How To Build A Character

July 20, 2016 | By | 2 Replies More

Newspaper photoIf you type ‘how to build a’ into Google, you’ll be given the options of shed, fence, house, website. (I don’t think it will be too long before ‘girl’ is added to the list due to Caitlin Moran cornering this part of the literary market.) All of these options give guidance on construction and the key here is that there is intention behind the act of building. The same can be said for creating a character.

Before I begin writing my novels, I build my characters and I perceive them initially as a structure before adding all the soft human elements. This is also when I decide if there are is any building material left over or baggage piled up in the corner.

First of all, they need a foundation and I need to decide immediately if it’s solid or shaky. Next comes the floor. Does it hide the strength, or lack of, in the construction beneath it or does it have visible flaws? Are these easy to see or only apparent on close inspection?

Next comes the walls. How solid are they? Does the wiring woven within pass safety standards or is it at risk of short-circuiting? The roof and façade are then added to complete the picture. What does the building look like? Where are the vulnerable areas and can they withstand long-term erosion or a single powerful battering from the elements? In effect, how strong is the structure? Is it flexible enough to cope with movements that rock the very foundation or directly impact its outer shell?

These are the very questions I ask myself before I begin writing. I test out my protagonists by throwing imaginary situations at them and deciding how they would react. None or few of these may be written into the story but they are critical, nonetheless. The author needs to know their characters.

The author has the responsibility to either divulge or infer the why behind their characters’ words and actions. The last thing the reader wants to contend with is out-of-character behaviour that is neither alluded to nor explained anywhere in the book. Not only is this frustrating but it throws in a seed of doubt that the author doesn’t know their characters well. The author may not divulge the entire backstory of the character (and shouldn’t where it’s not necessary), but there must be enough for the jigsaw to be pieced together to create a satisfactory whole.

The Sender front cover pngLet’s take a character I’ve just imagined who, in the present day, only wears the clothes she bought in the 80s, plays only 80s music and watches only 80s films. Now, this is all fine and well (I’m a big lover of 80s music myself), but what is the reason behind this? While the world has moved on, she has made a conscious decision to remain in that particular decade. Why? Without some kind of explanation or illustration, the reader will be left wondering – why is she choosing to live in the past?

It transpires that the 80s was the decade she had the happiest times with her sister who died in the early 90s. She is unable to move on. Living in that precious decade makes her feel close to her sister and the nostalgia cloaks her like a warm blanket. To live in the present is to admit her sister has gone and she’s not strong enough to do that.

Whether this information is drip-fed to the reader or stated in dialogue, it has to be known so that they understand the make-up of her character. Clearly, her foundation is shaky and one single powerful event has damaged her structure. This also opens up other avenues for the author to explore within the story.

The ultimate decision in creating this building, is where its future lies. Is it destroyed? Is it renovated? Does it continue on with mere tinkering and minor maintenance? And this is the conundrum facing every author – the ending.


Find out more about Toni on her website

Follow her on Twitter @tonijenkinsauth

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

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  1. How To Build A Character | WordHarbour | July 20, 2016
  1. Charlotte69 says:

    One thing I noticed after getting beta readers for my novel was that the bar for “why” was SO much higher than real life. In real life, people often do things that they are only dimly aware of the “why”s of. In fact when I was editing my memoir I had to go back and give actions an “explanation” even though, in real life, there really wasn’t one that I was aware of, just because otherwise, in the context of a narrative, it was head shaking. Why did she say she’d never go into that coffee shop again and then the next day there she was? Why did she tell that person she wouldn’t mind helping with the laundry but we know from page 25 she hates doing laundry? These are the contradictory, sometimes nonsensical things human beings do all the time. Of course, if you dig deep, you will find a “why” but it’s often not as clear cut as “because this was the last time she was happy, so clings to that time.” Sometimes it’s just “she was a little bored.” But you can’t have “she was a little bored” be a motivator in a novel. Sometimes people would ask me things like “Why’d she walk into that room?” It got a little silly, actually, lol. But it also showed me how much readers want a clear cut “why” – possibly because they can’t get that in real life.

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