Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Writing Tips #6 – Melinda Hammond on Creating Characters

Today, Sarah Mallory shares her writing tips with us. Sarah also writes as Melinda Hammond.

If a reader is going to love your books they have to love the characters – or hate them. The point is, readers have to care about the characters and what is going to happen to them. So how do we go about creating them?  I am sure writers have many different ways of doing this, but here's a whistlestop tour of points that works for me.

Most important, know your characters before you begin.

 I use pictures to help me visualise my characters.

I print out or cut out pictures of actors, models, celebrities who look like my character and put them on a storyboard so that when I am writing the physical description I can glance across and see it. For example Jake Gyllenhaal looks the way I imagine my latest hero to look, dark and enigmatic.

Describe their appearance succinctly, today's readers don't have time for pages of information.

I know that some authors advise against beginning your character-creation with a name, because we have a lot of preconceived ideas about names.  

However, sometimes I have a name before I have anything else, e.g. for my book LUCASTA . It comes from a poem called To Lucasta, Going to the Wars and was written by Richard Lovelace in 1649. It's quite short, so here it is in full.
Tell me not, Sweet, I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To wars and arms I fly.
True, a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.
Yet this inconstancy is such
As you too shalt adore;
I could not love thee, Dear, so much,
Loved I not Honour more.

I loved the name Lucasta and couldn't believe it hadn't been used more in books, so I dreamed up a character from the name. (On another note, I also like to think that my heroes might have the same noble sentiments at the poet is expressing here).

Give every person in your book a different voice – this means knowing each one of them to a greater or lesser extent.

 I have never included a real person in one of my books, but I do draw on character traits that I observe in people. For your inner character you need to live the story through your character's thoughts, feelings and words – show don't tell. 

Describe a character through action, mannerisms, body language, speech, voice etc.  e.g. if the hero is an energetic man, he strides, paces, runs rather than walks; he jumps up from his seat if he is prone to impatience.

Drip feed the information about your character – no need to have pages of description, feed it in slowly, bit by bit, so it doesn't turn into a boring catalogue of points.

You can also give a character's whole family background quite briefly. Remember Pride & Prejudice, when Lady Catherine de Bourgh is questioning Elizabeth about her upbringing and Elizabeth tells her they had no governess:

Lady Catherine "…without a governess you must have been neglected."
Elizabeth "Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn never wanted the means.  We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle certainly might."

That explains a lot about all the Bennet sisters in only half a dozen lines.

Make the characters true to their time – don't project 21st century values onto an 18th century man or woman.  Okay, sometimes one has to compromise a bit, to bring modern day readers and historical characters closer together, but you can do this subtly, explain the character's viewpoint. In my recent Sarah Mallory book, A LADY FOR LORD RANDALL, my heroine Mary doesn't believe in marriage – a modern point of view, perhaps but not unknown in 1815. I explain in the book that she is the daughter of radical parents - followers of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary also has a circle of radical friends, but outside that circle her views are frowned upon. Her beliefs would allow her to become Randall's mistress, but she is made fully aware of the disapproval all those around her and she also knows that taking such a step will jeopardise her livelihood as a teacher.

Flaws are human, so use them. Flaws work for heroes and villains.  Don't just create a great hero, make sure he has a worthy opponent, whether it's his love interest or the villain of the piece. Most character traits can be both positive and negative.  One person's love could be another's obsession

Motivation – for good or evil – needs to be clear and logical: a reader must be able to believe in what is going on, especially when the character makes a mistake: it shouldn't be out of character.

Make use of the physical setting – is your character at home in the landscape, or is it alien, does it make him/her uncomfortable? For example in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliffe's character is reflected by the wild Yorkshire moors. Imagine how different he would appear if you set him in a London salon.

How will your character react in a given situation?  Some writers say they never know what is going to happen in their story, or that they suddenly have to re-write a chapter because they realise at that point that the character would never react in that way. If you know your characters, they can even help write the book for you!

You can use books on psychology, take role models from mythology, some people use the zodiac.  It doesn't matter where you get your inspiration from, as long as you make your character a real person with hopes, fears, strengths and weaknesses.

So finally, here's a short check list you might find useful when creating your characters.

Name / nickname – remember this might well fix her/him in a time or a place. Sometimes a name will come fairly late in the writing stage, but as I have said earlier, it might be the starting point for your whole story.
Appearance -  I like to know how my characters look before I start.
Background - Where does he/she come from – what period of history
Academic or a physical? Is this character brainy or sporty, or a combination of both? Does he/she act first or think first?
Introvert or extrovert
Relationships – a loner, or lots of friends

So that's roughly how I create my characters, but one word of warning - if you make your characters too real they may take over the book! That's fine if they are the main characters, they will sort the plot out for you. However, if they are minor characters you may have to rein them in with the promise of a book of their own at some point. That has happened to me on several occasions. Then of course you have to write another book. And another, and another……

Of course this is only one point of view - you may find that something very different works for you. Perhaps you would like to share with us your tips for creating characters
Happy writing!

Melinda Hammond


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