Keep Your Eyes Open
I often joke about my characters from Letting In Light, saying that I worried they would go off and find a proper writer because it took me so long to get their story down. Although this might be a somewhat flippant comment, there is a very real truth in this statement; that I view my characters as real people. They are very firmly at the centre of my writing, and something which others often comment on. Until very recently I would never have dreamed of writing a blog post like this, but so many wondeful things have happened just lately, including being told very firmly that I am a real writer, that I found myself in the rather curious position of being approached by a complete stranger and asked for my advice on how to make good characters. So this is what does it for me, and I offer it up in the spirit of well and truly not knowing all the answers, but if its useful in any way, I'm glad it helped.
Developing my characters and then throwing stuff at them is my favourite part of writing. It amuses me no end when they lead me off into places I didn't think I was going, but if I really believe in them, I have to trust them don't I? And if I really believe in them, the chances are my reader will too.
People often say of themselves; 'Well I don't know how I would react in that particular situation, it's never happened to me before,' and the same is true of your characters to some extent. However they do behave though should be understandable, it should always makes sense and never feel alien. It's true that sometimes people are described as acting out of character, but in books your reader probably won't like it if they do.
I like to really get to know my characters for a while before I write; not just their physical appearance, but their mannerisms, their patterns of speech, the things that make them happy, or annoy them. I like to know what colours they like, or what they would choose to wear, because somewhere along the line I know I will get the opportunity to show my reader (show them mind, not tell them) some other little facet which will add more flesh to my character's bones. After all, watch two people having a conversation and it's never just flat dialogue; they move, change expression, belay their real thoughts by a certain action, or repeat certain mannerisms.
Of course all the above is a wonderfful excuse to people watch, one of my favourite things to do, and something I always do when I have a new idea for a character. I take a notebook and go and sit in a public place for half an hour. I will probably have some general ideas about the character I want, but then I spot someone who takes my eye, and quite suddenly the essence of my character is there (sometimes even plot lines too). It could be as simple as the way they walk, or an item of clothing but before too long your character is building layer by layer.
Don't just limit your observations to people though, get in the habit of observing things each and every day. A character in my third book is named from a personalised numberplate on the back of a motorbike I pulled up behind at a set of traffic lights. The name was so unusual it delivered my character to me almost fully formed right there and then.
This week I stood at my bedroom window for ten minutes one morning watching the birds in our garden feeding at the bird table. The blackbirds are a noisy boisterous group. Not shy at all they queue up waiting for the food to go on the table and then dive in like unruly kids bustling about without any finesse, scattering seed this way and that. The pigeons are loud in flight, usually overshoot their target, and come into land more by luck than judgement, in an ungainly heap. They remind me of the bumbling village idiot in a crime comedy caper. The little blue tits however are like ninjas; they're in and out before anyone even notices they've been. The star of my show however is the ever present robin who patiently waits until there's a gap in proceedings and then pops in and out, never straying too far away. I like the robin's stance. He sits there with his head cocked to one side; he knows he's in it for the long haul, he knows he'll still be here when the other birds have flown and he knows that there will always be food for him. So is he patient, sitting back to let the others have their turn? Or is he just being magnanimous, beacause after all we all know its his garden really. Even birds have a story to tell you.
The more you look, the more you'll see, and the more you see the better equipped you will be to deliver that in your work.
Keep your eyes and your mind wide open.