At the start of my career I had a book rejected because the commissioning editor didn’t feel my characters were ‘coming across’. I think she was trying to find a polite way of saying they were flat and dull – ‘cardboard’ characters, if you like – which is about the worst thing you can say to an author. It was as though she’d criticised my children – and I probably felt like crying for a week. With hindsight, my characters all sounded the same – and all of them sounded like me! But I went back to my desk, read a lot and wrote a lot, and this is what I learned.
First, beware of the ‘quick fix’. Everyone has favourite words and phrases – catchphrases, if you like. Don’t believe me? Wait until you get into an argument with your teenage children and hear yours quoted right back at you. Or worse, have that ‘Oh, God, I sound just like my mother’ moment. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking all you have to do is scatter a few catchphrases through your manuscript and everything will be fine. You might be able to get away with it once or twice, but it will get old really quickly. If you’re not careful, your characters will sound as though they’ve just walked off an episode of The Simpsons – and not in a good way.
Do not, under any circumstances, be tempted to use ‘Allo ‘Allo! type accents for any character who is from a different region or country to you. It is patronising and offensive. There is a simple way to show an accent without resorting to missing letters and littering your page with apostrophes. You know, actually listen to the way people speak. There is a rhythm to the way we construct our sentences, and the words we choose to use depend on where we grew up, our education, and our age.
Avoid stereotyping. Military personnel don’t talk in acronyms, teenagers don’t spend all their time on social media, and only TV detectives talk about ‘vics’ and ‘perps’. One of the reasons I created DI Ben Taylor as an old-fashioned Mr Nice Guy in Trust Me I Lie was because I was so fed up with reading/watching ‘maverick’ detectives who would have been fired in real life.
Unfortunately there are no shortcuts to creating memorable characters. Accept that you will have to put the work in and really get to know them. A literary agent once told me one of his authors wrote ten pages about each of her characters before she even began work on her novel. I wouldn’t go quite that far myself, but I do ensure I know everything about them even if I don’t use it in my story. This applies just as equally to the minor characters. In addition to helping your reader remember who is who, they will care more if something bad happens to one of them.
Forget about ‘What is my character’s favourite food/colour/music?’ and concentrate on ‘Why is it their favourite food/colour/music?’ Ben, in Trust Me I Lie, likes listening to jazz because it calms him when he’s feeling stressed, whereas Milla likes her music loud and mindless, to fill the silence that reminds her she is alone.
Check that you’ve not put yourself in your own book! This kind of character is known as a Mary-Sue and is usually a perfect, wish-fulfilment version of the author. Same age, same race, same class, same political beliefs, same religion, same career – but more beautiful/handsome, cleverer, wealthier, more popular and universally loved by all. And completely boring. When your characters think, speak or act, make sure they are doing it in their own voice; that it is their reaction and not yours.
Having Ben as my ‘nice guy’ detective in Trust Me I Lie meant I had to create his opposite for my heroine. I came up with Milla, who tells lies for the fun of it and is obsessed with finding the murderer of the woman she considers her mother. And I didn’t go for half-measures either! I made a list of every character trait I hate and gave them to poor Milla. She lies and she cheats. She runs away when the going gets tough, turns up where she’s not wanted, and ‘borrows’ without asking. She tries to manipulate Ben (the only person willing to help her), thinks nothing of luring him into breaking the law and then almost gets him fired.
Out of all my characters Milla is probably the one who is the least like me (I hope!). But that is the fun of being a writer – not to put yourself, or people you know, or your favourite actor into your stories, but to create someone completely new. But don’t think you’ll get to play God with their lives, because when your characters won’t do as they are told, won’t stick to your plan and take your story off in a completely new direction, a better direction, you’ll know your work is done.
Louise Marley is a bestselling author of murder mysteries and romantic comedies. She lives in Wales, surrounded by fields of sheep, and has a beautiful view of Snowdon from her window. Her first published novel was Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which was a finalist in Poolbeg’s ‘Write a Bestseller’ competition. She has written articles for the Irish press and short stories for magazines such as Take a Break and My Weekly, and is a also a creative writing tutor for Writing Magazine.
Her latest novel is Trust Me I Lie
Twitter: https://twitter.com/LouiseMarley @LouiseMarley