The stories in my collection The Woman Who Never Did are mostly character driven, so I’ve spent a lot of time trying out tricks to bring them to life. There’s plenty of advice out there in books and on the internet to help you develop your character, whether they originate from real life or your imagination or, most often in my case, both. Here are some of my favourites:
- Create a character profile sheets to flesh out them out as physical and emotional beings, their relationships, where they live, their tastes in food, literature, even what sort of shoes they wear. In Gloria, the character of Jean is epitomised by her ‘gorgeous’ shoes which are very high and often embellished by a bit of diamante.
- Look at your character from all angles – 360 degrees and inside out. What’s the image they present to the world? To themselves? If they’re happy or angry or sad? What do they look like from behind when they think nobody’s watching?
- Give them a signature song or binge on their favourite music – Mike, who features in Belvedere Road and The Green Tie, is very fond of The Beatles.
- Write them into different social situations, how would they handle conflict/unwanted attention/being on display?
- Get them in and out of bed. What’s the first thing they do in the morning and the last thing at night?
But do these living breathing characters need to be likable? In particular, does the hero/heroine/ main protagonist need to be likable? Ask Brett Easton Ellis – I thought Patrick Bateman, the (anti)hero of American Psycho was the most unpleasant character I’d ever come across, but that didn’t stop me engaging with the book. I don’t feel I need to like the main character, or characters, so long as they are compelling and I feel strongly about them. I want to care about the outcome of the story – even if that caring manifests as a desire to see them come to a sticky end. I certainly wished such an end for Patrick Bateman, but my feelings towards Mervyn Peake’s Steerpike (of Titus Groan and Gormenghast) are more complicated. Early in the narrative, I’m firmly on his side against the suffocating and repressive society in which he is trapped. But, as Steerpike’s resentment festers and his mind becomes as twisted as the dark passages of Gormenghast Castle, my sympathy seeps away.
The Hobbit, for instance. Yet I have a friend who can’t stand Bilbo Baggins and finds himself rooting for Gollum every time! As a writer, I’ve experienced a similar reaction to one of my own characters. A few years ago, I was involved in a project run by Andrew Killeen (author of The Khalifah's Mirror and The Father of Locks) to produce a book called Cityscapes. A group of writers came together to write short stories inspired by exhibitions at the Barber Institute in Birmingham. When I came to read my story, Lulu’s London, opinions were divided. Lulu was a character with a chequered past and a confused present – half the room loved her and half the room hated her, but no one was indifferent which made me very happy.
Personally, I have a soft spot for characters who seem nice, but whose nastier traits are gradually laid bare as I read (or write) further into the story. And that leads us back to the importance of creating characters who are satisfying, from all 360 degrees. Perhaps the key is the understanding that nobody is totally evil or totally good. Nor should we expect our characters to be. The scales may shift as the plot progresses and, as in real life, the balance may not ever be fully resolved.
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Jenefer also comperes the ‘Words’ open-mics at The Globe in Warwick and is currently putting together a collection of pieces written mainly for performance, working title Women in Shorts, which she hopes to publish later this year.