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  • Karen Hamilton-Viall

Creating Character

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

I often see queries on writer's forums asking, "How do I create characters?" I'm not a published writer, but those that have read my work say that character is something I do quite well. I thought therefore, I'd write a blog about how I create my own characters. Hopefully this will work for you too.

I think the first advice in creating characters is to live some life. One of my favourite authors, Adrian Bell once said that it takes a year of living to write a book and I think this is true. You need to have experienced the world to write about it. A younger friend of mine who was only sixteen at the time, was once quite downhearted after talking to an older friend who was in his sixties. The older friend had so many amazing stories to tell about his life and his days in the army. Our advice was, "You're only sixteen. You'll have your own tales to tell if you give it a few more years." Don't despair therefore if you're a young writer, struggling to find a story. You can also draw on other people's experiences, not just your own. Take note of the tales that people relate to you.

Which leads me on to the second most useful idea I learnt about creating characters. A couple of years ago I decided to do Masterclass lessons with Neil Gaiman. It was a useful course and I highly recommend it. The advice that stuck with me most was to make a compost heap of characters to draw on when you need them. This was something that in my own way I had always done. We all meet interesting characters along he road of life and subconsciously we draw their little idiosyncrasies into our mind. What changed after watching his lesson was that I started keeping a physical list of characters I met. The mind is fallible and easily forgets but a list can not. I have always been a people watcher. I could sit and watch people for hours. I even create stories in my mind of what happens in their lives. You can of course find people everywhere, in the supermarket, in a restaurant or down the pub. As an example, a couple of years ago, I met a lady selling jam at a boot sale. She started to tell me her whole life story, I think in an effort to sell me jam, or perhaps she was just a little lonely. She appeared to be in her seventies but she said she had grown up in Trinidad. Her family had once had money and servants but her mother had always made her own pineapple jam and the stallholder had learnt her jam recipe from her mother. Whenever the pineapples were ripe and cheap, she would make big batches. In a loud voice she said, "I only use FRRESSSH ginger", as she rolled her R's in an Eartha Kit type fashion. "You tell your friend that!" she exclaimed. "My jam is solid ALL the way to the bottom, not liquid like these shop jams. "My pineapple jam tastes like honey." she said in a mellifluous voice, as smooth and sweet as honey oozing from a jar. I could imagine honey bees flying around her head as she said the words. As we parted she blew me a kiss from her fingers and I left several pounds down, two jars of jam up and feeling as If my soul had just received a positive charge. She has sat strongly in my mind ever since. I've not yet used her as a whole character but I've used parts of her.

I now have compost heaps, not just for characters, but story ideas, favourite words, places, odd dreams and more. If you haven't started your own heap yet, start one right now and add any interesting people you met recently to it.

I think it's important not to ignore other sources of characters. Characters can be found in film, the internet and in books too. One of my favourite book sources for characters is Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London poor. It was written in the mid-ninteenth century and is available to buy as four volumes or you can read extracts online. Mayhew spent a long time talking to people from all walks of life, from thieves to shopkeepers. Apart from being a useful tool for understanding London at that time, the people described are full of quirks. One street performer was described beautifully by Mayhew. He said that he had a habit of rubbing his hands together before a performance as if he was lathering a bar of soap between them. It was such a lovely description, I included it in one of my short Christmas stories for kids.:

The internet is a wonderful source of characters. I'm particularly fond of watching old interviews with people who's lives barely crossed with my own, as they describe what life was like 100 years or more ago. You Tube is particularly useful for such things. This is one of my favourites.

Twitter can also be quite a useful source. I started an account for my writing, in fact I have several. Just about everyone posts on Twitter these days, from road sweepers to top surgeons. Their pages can present little vignettes about their lives and characters. I think writers are interesting people to follow as they come from such varied backgrounds. Your local postie delivers words by day but he might also be penning a novel by night.

I guess my advice is therefore that character is everywhere, you just need to keep your eyes open for it, and make notes of it when you do see it. Take up people watching as a hobby. Even in these trying times, where we're locked down at home, you can still find character everywhere. You don't need to take someone's whole character, use the bits you like to create your own characters, as long as their traits aren't too contradictory. That said, some of my favourite characters such as Jaime Lanister from Game of Thrones are just that!

Characters need to have different depths and levels to be really interesting. Nobody is particularly interested in a character who is all goody two shoes and no faults. My husband dislikes superman for this very reason. It is our flaws and quirks that make us interesting so try to put some of these into your characters. Jessica Jones is a far more interesting character. She doesn't always follow the rules; she drinks heavily; she sleeps with who she wants but she's also loyal to family and friends and very caring.

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