On Being A Professional Writer No.4: Creating Characters

Reading & Writing

Classics are good for you, like losing weight and eating vegetables, which is why no child wants to read them. But you don’t just learn from the classics. I learned a lot from reading ridiculously square-jawed adventures as a child, particularly the stories of Jules Verne and virtually lost novels like ‘Coral Island’ and ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’, but I learned as much from sixties television. ‘The Prisoner’ was influential even though the series was very short-lived. ‘The Avengers’ was not only long-running, it specialised in eerie scenarios that seemingly defied explanation. As a consequence I would try to outguess them and write my own plots before the hour was up.

The great strength of Dickens is characterisation, of course, but it’s plots that most genre writers tend to obsess about. In many of the best books I’ve read hardly anything happens, but the characters stay with you. A great character in a weak plot is still preferable to a weak character in a great plot.

Balancing character and plot is a trick I’ve only properly learned in recent times. For too many years I neatly hid my characterisation deficiencies with jokes and smooth writing, but the Bryant & May series forced me to reconsider how I approached my work. In a way, it really doesn’t matter whodunnit so long as the reading journey remains true to the characters. The moment you have your leads acting because of plot demands, readers start to disbelieve.

The most sustained piece of character writing in recent times is Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up The Bodies’. It’s as if she inhabited the body of her hero and was hypnotised into becoming him, the literary equivalent of method acting. Reaching this level is something we might all aspire to, but only a handful of authors ever achieve. I wonder if it comes at great personal expense to invest this much energy in creating character.

My first few novels featured virtually no memorable characters. With ‘Spanky’ I learned that bad-boy characters gave me licence to have fun, even if it did entail trudging around shopping centres with the cover model in tow for all my signing sessions. I particularly enjoy writing strong female roles, which is why I had so much fun writing ‘Plastic’. But female readership can be shockingly conservative – often they still want their women to obsess about rich, handsome men – as sales of ‘Fifty Shades’ have proved.

It was famously noted about Tony Hancock’s character that you could put him in any situation and know how he was going to react, so well-defined was he. And as I sit down now, with a clean blank screen before me, the first thing I start to think about is a fresh and interesting character.

7 comments on “On Being A Professional Writer No.4: Creating Characters”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Excellent piece.
    “Wolf Hall” is one of the books I’m reading now. I’m a restless reader and read many books at once, which my wife and many find odd. I don’t know why this is, but it is.
    WH is a good and interesting read in many ways. I find it is particularly facinating in how Mantel uses male pronouns. The reader is constantly kept on guard having to keep track of exactly who is speaking: him, him or Him, the narrator. Writing from within the narrator’s mind, hearing through his ears and seeing with his eyes, she shifts back and forth between multiple speakers most often without repeating a name or title to help the reader keep track. It’s all processed through him.
    This process distances Mantel – the author – from Him, but keeps her vantage point “inside” Him, but this often blurs the other “him” speakers.(And multiple “her” speakers, too.)It’s an interesting, if somewhat wearying composition trick.
    It’s a protagonist’s filtering recall, which Mantel will off and on further blur by dropping in recall-shifts in time and place.
    I’ll try a for-example paragraph, line by line: “Past thought” line, “now” line, “speaker b contributes” line , a “now thought” line, “speaker c contributes, narrator’s reflection on b’s line, now line, speaker a contributes”, and then so does “c”. All male pronouns! So deconstruct this mashup, if you will. And that’s all within one paragraph. It’s like a transcription. In this way, Mantel never solidly grounds the story- at least so far – by using the “I”. Sort of Indonesian puppet theatre. Still it’s great, but to copy read…Ahhhh!
    I loved The Prisoner series, and my wife and I were fortunate enough to be taken out to Pinewood Studios (I think that’s the one) and meet Patrick Mcgoohan briefly as he headed off for lunch. I feel 17 episodes were probably enough, if not just a few too long, as pretty much all the changes had been wrung out of the show’s premise by then. Good stuff.

  2. John Howard says:

    Thanks Guys. From the descriptions above, these sound books to steer clear of unless you want your brain to explode. Well alright maybe that may be a bit of an exaggeration but come on.
    I certainly agree that characterisation is essential to a good read, which is possibly why, when reading Breathe I thought, sub-counciously, that it didn’t feel like some of your other books Admin. But after the recent blog describing its gestation, I think I understand why I thought the read was different. A bit like a screenplay maybe. I certainly enjoyed the read though.
    As for the ‘Classics,’ those with what I think have characterisation, like The Count of Monte Christo; Our Mutual Friend; Catch 22; I,Claudius are ‘easy to read’ whereas those without as much, Remembrance of Things Past; Ulysses for instance have too much plot and I find difficult to enjoy. Not read but enjoy.

    As for female characters try Janet Evanovich with her female bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. Not exactly densely written but still fun and enjoyable.

    By the way Dan, don’t seem to have the keystroke delay here. Maybe superfast fibre optic broadband helps.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    I am so glad to find someone else who has difficulty with the male pronouns in Wolf Hall. It almost drove me mad & I had to go back and read some paragraphs more than once to figure out the references. A couple of times I was tempted to colour code them but it was a library book so I didn’t.
    By the way, Dan, if that was you I rejected as a friend on Goodreads try again as I didn’t recognize the identity as being familiar.

  4. glasgow1975 says:

    Woohoo, I wasn’t rejected by Helen. Thank you Spongebob 😉
    As for Wolf Hall, I’ve got it on my crowded bookshelves, but after that description I don’t know if I want to start it! I’m down to only 4 library books so I might actually have to start on my own unread books soon tho, Wolf Hall is calling . . .(plus Bringing Up The Bodies is on my library reservations list so I’d better get round to it soon)

  5. Bob Low says:

    I received Wolf Hall as a Christmas present about three years ago, but put off reading it until the Summer just past-the last historical novel by Hilary Mantel that I had read was her mammoth book about the French Revolution, ”A Place of Greater Safety”, and,although I managed to finish it, I found it exceptionally heavy going. Mantel presumed a greater knowledge of the historical events behind the story on the part of the reader than I have, and I struggled to keep up. It felt cluttered with badly realised characters, and barely described events. As my knowledge of Tudor England is similairly basic, I was dreading another hard slog. I couldn’t have been more wrong . Wolf Hall is the best novel I have read this year, with a plot as compelling as any thriller, and a central character who comes across as the opposite of what you might be expecting. One of the principal ”villains” is actually the Man for All Seasons, himself, Thomas More! Mantel’s use of pronouns, and the style generally might be a bit off-putting to start with, but stick with it. The use of pro-nouns also had me re-reading certain sentences, like Helen, but Mantel’s useage was always scrupulously correct-it does re-pay careful reading, however.

  6. Dan Terrell says:

    Helen – just signed up. Have had to use the name of the lead character in my adult/children’s book as a screen name. (Facebook is giving me problems for some obscure reason, so signing in is a pain.) If you will think “Rhine tinker” that be me.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Got you, Dan, thanks.
    I think of Wolf Hall as poetic prose and while I am not so sure about Cromwell’s virtue I have never been entirely a fan of Sir Thomas. I keep reminding myself that our standards are different now, not better, just different, but I still think he was probably wrong. His wife was stubborn in remaining uneducated but she kept herself safe that way. In this day I don’t recommend it but then it wasn’t such a bad principle.

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