There are two answers to the question: a short answer and a long one.
The short answer:
Kill them. If the writer can’t relate to them, they won’t portray that character as a three-dimensional being and the reader won’t relate to them either.
The long answer:
If the character is your main character, you have a greater problem. You need to work out why your character isn’t working, and fix it. I use a gateaux approach to this problem: layers, upon layers.
Once a month, I host a write-in. This month, a fellow writer suggested I write a series of blogs addressing writerly problems. Today’s topic is knowing your characters.
Most writers know all about creating character profiles and writing GMC (Goal, motivation, conflict). They know that characters need believable backgrounds and both internal and external conflict. Yet I still read books where the writer has mixed up the characters’ names because they can’t remember who’s talking or whose head they’re in.
They don’t know their characters.
As a reader, that’s really irritating. It makes me think the author doesn’t care enough about their characters to know them properly and doesn’t care enough about their book to double check all those things and make sure it’s right. The fact that the book has generally gone through several rounds of editing and no one has picked it up tells me that the characters being confused are too similar to each other.
So how do you know when you know your character well enough that you won’t get them mixed up or forget who they are?
Many years ago, my writer friend attended a workshop run by Gary Crew who said he knew the character when he could hear his voice. Other authors might say they know their characters when they can see their walk or the way their eyes crinkle at the corners when they smile. That last description has been overused in the last three books I’ve read (one series by one author) to describe one of the major characters – a different one in each book.
For me, I rarely know my characters thoroughly enough to finish writing a book until I’ve written at least three chapters. It doesn’t matter if the chapters are from their point of view, or another character’s. What matters is that I learn how my character walks, talks, responds to other people and situations, and how they do those things differently to everyone else in the book.
By the end of three chapters, I’ve begun to think about my characters as real people. Their personalities have settled and their reactions to things that happen in the book match that. By the end of three chapters, I’ve worked out where the holes are in the character profile and how I need to change the character background or plot to account for the way the character responds to situations.
Of course, most of those three chapters end up on the bin, but at least I know who my character is.
One example of this process is Heath in Warrior Pledge. The book opens with Checa sitting on the mountainside watching the sunrise, waiting for Heath to arrive. Heath’s arrival is much anticipated and heralded by nature with as much fanfare as the new day. He bursts onto the scene in a bubble of joy which swings mercurially through hurt to anger. The scene shows Heath’s personality perfectly and lets the reader know exactly who he is and how he might respond to things that happen during the book.
That scene was one of the last scenes I wrote in the first draft.
I needed to write myself into Heath before I could portray him so accurately.
A challenge for you:
With the next book you read, make a note of when you thought you saw the true personality of the main character. Did you see it straight away? Was it revealed in a series of carefully or brilliantly scheduled actions? Were you told what the character was like, but he never lived up to the promise, always feeling two dimensional?
Which of those books did you like best?
The story has progressed to the stage where I need to make some decisions about the plot. So far I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants, making it up as I go along, with only a brief premise to guide me. That’s my comfort zone with writing. Now, though, something has happened and there has to be a reaction to that. Working out how each person will react is only partly based on their personality. Whatever the reaction is, by either character, it has to move the story forward. That means I have to know a bit about the story.
My first decision will have to be about the length of the story because that will influence the complexity of the plot. Is it going to be a short story (up to 15000 words)? Will it be a novella (15000 – 30000 words)? Or am I going for a full-length novel.
The last few pieces I’ve written have been full-length novels. They’re fulfilling but time consuming, and a lot of hard work. I’ve written a couple of short stories in there as well. Some of the short stories have begun as a character exploration for the novels, some have been custom-written for a specific market. The short stories are quick and either easy or super challenging. Sometimes they fall into place and I’m done in a few days. Other times, particularly when I’ve spent a lot of time writing ‘long’, I need to heavily edit the story, pare it back to the basics.
A novella falls somewhere in between those two. You can explore the complexities of the plot and the characters a lot more than in a short, but you don’t need multiple plot lines to keep things moving.
Deciding on the length of the story comes out of the first few scenes I’ve written. With The Gingerbread House, I’m at 2000 words and have just introduced the two characters. At this stage, it could be any length. I made the arbitrary decision that this story isn’t going to be a novel. It’s not going to take me six months to write and edit. This decision was partly made because I don’t have the time right now to devote to a long work, and partly because, with the amount of effort required for a novel, I want the possibility of being paid for it when I’m finished. That’s not going to be the case with this story because I’m posting it free every week.
That leaves the choice between short story and novella. I’m going to aim for a short story, with the option of a novella. I think it’s possible to complete a basic plot within the 15000 word limit, but I want the option to expand it if the plot becomes more complex than I think it will.
Length influences plot.
The plot is influenced by the length of the story. Generally, the shorter the work, the less complex the plot. In a short story, there’s room for only one plot arc, and one character arc for each character.
Plot, in very basic terms can be encapsulated by the question: what happens next? I’ve discussed a number of plotting tools that can be used when writing in previous blog entries so I won’t go into them again here. I’ll make a very basic list of what will happen with Andrew and Thomas.
As with characters, my plots evolve as the story is written and I learn more about the characters and the situation. With a longer work, the differences between plan and fruition are marked. With this story, that probably won’t be the case.
Now to continue The Gingerbread House.
Andrew glanced around the room. “Is Mistress Osborne that crazy witch that lives beyond the Troll Bridge?” Thomas nodded. “Why are you here instead of there, studying?”
Thomas’s shoulders slumped, then straightened again. “I’m more powerful than she is.”
“So, you’re here by choice? But can’t get out?” Andrew looked around again. “Why would you do that?”
“I’m not here by choice! She’s trapped me here because she thinks I’m going to drain her magic and take over her business.” Thomas’s fingers curled into frustrated fists.
“I didn’t think you could take someone’s magic without their permission.”
“So her thinking you’ll take her magic is what—paranoia? And if you’re stronger than she is, how can she keep you trapped here?”
Thomas’s shoulders slumped. “She didn’t cast the spells. Her pet gremlins did.”
“Are gremlins more powerful than wizards? I thought they were cute little things that looked like children even though they’re ancient.”
“They’re not more powerful; they have different magic that wizards can’t control.” Thomas spoke through gritted teeth. “Yes, gremlins look like children at a cursory glance.” He jammed his hands on his hips. “Now tell me who the hell you are that you could circumvent all the spells surrounding this place and waltz in here?”
Andrew grinned and settled more comfortably on his seat. “I’m Andrew,” he repeated. “I’m a baker.” His grin widened at the expression on Thomas’s face. Winding Thomas up was almost as easy, and way more fun, than teasing his five-year-old sister. He held the coin up for Thomas to see, then put it on the table and slid it closer to him. “This is what brought me here.”
Thomas scowled at the coin and slowly reached over to touch it with one fingertip. He jumped back as if scalded. “It’s mine.” He glanced at Andrew before returning his attention to the coin. As he picked it up it glowed, just as it had for Andrew on the path. Thomas closed his fingers around the coin. His eyelids slid shut and he hummed, a deep, resonant sound that echoed through Andrew’s body. The hum continued until Andrew felt he had to say something, if only to remind Thomas he was there.
Before Andrew could do more than open his mouth, Thomas’s eyes popped open. “I didn’t think the spell worked.”
“When I first arrived here and worked out what was keeping me here, I tried to cast spells out into the world so someone who could circumvent the gremlins’ magic could come and rescue me. I didn’t think any of them worked.”
Andrew nodded at the coin. He knew he should be smiling and brushing off Thomas’s intimation that Andrew was there to rescue him, but the best he could manage was a grimace. “It didn’t work. I’m a baker. I don’t have any magic.”
Thomas’s shoulders slummed even further than before. “Then I’m stuck here forever.” He glared at Andrew. “And so are you.”
Wait! There’s another character there. I’ve only just got used to the first one.
That’s what happened to me this week. I wrote the end of the last scene three times before I was half-way happy with it. It might still change, depending on what I come up with this week. If you've missed any of the posts, you can check the archives or you can find the whole story, built week by week, on the Free Stories page (The Gingerbread House).
I’ve spent a lot of time this week, thinking about my first character and what his reactions are going to be to the situation he finds himself in. At the moment, he’s rather blasé about it all; basically a ‘you rang?’ kind of thing. I’m not sure if that’s going to work in the long term. I still don’t know him very well.
The second character I don’t know at all, apart from the fact he’s tall and thin, and cooks. I think he’s a baritone, although Andrew saying ‘you rang?’ in a very Lurch-type voice is very appealing for me.
I’ve begun exploring Andrew’s personality. I asked him to tell me a little about himself. What he has told me so far is a little about his background and what his main goal is and why he wants it. I haven’t yet touched on any magical ability or knowledge he might have. The opening scenes give us a pretty clear idea what’s stopping him from achieving his goal. I’ll clarify Andrew’s GMC (Goal, motivation, conflict) as I write, eventually writing it into a clear statement that will drive his responses, and also the plot.
(19 years old, slim, 5’9”, quick on his feet, quick mind and mouth. Dusty brown hair, irregularly cut, flops into his dusty brown eyes all the time, runs his hand from forehead back to push his hair out of the way. His skin is golden brown with a rosy flush because most of his time is spent in the bakery with the hot ovens. Andrew wants a quiet, calm, legitimate life as a baker but every time he thinks he’s within reach of it someone in his family needs to be rescued or a stranger needs help. He has a slight hero complex because he’s the eldest and has always looked out for others.)
I come from a large, improvident family. I’m the eldest of eight but not the first to branch out on my own. My sister, Beatrice, younger by a year, began in domestic service two years ago, when she was sixteen. I was a second-year apprentice then and still living with my mother and other siblings. My father was away, avoiding the coppers after a robbery that went wrong. He’ll come back after the statute of limitations is up, providing he’s still alive. He did a similar thing when I was eight. That’s why there’s such a large gap between the fifth and sixth of us. There’ll be a longer gap after the eighth, if there are any more children at all from them. Mum wasn’t too happy about this one. It means seven years of him away so he doesn’t get caught and deported. Some of my younger brothers are old enough to work now. Martin, at seventeen, is a second-year blacksmith apprentice. John, fifteen, has followed our father into the ‘jewellery trade’. He’s small and quick, like me and, so far, hasn’t been caught. Jocelyn, at fourteen, has been scamming older men for a couple of years already but she has dreams of becoming an artist’s model. The others are still too young to be working outside the home so they help Mum with her sewing and apothecary.
Apprentices in my home town don’t live with their masters until the last year. I’m glad I didn’t have to live with Jackson for more than one quarter of my apprenticeship. I probably wouldn’t have survived. I’ve been on the road for two weeks now and the last of the bruises have finally faded. My wrist still aches by the end of the day, but it’s not broken.
I’m on my way to put in a bid for a market bakery in Eden. I need my bid to be successful even though I can’t offer Borog as much as I’d like. I can’t go back home. If I go back, Jackson will have me thrown in jail. Or he’ll beat me to death. He refused to sign my Baker’s ticket, proving I’d completed my apprenticeship and was now approved to purchase my own bakery. I won’t tell you what he’d done to me during the year I’d lived in his house, but I wasn’t going to let him keep doing it if I didn’t have to. When he started beating me that last time, I fought back. I’m not a big man, but I’m quick, and after four years, I know how to wield those heavy pans. It only took three hits to his head and one to his balls and he signed my papers. I left before he pulled himself up off the floor. My bag was already packed and waiting by the door so I grabbed it and ran. I left a message with the green grocer for Beatrice when she shops for her employers. She’ll let the family know I’ve gone.
Buying Borog’s bakery is part of my dream. I want a quiet life; one that won’t bring the coppers through a broken door in the middle of the night. I don’t want any drama or unexpected things happening. That doesn’t mean I can’t deal with the unexpected. My whole life has been mopping up the disasters my father and, later, brothers and sister have caused. I keep a level head during a crisis and can think on my feet. I might be awash with fear, but no one would know it. I get that much from my dad.
My next task is to find out who the second character is. I can just begin writing him the way I did Andrew but that means the next scene will have to be in his point of view. This is where things begin to get complicated because the two of them need to interact and I have to know how they respond to each other and why. I don’t need to know as much about the second character yet, so his profile won’t be as comprehensive as Andrew’s. Both character profiles will build as I write.
This is what I have about the second character so far:
Tall (6’2”), thin (bony), dark chocolate hair, green-hazel eyes, fair skin, 25, wizard, more powerful than the mistress he apprenticed with. Officially has one more year on his apprenticeship but he has already mastered all the requirements and then some (a lot of things studied in secret because Mistress Osborne refused him access to the texts). His mistress, upon realising Thomas’s strength, coerced the two gremlins she raised [Hansel and Gretel] to imprison him in the house. Hansel and Gretel are the only ones who have access to the house, and therefore Thomas. They visit regularly, trying to get him to agree to allow Mistress Osborne to leach his powers from him. He won’t agree because he knows she’ll kill him once she has what she wants. While she is his mistress, she can contain his powers, but she can’t ever take them by force. Others she’s taken powers from have succumbed to her sexual wiles. Thomas is immune to her, but not the gremlins.
His incarceration has lasted two years so far. His confidence in escaping is teetering but his innate arrogance hides that fact. He can’t fight against the gremlins’ magic, but he’s been working the last two years on a way to freeze it so that he can circumvent it and find a way out of the house. If he can defeat Mistress Osborne, the gremlins’ magical hold over him will dissipate.
In his first days in the house, when he realised he couldn’t use his magic to escape, Thomas sent out a call for help. It didn’t work and, in his despair, he forgot about it. He doesn’t realise his call manifested as a coin that would appear only to someone strong enough to break the spell holding him captive.
Now to continue the story:
Andrew slipped sideways, staying out of reach of the scowling man. “Is that any way to greet a guest?” He fished the coin out of his pocket. “I can’t be that unexpected,” he said as he held the coin aloft again. “You did leave your invitation lying around for me to find.” As he rounded the table he glanced at the pan on the stove. “Hmm, bacon smells good, but you might want to take it off the heat before it burns.” Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough for two in the pan. Andrew’s stomach grumbled.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said the man as he stalked Andrew. “How did you get in here?” The upper half of his body swayed slightly as his feet stopped as if stuck to the floor. “Can you get out again?” The scowl fell from his face, replaced by boyish hope. He looked around wildly as if a portal was about to open in the middle of the room.
Immediate violence apparently averted, Andrew grabbed a ladle from a hook above the Aga and quickly stirred the bacon and onion mixture before moving the pan off the heat. No sense in letting perfectly good food be burned. He checked on the tall man before spying a loaf of dense bread on a shelf next to a small stack of plates and bowls. Swiftly he lifted items off the shelves and assembled an impromptu stack of bacon and onion sandwiches. He deliberately placed on plate in front of himself and the other at the far end of the table.
“Sit, sit,” he said jovially. “You can tell me all about yourself.” Andrew pulled his chair out and perched on the edge, trying to make his upper body appear totally relaxed while his feet and legs were positioned for quick escape. “I’m Andrew,” he said expectantly as he picked up one half of his sandwich and bit down. He hoped he’d have long enough to eat it all before the tall man attacked.
To his surprise, no attack came. The tall man glanced around the room once again and, appearing disappointed, pulled out his seat and collapsed into it. “You can’t get out, can you?” he asked despondently as he prodded a finger into the heavy bread in front of him.
Andrew chewed through another bite of his sandwich before he responded. If he was going to be thrown out or killed, or whatever, he wanted it to be on a full stomach. “I haven’t had bacon this good in ages.” Probably never. This much salty goodness wasn’t something his family ever got. He could remember only twice he’d had bacon at all. One of those was a sample from the butcher at the markets. The other was a packet his brother had lifted from somewhere. They’d eaten it all in one sitting and used the drippings in a pudding for the next day, in case the coppers came looking. It had taken longer to get the smell out of the house than it had to dispose of the evidence.
“I’m Andrew,” he said around his third bite. “This is good.” He wasn’t sure if his words had been intelligible. He was mostly moaning over his food, his stomach cramping in joy that the first food it was given in three days was so good. “Pity about the bread.”
“What?” The tall man dropped the sandwich he’d just picked up. “That’s the best loaf I’ve ever made.” He picked up his sandwich again and took a large bite. His cheek bulged and he grimaced as he struggled to chew the dense lump.
“You’ve got the balance of ingredients mostly right; a bit heavy on the yeast.” Andrew squeezed the remnants of his meal before popping the morsel into his mouth. “I’ll show you how to fix it.” He poured himself a mug of water from the carafe on the table, then sat back and sipped. “What’s your name?”
“Oh.” Strawberry pink suffused the tall man’s cheeks. “Sorry. I’m Thomas.”
Placing my character into the setting.
Opening scene to a new story.
When I write the first scene in a new story, plot is the furthest thing from my mind. I’m totally focussed on what my character is doing, where he’s doing it and why. Some might say that’s plot, but for me it isn’t. That first scene might not end up in the finished book at all.
The first scene is an exercise in placing my character in the setting. Its purpose is to orient myself in the world I’m building and to fit my character into that world. It’s a way for me to explore the character and make sure what I envisaged for them is going to fit into the story.
That’s the theory, anyway. In practice it’s an ad hoc visualisation that might or might not work.
Here’s an example.
I thought it would be fun to write a story based on a fairy tale but turn it on its head. I’ve enjoyed reading a number of stories that do just that. The ones I’ve enjoyed most are the ones that have more tenuous links to the fairy tale, or show a different version of events, so I thought I’d do something like that.
This scene is my first foray into the idea. It’s going to be a take on Hansel and Gretel but the witch is one of the good guys.
Things I thought about before I began writing:
I haven’t fully addressed the second two questions, but there’s at least one reason for each. There’ll be more later, I expect. I stopped writing when I needed to know who/what is in the house and why it was built across the path (or was the path moved to go under the house?).
Now I have my character placed into my setting and know what it looks like, sounds like and feels like, I can have a look at the plot and work out exactly what’s going on in Andrew’s world and what his part in it is going to be.
Next week I’ll post the next scene in the story.
Andrew stopped abruptly, the steady crunch of leaves that had accompanied him all morning, fading into the silence. In front of him, above the narrow path was a cedar clad wall. There was a gap of a couple of metres under the cladding and Andrew could just make out the gleam of steel stumps nestled in amongst the trees on either side. The path continued, wider and less grassy under the building, but uninterrupted. He peered through the leaves into the darkness under the hovering building but couldn’t see where the path emerged once again into the green light of the forest. He moved to the edge of the path, his heart thumping in counterpoint to his steps, and peered along the line of the building, but the forest grew too close and he couldn’t see a way around it. The other side of the path told the same story.
If you left the path, you might never be seen again. Andrew had grown up hearing stories of trolls and elves and wizards who preyed on the unwary. There might not be anyone who would miss Andrew if he disappeared, but he had plans. He took two steps forward. He needed to be in Eden before the equinox or Borog would sell to someone else.
Andrew walked closer, trying to look everywhere at once. For the first time, he noticed that more than his footsteps had ceased when he saw the wall. The forest was silent; not even the soft drip of water through the leaves broke it. He wiped the nervous sweat from his upper lip and took a deep, slow breath to steady his nerves.
“This is a really bad idea,” Andrew said as he took two more steps. “A very bad idea,” he mumbled as he put his head down and ran.
The air chilled as the light dimmed when he ran beneath the cedar wall. He kept his gaze on the path ahead but his nerves twitched at every creak and groan from above him.
“It’s just the floorboards,” he whispered to himself. “Wood creaks when the temperature changes.”
An eerie chuckle echoed in the deepening darkness around him and crawled up the back of his neck. Andrew ran faster but still couldn’t see where the path came out into the forest again. He was breathing heavily, sweat trickled down his back and dampened his shirt. As he ran, something glinted at his feet in the dim light. A coin. He ran on.
The third time he passed the coin, he stopped, chest heaving, sweat running down his face and back, steam rising wafting from his body in the cooling air. He stared at the coin, despair tightening his throat and fear clenching his fists. He looked around.
You know where your characters have come from and what has made them the person they are, but what are they doing now and why does it need to change?
Creating a character’s present life is about more than deciding on a job or home for them to live it. You need to know what it is about their life that needs to change. That’s the purpose of your story, isn’t it? Either there’s something about their life that isn’t working and things need to change to make it right, or something happens in the world around them that forces things in their life to change and they need to make it right again.
There are a number of things you can do to get to know what your character’s present is really like. These are some of the things I do:
Goal, Motivation, Conflict (GMC)
Knowing the character’s past and present will give you exactly what you need to know to be able to write your story. Knowing what your character wants, why they want it, and what’s stopping them from getting it provides plot, setting and characterisation all rolled into a couple of easy sentences. Every character will have a compelling GMC, either internal or external. Your primary characters will have both.
I generally write a character’s GMC in two different ways: in a table and in a sentence. I use both for different reasons. I’m a visual learner so I like to have things written down or in diagrams or mind maps. I don’t use mind maps very often because they feel too chaotic for me to keep track of. I prefer to use sentences, lists and tables. GMC works really well in tables and sentences.
The table allows me to ensure I have all the necessary elements of a GMC addressed. All the boxes have to be completed. The sentences written from the table let me check that both internal and external GMC make sense, are logical, reasonable and believable.
The examples given are for Jonah from The Planet Whisperer.
See also: https://au.pinterest.com/eemontgomery11/goal-motivation-and-conflict/
I always need to know more about my characters than what ends up in the story. It’s how I know how they’ll react to different situations and how they respond to other people.
There are a number of different ways you can make sure you have all the information you need about a character so that when you’re writing him/her, they feel real. These are the three I use most often:
Even though there are loads of templates online, that doesn’t mean you have to use one of them. You can create your own. Decide what you need to know and write down the headings. You don’t even have to put them into a list. Create a mind-map or a pyramid, or some other visual device. If you’re particularly artistic, you could create a collage of your character’s face from nouns and adjectives that describe them.
Some websites and software you might find useful when creating character profiles:
Word, Excel, Visio, Access (If you have a particularly analytical mind and love linked tables and SQL queries as much as I do, a database is a great way of keeping track of character interactions and links between characters and plot points. It takes a while to set up but you can copy the setup over to different stories once it’s done. I’d share a completed one with you but I lost them in my last computer crash ☹).
Also, have a look at these:
E E Montgomery
About writing, life, and random thoughts.
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