Today we’re looking at the craft of writing engaging and believable characters in our novels and stories.
In many ways this is an unanswerable question, but like many aspects of writing fiction, it’s an interesting question to investigate. Listening to the actor Michael Sheen on the topic of his approach to portraying real life characters, I was struck by the similarities. Both actors and writers seek to find the underlying truth of a character. Sheen spent many hours researching existing material on the comic actor Kenneth Williams, but it was only when he saw Williams make a mistake during a recording of a live performance that he felt as though he was seeing past the comic persona to the man beneath. It was that moment of vulnerability that gave Sheen an insight upon which he could build the rest of his character development. It’s often said that fictional characters must have a flaw, but I think that this is an oversimplification. Characters, like real people, should have many flaws. What makes them memorable are their vulnerabilities. The fact that Harry Potter is an orphan is not a flaw, but it does make him vulnerable. If you look at the sitcom character Frasier, it’s easy to see his flaws. His pomposity is often centre stage, and it’s nicely iconic that the expert in psychiatry is so blind to his own foibles. But then, aren’t we all guilty of that lack of self awareness? These things are all part of the humour, but Frasier is more complex than that. He fills his life with all manner of riches, but deep down, he is lonely. He misses his mother.
Going back to Michael Sheen, it’s clear he was doing a great deal of groundwork, and some writers like to spend time on drawing up character profiles. If that works for you, that’s fine, but I prefer to let them introduce themselves to me as I write. In the same programme, Ben Kingsley explained that when he approached the role of Ghandi, he made a point of not immersing himself in real life footage, so like writers, actors have their own ways to discover characters.
One of the things we must try and avoid are cliches and other items that can become like nervous tics. And I don’t mean just physical habits that we give our characters – repeated behaviours can slip in to our writing, but they can be irritating for readers who will pick up on them. Is a character always complaining? Are they relentlessly positive? Are they always mean or permanently over generous? People are complex, and when we bring out the light and shadow, we can make them feel real to the reader. Contrasts in behaviour are great ways to hint at hidden depths and lay the ground for character development. They may also foreshadow later developments in the plot.
Some of these techniques are more overt in certain genres, but I’d argue that human drama adds to all types of story, and when it’s missing, the story is poorer.
When characters change in a story, sometimes redeeming themselves in some way, it helps if that change is believable. Either we need a sequence of events to build up to the change, or an event so drastic that it triggers an awakening. Even dramatic events benefit from a subtle foreshadowing though, and it’s worth planting a tiny clue at the beginning of a story, so that the reader will make a connection for themselves. Don’t hit them over the head with it – less is more.
Does vulnerability create a weak character? No. The vulnerability is a pressure point, not a weakness. A character may be driven by a need for justice, and that can influence them to react badly or make unwise decisions in certain circumstances.
In looking for a vulnerability, try and cast the net farther. A detective who drinks, smokes, and sabotages their own relationships is all very well, but we can do better.
Sherlock Holmes isn’t just a drug user – drugs are hardly mentioned in the stories – but he is a victim of his own driven nature. He cannot rest, cannot allow himself a normal life. Some adaptations have painted him as a likeable rogue, but these are missing the point of the stories. He has a heavy weight on his shoulders – he sees dark motives all around him. The world is a puzzle to be solved, and though he’s clever enough to know it’s an endless task, he can never give in.
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