Creating Realistic Characters
Last week I began to look at how to create realistic characters. This week I want to continue this important aspect of the novel. Try to convey the nature of your character, as far as possible, by indirect means. For instance, instead of overtly stating that he is a mean man, show the way he behaves when he has to pay for something. You can make a short descriptive passage serve the double purpose of some physical description coupled with an insight into your character’s personality. Take the following example:
He was a tall man. You might think that the tilt to his head was due to an acquired habit of considerately bending down to those of lesser stature: you would be wrong. Roger’s permanent crick in the neck was the result of an accident sustained whilst driving his Mercedes at a reckless speed to impress one of his girlfriends.
That short passage gives the reader information both about Roger’s appearance and his personality. He is tall, carries his head to one side and there is something about him which could delude one into thinking him a considerate man. He is, however, an inconsiderate risk-taker, a show-off and a womaniser. All that information is, I hope, more elegantly imparted in my example than in my analysis.
There is no harm in being a little enigmatic about some of your characters. Leave the reader wondering just which way they are going to jump and what their real motives might be. This device also gives you, as the writer, some welcome latitude.
Don’t lose sight of the fact that people may behave very differently in public from the way they behave when they are alone or in the presence of their own immediate family or close friends. The character that is full of bonhomie and charm in public may be withdrawn and introspective, surly, even despairing away from the public eye. The brash, over-confident individual may be compensating for insecurities. The writer is the fly on the wall that can follow his characters back from the pub, the office, the party, to the private life behind closed doors.
The mood of a character can be shown by the writer describing the physical signs and patterns of behaviour generally accepted as being associated with that particular mood. Excitement, for instance, can be suggested by the character’s heightened colour, quick movements, hurried speech; impatience by restless movements, sitting well forward in a chair, and so forth; depression by low, toneless speech, slumped posture. But remember that individuals can betray their moods in less easily identifiable ways. The well-recognised signals may not be appropriate. Some people become very quiet rather than explosive in anger. Others in despair act almost hectically to disguise the true nature of their state. While lack of eye-contact may, in one person, indicate intent to deceive, in another it may be due to embarrassment or shyness. The writer can try to make the physical indicators of mood appropriate to the character – in short, the indicators are made to measure rather than taken off the peg. Consider these passages:
“Worried? Of course I’m not worried! I can’t think what you mean!” Joan’s tone was airy, inconsequential; a sure sign to someone who knew her well that she was deeply concerned.
“Good heavens, why should I be worried?” John’s voice was confident, almost hearty. Only deep anxiety could have induced such a show of bluff breeziness in one so normally reticent.
Study people; observe how they signal their moods or the manner in which they strive to conceal them.
We all know from our own experience that the mood one is in affects the way we respond to our surroundings and colours our reactions to other people. What seems a disaster one day can appear only irritating on another, or even mildly amusing! I will attempt to demonstrate this in the following two passages.
Austin walked briskly along the pavement. The barking terrier behind the gate of No.7 wagged his tail and Austin paused to put his hand between the bars and give the little fellow a pat. He gave a cheery wave to old Mr Kavanagh who was pottering in his garden. Game old chap to be up and about so early, thought Austin. But the old boy was right, of course, this was the best part of the day and oughtn’t to be wasted, the air was so fresh and there was just a hint of rain in the offing which would settle the dust nicely. The magnolia trees were in flower and Austin took a deep breath of the scented air and thought how splendidly this morning walk to the station set him up for the day.
Austin scowled at the barking dog at No.7. Blasted, overfed pooch, all it was good for was barking from behind its gate or fouling the pavement in front of it. Under the scrutiny of his downcast gaze the pavement seemed more revoltingly soiled than usual. But he daren’t look up because, if he did, Kavanagh would expect a matey word or a wave. The old fool, why was he messing about in his garden when he could still be comfortably in bed? Probably spraying some filthy chemical around – no thought for air pollution, the ozone layer…come to think of it, there was a sickly smell in the air, seemed to be coming from the trees. It looked as though it might rain; well it would as he’d left his umbrella behind. Austin lengthened his stride, the train, for once, was sure to come in on time. The road to the station seemed to get longer every morning.
If you always keep in mind the complexity of even the most seemingly ordinary people, then you will create convincing characters as opposed to crude caricatures.
Although our backgrounds, educationally, socially, etc. are all different we all experience in common the Zeitgeist appropriate to the period of our formative years. By this I refer to the spirit of the times, the trend of thought and opinion, the social conditions etc. that prevailed during any given period and influenced the ideas and beliefs of that era. Try to remember that when creating characters of different ages. It is not just the fact that a character of seventy will look at things differently from say, a character of thirty, because of the actual age difference and the changes wrought by the passing of years. Over and above that a certain conditioning will have taken place in both characters due to the attitudes, prejudices, moral stance and so forth that were extant during the characters most impressionable years.
I am not suggesting that we are all irretrievably moulded by such external circumstances, but the writer must be aware of them. One of the ways in which characters can be shown to develop during a novel is that they begin to examine their preconceptions and, as a result, perhaps, change attitudes.
Most people have hobbies of one sort or another. Think about that. The hobby you give your character may also convey a great deal about his/her temperament. The person who collects stamps may have much in common with the one who devotes his weekend to solitary hill-walking but would be rather different from the chap whose idea of bliss is to strip down the engine of his car at the weekend. The person who is a devoted follower of a rock group and follows it from one gig to another is in contrast to the one who happily spends hours fishing or train-spotting. To convey the eccentricity of a character you may have to dream up a really bizarre hobby – but it might be wise to keep it decent!
The importance of names
Your characters have names – although, conceivably, there could be someone who is known as “the bloke in No.12, across the street!” Certainly as far as your principal characters are concerned, they should have names. This is not a minor detail but demands some consideration.
Many first names have associations. These connotations may be general or particular to you. You may have known Peter or Daphne, whom you deeply disliked. John may suggest to most people a reliable, down-to-earth person, but if you have known a John whom you had good reason to distrust, then the name will arouse different feelings in you. When selecting the names of your characters bear in mind, both the general reaction to that name, and equally important, the vision of the person which it conjures up for you.
Names fall in and out of fashion. A person can sometimes be dated by his or her name. I recently had an appointment with a woman I never met before. Her name was Betty. I guessed (before I met her) that she would be over 60 years old. How? Because I have a sister of that name and age and it is, I think, a name which is dated to some extent. When naming their offspring parents are sometimes influenced by pop stars, film stars, royalty, the pope, popular folk heroes or well-known sports figures and so on. Take all those things into consideration.
Some people believe that one’s life can be greatly influenced by the name one bears. The expectations that other people bring to bear on someone called, for example, Bruce, will be very different to those imposed on a person called Cecil. The person concerned may try to live up to the image imposed upon him or, on the other hand, try desperately hard to disprove the expectation. It can be amusing to impose a very macho name on an essentially wimp-like character but it may be safer to give your character the name which arouses expectations in line with the character that you wish to portray.
The safest, but least adventurous solution may be to select names which, in general, are unlikely to be coloured by associations; but make sure that they are appropriate to the age of the character. Don’t, for instance, have a character bearing a very individualistic name which had not even been invented at the time of his or her birth. As an obvious example, no-one was christened “Wendy” before that name was invented and popularised by J. M. Barrie in Peter Pan and Wendy in 1904.
Try to have the names of your main characters dissimilar enough to prevent confusion on the part of your reader. Two male characters, for example, called, respectively, Godfrey and Geoffrey, might lead to confusion.
Consider the origins of your characters. Would an Irish or Scottish or Welsh name be appropriate? But do remember that you must feel comfortable about the names chosen and the associations you bring to those names. Sometimes your unconscious mind obligingly gives your character just the right name without much conscious effort on your part. Be duly grateful!
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.