Characters and Characterisation

by Bill Kirton
Detail is all
When I’m writing about writing or answering questions during talks and workshops, my stress always seems to be on characters. Plots, themes, descriptions – these and other things all play crucial roles but they need beings moving amongst them to give them their point and focus. Even God realised an empty landscape, however beautiful, needed a bit of drama. It was fine to have all these unnamed animals wandering about in lush pastures. Fine but boring. It needed someone to start asking what the point of it all was, maybe a bit of mindless violence, a touch of sex, something to disturb the harmony. So he got the clay, made a bloke, nicked a rib, made a woman and here we are.

For me, stories rely heavily on credible characters. They don’t have to be good. In fact bad characters are often more interesting. Perhaps I’m just saying that because I happen to write crime fiction but even in other genres and in mainstream ‘literary’ novels, the most memorable characters are frequently those with flaws or nasty habits. Maybe that’s a comment on human nature – perfection or an approximation of it can’t be trusted. Whatever the reason, we need them.

So this is just some random thinking about how writers make their characters live. And, first of all, there’s an alchemy going on that lets us visualise and/or empathise with a character in the act of creation. We become the persons and we know what they’re thinking and feeling. We hear their voices dictating to us. I read one writer somewhere saying that writing is like acting in that respect. And it’s true. The problem is the duality that forces on us; simultaneously, we’re actor and writer. Consider this:

Joe watched his wife chopping the onions. Why did she always start cooking when they were in the middle of a row? It never solved anything; just left the enmity simmering. His brown eyes narrowed as he felt his own anger return.

It seems to be an event we’re seeing through Joe’s eyes. But if that’s the case, how do we know they’re brown? If you see the colour of someone’s eyes you’re looking at them not through them. So we need to be both actor and director, which are separate skills.

But there are easier ways round it. Their names for a start. Henrietta Willoughby probably won’t be in the same class at school as Doreen Norsworthy or Chardonnay Biggs. Jezza Jackson won’t be hanging out with Hugh Denbigh. And they’re subtle separations that can be achieved without resorting to Arthur ‘The Gut’ Wobblebottom or Admiral Sir Dickson Ponsonby-Smythe clichés.

Another short cut to characterisation is to use idiosyncrasies and gimmicks. You can give someone a nervous tic, a stutter. He can chew a toothpick, always sit with his feet on his desk, wear strange shirts. It’s a cheap way of creating instant character. The danger is in overdoing it. It’s too easy for such people to be two-dimensional, predictable. They become the tic.

Just as quick but more subtle is to alter some aspect of the setting so that the person
What's the story here?
inhabiting it has some mystery about them. Look at a normal scene and remove one element from it. A woman may have no photographs in her house, a man comes home and always puts his house keys in a small cupboard high on the wall of the entrance hall. Another wears a small brooch intended for a female and makes sure he always hooks it into any new jacket, sweater or shirt he puts on. When you do this you’re creating characters by making the reader ask WHY?

The importance is in the specificity of the detail. Vagueness and generalities contribute to flat, dull writing. And it brings us to the tired old bit of advice: show don’t tell. It may sound corny but it’s true. Don’t tell the reader that your character’s unhappy; show him with details of behaviour (tears, a trembling lip, angry driving, a clenched fist). Don’t tell him a man is tall. Show the man ducking under an awning, or curling up to get into a small car. Showing gives your story and your characters ambiguity, mystery. When you say ‘George was a miser’, that’s that. Instead, let the reader notice that George’s mobile always rings just as it’s his round in the pub.

Another example of that sort of collaboration between you and the reader comes when you use the old trick of typification. Simply by beginning a sentence ‘She’s the sort of woman who …’ you invite the reader to supply the personality. Add whatever you like to the formula and you have instant characterisation ‘… always buys organic vegetables’, ‘… wears dresses a size too small’, ‘… plays the men at their own game’, ‘…pretends not to watch Downton Abbey’. There are several different ways of introducing the idea: ‘Men like him always tend to .…’, ‘He was everything you’d expect of a beer-swilling rugby player’ and so on.

But that’ll only give you the basis. You then need to refine it to keep the reader’s interest. And that’s where (once again) asking ‘WHY?’ is useful. Try giving a character two layers. On the surface, for example, he drinks a lot, spends as much time as possible in the pub, talks rubbish. But when he goes home, he plays Mozart. As a student, I used to work as a builder’s labourer. On one site, I worked with a carpenter who’d read all of Balzac (in translation) and wished he’d written more. The questions that throws up create instant complexity.

Two final points, the Scottish writer, Isla Dewar, once said at a conference that it was important to ‘give your character room to dance’. That’s a great way of reminding us to let our characters have the space to be themselves. We can kick-start them, but then let them go where they want.

And finally, I can’t resist (yet again) insisting that hell is other people. On the flimsiest of evidence, we’re all ready to ascribe characteristics to people, even ones we don’t know.  But as we write, it’s in our favour; we can rely on the readers’ anticipations. Give them a hint, then let them do the work.


Love this post - all of it true, all of it helpful. I too focus more on character than anything else and once you're 'on your way' with a character, once you've got his or her voice, it all begins to fit together and you pretty much know what will happen. (Which fits in with Debbie's post about plotting by the seat of your pants - me too!) I overheard a conversation only this week that went 'Oh - they're the new people. He's ever so good looking.' Those who had met him all agreed that he was indeed an extremely handsome man. (I haven't seen this paragon yet.) Then somebody said 'He's a cage fighter you know.' It was like a small explosive, detonated in the middle of the group of (mostly) women! All I could think of was that it sounded like the start of a story. Actually, I had already used something similar in Ice Dancing, but I thought I was making it up. There is so much material, everywhere, every day but most of it is linked to the amazing variety of character out there.
Nick Green said…
I think a character feels real when you can sense they have their own story, whether or not the main story addresses it in depth. That story is the depth behind them which gives them that vital third dimension.
DragonLady said…
I had someone remark in a review that I never described my character: his height, color of eyes, nothing. Yet the reader knew him to be slight and, in his eyes, 'beautiful'.
I nearly wept at that, because the reader had focused on what drives all my stories: characters.
Dan Holloway said…
Great piece. Balancing those last two is a bugger, isn't it? Give characters their head and before you know where you are they've run away and you've done far more than "hint"
Lee said…
Bill, I feel that you're putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Mannerisms and habits follow on from understanding a character in some depth; otherwise, you risk 'putting together' a jigsaw puzzle sort of figure.
Lydia Bennet said…
thought provoking post Bill. Characters are so important, even more so perhaps in a series of books, and letting them grow and change and age is important too. Of course the risk with the kind of details you describe is that they can rely on outmoded stereotypes, which does happen with some writers, and I find that off-putting.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks all. I guess I should have made it clear that this isn't a 'How to create a believable character' blog - just a look at some of the shorthand tricks available to get started. The important thing is that question 'Why?' Why doesn't she have any photos around the house? Why does he wear such horrible shirts? Why does he always need to have something to chew on? They may be mere tics, but they spring from something inside the person and discovering or revealing that is what gives her/him density. It's when, in Dan's words, they 'run away' that they become so much more than the tic, the idiosyncrasy, and maybe even their creator.
Lee said…
I'm still going to disagree, Bill, though most cordially. There are no shorthand tricks to authenticity. They always show.
Lee said…
Just to elaborate: it's a bit like acting. Second-rate actors pretend to be a character; the very best ones reach inside themselves to find that portion of themselves which is that character.
myraduffy said…
Interesting post,Bill, with lots of helpful reminders.
glitter noir said…
Well done, Bill. I can't agree about your putting the card before the whores. And even if you did, so what? Even whores are allowed to play poker. This piece is right up there with your first-rate post on rhythm: summaries of principles and strategies for pros. Now I'll return to my card game.
Sandra Horn said…
Great post, Bill. Thank you.

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