Monday, 29 April 2013

Writing Characters That Live On And Off The Page


I'm deep into my novel, a tale of 19th Century street life, so I've been spending a lot of time with my protagonist, Miss Patience Baker of Rotherhithe. She's good company, and I enjoy our time together, but something struck me today. What does she do when I'm not there?

I know a lot about Patience. I should do. I created her. But as I write, and think, and plan, she grows and deepens. She's becoming her own person. Sometimes this means I have to have a plot re-think. Sometimes she gives me just what I need to make the story sing. Sometimes she refuses to co-operate and I have to stop and listen. She's usually right.

I realise this makes me sounds a touch insane, but you know what I mean, don't you? If you don't, then you need to start listening to your characters. Let them off the leash. Let them figure out their own story. So how do you do this?

Spend time with them. A lot of time. Not just writing time or planning time, either. Give them a space in your heart as well as your head, and listen to them. Talk to them. OK so people may cross the road as you come muttering and laughing towards them (or is that just me?), but it's worth it. When you catch your character off guard, she will open up and tell you all sorts of little details that you didn't know you needed to know. Patience has never had money. She's just run away from the workhouse. I had no idea, until she told me, that she longed for a perfect pair of leather boots with tiny buttons.

When you read other people's work, think about what your character would do in that situation. Would they find an inner strength? Would they go against everything they believe in? Would they have courage or would they run away?

Think about the parts of your story that are not on the page. You don't write about every minute of every day, so what do they do when you're not there? Do they have interests that you hadn't considered? Do they lie there brooding over past injustices or do they consciously try to move on from them? Do they have fun? How? What are the tiny things they take pleasure in?

Character charts are all well and good but they don't bring anyone to life. Although they are mighty useful for consistency! I truly believe that your characters can teach you so much if you give them the freedom to be themselves. So, go on. Give them a chance!

1 comment:

  1. Love that you discovered your character's longing for boots with buttons. Characters are funny aren't they? Sometimes they're brash and so forthcoming it feels like you're taking dictation. Sometimes they are so timid you have to pretend you're not looking to trick them into coming out!

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