Six Top tips on writing characters

August 31, 2015 | By | 1 Reply More

Dinah Jefferies 002(1)I had to cut 49,000 words from the 100,000 word manuscript of my third book, The Silk Shop in Hanoi. Of my two point of view characters, one wasn’t working. I tinkered, I edited, I tore my hair, and yes, I swore, but the character was still wrong and had to go. It was heartbreaking and added over three months of re-writing to the time I’d already devoted to the manuscript. The good news is that I learnt so much more about my characters because of it. Not that I’d want to have to do that again. Ever! But it made me think about what makes a great character.

What comes first? Plot or character? It turned out my character didn’t work because my plot (and plot structure) was skewed. It’s fashionable to say characters before plot, but I was at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2014 listening to Sarah Waters speak about this. She’s the writer with more novels turned into film or TV dramas than any other female British author.

She sees herself as a storyteller first and foremost and, while her characters are absolutely vital ( and quite wonderful!) plot comes first. This is how I work too. My tip isn’t that you do what I do, but that you discover what works for you. Believable engaging characters are essential and many authors write detailed bios for each one. I don’t. I find it deadly boring. I need to understand my characters by telling their story. I will have thought about who they are, but for me it’s only when they start doing stuff that I get the real clues. If bios help you, then write them. They aren’t compulsory.

Yes or No? A writer I know is looking for an agent. He was annoyed that several rejection letters told him the main character wasn’t likeable. It’s the wrong word. Your reader doesn’t have to ‘like’ your character but he or she must feel it’s worth engaging with you character, must care enough about the character to want to know what happens to him/her, and must be interested enough in your character to want to root for her.

Emotion matters. Stating the obvious; your character needs a story goal. We need to see what really matters to him or her, and we get to know the character, not because of what happens to him/her in pursuit of her goal, but because of how she responds to what happens. And what she does next. Show her responses. Show emotional responses, physical responses, decisions. But above all show us how your character feels, so that the reader can feel it too. Reading is a vicarious experience. We want to feel a character’s anguish and confusion, her joy and her pain.

Dreams and failure. We connect with characters who have dreams of what they want to achieve, who have goals and desires, but whose internal difficulties create problems for them. We need to know what the characters hopes are, so that when they’re dashed we feel it too. We connect with characters who make mistakes, and don’t always get things right first time, because we’re like that too.

Readers don’t fall in love with a character for what she looks like, they fall in love with her soul. I’ve had this mantra pinned to my wall for years. I think I read something like it somewhere, though I haven’t a clue where. Go inside your character, get to her complexity. Find the tensions, find the stresses and strains, and then show the difference between what she says and what she really feels. We want to relate to characters with courage, spirit and resilience, but we don’t want them to be perfect.

Character arc… is what happens as a character copes with all the conflicts within and outside of them. The character arc is the story of who they become through facing the trials and tribulations you have built for them.

Tea Planter's WifeMy second novel, The Tea Planter’s Wife, is a portrait of a woman forced to choose between her duty as a wife and her instinct as a mother… In 1925, nineteen-year-old Gwendolyn Hooper steps off a steamer in Ceylon, full of optimism, eager to join her new husband. But the man who greets her at the tea plantation is not the same one she fell in love with in London.

Left to explore the plantation alone, she finds it’s filled with clues to the past – locked doors, a yellowed wedding dress in a dusty trunk, an overgrown grave hidden in the grounds, far too small for an adult… The Tea Planter’s Wifeis a story of guilt, betrayal and untold secrets, but in terms of character, it’s about how a young woman faces extraordinary difficulties, and who she becomes because of that. That’s her arc. The character arc can take any form you want it to, but your character needs to have changed in some way by the end of the book.

So about my 49,000 word cut? The re-write is finished, though I’ll still have edits and the remaining point of view character will still need tweaking. I think next time I might try a bio, after all, but I’m willing to bet I don’t stick to it and I’ll get my plot & structure right first.

Dinah Jefferies is the author of Penguin Books, The Separation 2014

& The Tea Planter’s Wife August 2015

Follow Dinah on Twitter @DinahJefferies

Find out more about Dinah on her website


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  1. As a first-time novel writer working on my third draft, I love when I find an experience I can relate to. I tried the bio route and was bored to death. Even forgot what I’d written for some of them. Yet, when I’m writing my characters, I know instinctively what they would and would not do. Your experiences and examples resonated with me. Wonderful post! Thank you.

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