Every writer is asked at some point, ‘Where do you get ideas for your characters?’ or, ‘Are your characters based on someone you know?’ In my view, characters are best created from the ground up, completely from scratch, no borrowed tidbits from friends or family or hybrids of people I know. This is what makes characters original and believable.
Here, I will describe some of the techniques I use when developing my characters, a few of which I practiced when working on Dawn Solstice.
After deciding on the sex and age of the protagonist, the setting and occasionally the dilemma, the process usually starts with a voice and this, as crazy as it sounds, involves eavesdropping on conversations that are going on in my head. These voices are not mine; they are imagined people, in imagined places, with imagined moods – they are my characters. I try to let the dialogue run as long as required to get a sense of the character’s voice. Occasionally, I will write these conversations down, but mostly I want to listen so that I can learn about how my characters speak, react and sound.
If I am having trouble ‘hearing’ a character, it is fun to write a page or two of narrative in first person. To do this, ensure that you switch off your internal editor so as not to interrupt the flow of the speech. Choose any topic you want to get a feel of how your characters sound and how they view the world, maybe have them discuss this blog post! This technique is great for developing backstory for characters. Have them describe their childhoods or a fear they had growing up, who their friends were or whether they were successful at school.
There are similar exercises to help you build character such as describing the contents of their pockets, their favourite book, preferred item of clothing, how they move and how they stand. All will give you a good base to work from when you begin your story.
The advantages of taking your time with characterisation are revealed when scene building and mood setting. Use character voice to give descriptive passages a deeper perspective. James Joyce was a master at this. The opening sentences in his short story, Clay, describe the kitchen as ‘spick and span’, a perfect way to introduce the voice of ‘cook’ in the narrative that also gives us a sense of place. There are many similar examples in Joyce’s writing that show (as if there could be any doubt) how well he worked on developing his characters.
It is worth bearing in mind, that although you’ll have done all this planning, a character can still surprise you. Sometimes, if you know your character well enough, you can write so deeply from her perspective that her actions may not be what you’d planned to happen. These are moments many writers refer to and occasionally can show a lack of planning but in the well-considered character, where the writer is in tune with that character’s voice and backstory, it can be a real opportunity to allow originality to shine.