just two examples, think of Uriah Heap and Sherlock Holmes. The former with his writhing, hand-wringing and ‘umble attitude; the latter with his pipe and deerstalker hat.
Be careful not to overdo things or you may end up creating caricatures rather than characters. Charles Dickens may get away with it but you may not.
Whatever your characters look like don’t allow yourself to make mistakes in their appearance. If the hero starts the novel with a mass of black curls don’t let him change to a blonde Adonis in chapter 7. It is permissible for him to go bald, but only if you are writing a saga spanning a generation or more. So always check for consistency.
What sort of clothes do your characters wear? Even taking transitory fashion into account, one can learn quite a lot from the signals given by clothes. This can be more subtle than one might think. There are those who quite deliberately strive to give an impression of themselves through their choice of clothing which may, in fact, be chosen in order to hide their true nature. Shoes are interesting, their type and condition can be revealing to the observant eye.
Creating realistic characters has much to do with careful detailing of quirks and foibles and much more. I’m sure you will manage it with a little effort.
I will have more to say about creating realistic characters next week…
Kieran Beville is a former teacher of English (literature and language) and History and lecturer in Biblical Studies (Hermeneutics). He is author of the novel, Bohemian Fire (pen-name Austen K. Blake, Bohemian Books, 2017). In addition he has published fourteen non-fiction books and he recently completed a book of poetry – Songs of Sorrow. He has had a substantial number of articles published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in the UK, USA, Ireland and India. He was a tutor in the Irish History Department in UCC for a couple of years in the 1980s. More recently Kieran served for several years as Professor in the Intercultural Studies Department of Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, where he taught Master classes. He has lectured on Leadership Training Programmes in Eastern Europe (Serbia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova) and Hermeneutics courses in the Middle-East (Amman, Jordan) and India (Kolkata and Assam). He has also spoken at conferences in Ireland, the UK and India (New Delhi and Nagaland). Furthermore, he has co-ordinated youth-work programmes and managed educational programmes for the disadvantaged in Cork and worked in Community Development. Separated with three adult children, Kieran currently lives alone in West Cork but has plans to relocate to Limerick city, his native place, in the near future. He plays guitar and paints, using various mediums – oils, acrylics.
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