Sunday, 20 November 2011

How well do you know your characters?

Last week I talked briefly about characters and how often, in my case, they don't learn from the events of a story, although it may affect them in other ways. I'd like to go a little further into this topic in response to my experience with writing my book this week.

Clearly, the more we write about a character, the more we get to know about them. Or at least that's the idea. And we might not always like what we find out. To us, they seem like real people - or they should do if they're to be at all convincing. And all real people are a mass of contradictions, shortcomings, insecurities and prejudices, with usually the odd redeeming feature in there somewhere. (OK, maybe not in every case.)

But above all, real people tend to be intractable buggers. I don't know how much anyone has the power to change. In terms of fiction, this might go against certain rules, but I'd rather my stories were believable. What's more interesting to me is how unpredictable people can be, and it's fascinating to observe this in our characters. Just because their nature isn't changeable, it doesn't mean they can't surprise you. After all, you're just getting to know them.

My work in progress features a woman as the protagonist. Some might consider this a brave move, but so far everything I've written has been from a male perspective, and I wanted to try something different. It might be a complete disaster, but we'll find out. I'm about 11000 words in, and I'm just at a point where this character has got herself into a bizarre situation and I don't know how she's going to deal with it. How the story pans out will reveal more about her character, I guess, and hopefully something of her motivation. She might turn out to be completely psychotic.

How about you? Do you know your characters before you start writing, or do you find out about them during the process? Can you ever know everything about them? Do you like them? Tell me all about it.


choufleur said...


You've chosen a challenge for yourself as women do, in the main, make choices differently from men. I wonder what the nub of this and other differences are? What have you discovered?

Also, not sure if you've read him but I think SJ Watson writes a convincing woman's voice.


DRC said...

I'm huge on planning, and plan my next work while writing my current. Therefore when I come to start, I know my characters pretty well and know what drives them - or I think I do. Even with all that planning I still discover new things along the way...

Good luck with the whole woman prospective. I've written in both.

Nick Wilford said...

Choufleur - I think I'm too early on in the draft to give any definitive answer to your question. I think everyone is an individual but maybe certain generalisations can be made, like you say. I'm just trying to get my head around this particular character. I will post further updates on here as I make progress!

No I have not read SJ Watson, thanks for the tip.

DRC - wow, I wish I had the mental capability to plan one book while writing another! When I'm writing, all my focus is on that story. I still get other story ideas, but I just scribble them down and add them to the to-do list. I don't plan too much anyway - the idea comes first and I have a vague outline, but that changes depending how the characters turn out.

So what differences have you found, when writing in either genre?

Anonymous said...

I prefer my characters to be unpredictable. It makes it interesting when one of them does something totally out of character. To answer your question, I don't fully know my characters when I start on a manuscript. They tend to evolve as the story progresses depending what direction I want to take the story in, if that makes sense.

Nick Wilford said...

Ro - I think unpredictable characters are best as that keeps it interesting for the reader. As long as it doesn't become completely unbelievable! I too find out about my characters as I go along, once I see them in action.

Amanda Borenstadt said...

I thought I knew my male main character in my work in progess, but he is surprising me. He's not as predictable as I thought, which makes him both fun to write and difficult, plotwise

I like him, but once in a while I'd like to give him a swift kick. He's not always the most sympathetic character.

Nick Wilford said...

Amanda - yes, it can be a love hate relationship with your characters, but no one would be interesting without light and shade.

My main character in my first book was male and I found him quite annoying because he was a sap and just let things happen to him, but at the same time it's probably how I would have been in the situation!

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Hmm, I wonder if writing in a pov character of a gender different than our own forces us to look at things differently and approach situations in a way we wouldn't have normally thought of.

Laura Louise Cox said...

I think I plan my characters and then BAM! mid writing they do something totally unpredictable and I'm like 'What just happened here?'... but I guess that's the fun of it really.

If your characters make you excited imagine what they'll do to a reader?

Best of luck with the book!


P.S I'm loving the blog!

Nick Wilford said...

Amanda - I'm always looking for ways to stretch myself so maybe that's why I chose this route. Time will tell whether it works out!

Laura - Yeah, I think this is the best way to be as if you read a book where you can easily predict what will happen, it's pretty disappointing.

Thank you - I'd hardly read any blogs before this, so didn't really know what I was doing, but I'm enjoying it now!

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

I don't always know my characters that well when I start writing, though I try and get a handle on the main character beforehand. I'm writing a first draft at the moment and one character is so slow to reveal himself.

Nick Wilford said...

Lynda - It might be easier to know all your characters well before you start, but I don't think you can because that only happens through the story. I agree that it can be frustrating!

Dr. Mohamed said...

I know some of my characters before putting down the first word and others are born from the story, so it's a mix.

Nick Wilford said...

Mohamed - Yeah, it's always nice when new people crop up that you didn't plan for. That keeps it interesting.