The Secret Life of Characters

I’ve just completed a trilogy of crime fiction novels, all about the same character, Sabbie Dare. I love it when people reviewing the books talk about Sabbie as if she’s real, listing her faults, her hopes and fears, the things that make her tick. But I can say honestly, that I know Sabbie Dare better than any of her readers. Better than Sabbie Dare knows herself.

Creating a protagonist that will be sustained through 300,000 words of fiction will need more planning, dreaming and creating than the main character in a short story, or even the first draft of a novel, but don’t think that lets you off the character hook.

You want your readers to be driven by emotion as they read, and in fiction it’s the characters who engage that emotion. For this to happen, the reader has to be trapped in a sort of magic…temporarily, he must believe the character is real. One hundred percent a living person, who is relating their story through words on a page. That’s the magic of fiction and it is perhaps a strong reason why people want to write and why they enrol on creative writing courses. In the past, you may have found yourself totally identifying with a compelling character in a novel, a play, or even a short story or poem, and now you too want to create such characters.

How did those previous writers do it? How did they get you to totally believe in their inventions? One route towards gaining that sort of direct link with a reader is to know your character as well as anyone; better than the character themselves.

When my protagonist, Sabbie, starts out in book one, we learn that she knows nothing much about either of her natural parents because she was brought up in the care system, and choses to leave things like that because she believes you should ‘put the past behind you and move on’. But I know about Sabbie’s early past, before her mother died when Sabbie was six. I know what happened to the father she has never met.

I also know things that Sabbie knows, but the reader does not. When she was living in a children’s home, she was encouraged to make a ‘My Story Book’ that would fill in some of the blanks in her past. In a way, I helped her stick the photos in and reluctantly write underneath them in large, misspelt capital letters. I know that she still has this scrapbook, and that she’s hidden it from herself by tossing into the loft space.

So how do you acquaint yourself well enough with your characters to fool your reader into believing they are authentic people? Check back to your Writing Skills course materials and see what help you can find there. At level one, course books cannot tell you everything – we want you to build up your skills in a gradual way that won’t swamp your creativity. But picking apart the words on the page can reveal a host of useful strategies.

In Part Two of Writing Skills, Project 6, Creating a History, you’re asked to do just two exercises (check page 72 to find this). It is tempting to dash through these exercises quickly, without thinking too much. Right after them is the second assignment, which asks you to write, in a choice of forms, about a character. All much more exciting than two little exercises!

But I employed these two exercises to help me create Sabbie Dare, and I found them wonderfully useful.

Exercise One asks you to chose a character and ask the questions on page 71 (How Characters Grow) to develop them. I chose to use freewriting to do this and took on the first person persona, because I wanted to get into Sabbie’s head and under her skin. I let each question take care of itself, often scooting wildly off the subject, letting Sabbie talk until she’d talked herself out. Some questions were pages long, and other barely got a nod. Here is part of my freewrite for the first question:

Q: What moral values do they have?
A: One thing I know; where ever they came from, my ‘moral values’ didn’t come from my mum.There were times when my mother was up to being a good mum. They can’t have been frequent, but obviously they were numerous enough to keep our heads below the parapet of the social services’ gun-sights, for no one tried to take me away from a woman who was mostly out of her head. But when life smiled on Izzie Dare, she’d assume we’d behave like sisters. She’d scream at me – ‘we are not staying in!’ as if it had been my decision to do so, zip up my pink anorak and we’d be riding a bus, with her whispering, ‘what shall we do when we get into town, Sabrina?’

She took me to the first Bonfire Night I can recall. I am very clear about this memory. I know I was in Miss Goodwin’s class, as I went up from Reception to Year One five months before my mother died, so it had to be that November the fifth. I clung to her as we watched the fireworks rain down because, although my head was filled with starry wonders, I was terrified that the explosions could hurt her. I don’t think I ever worried that things might hurt me. It was in my heart from the first that my mother was the vulnerable one.

Exercise Two asks you to look at the secrets of a character. By choosing two of the list given – ‘secrets of birth’ and ‘family secrets’ I was able to develop ideas for Sabbie’s My Story Book and the history of her parents, which she does not know as book one starts, but begins to learn during the second and third books of the series.

Exercise Two doesn’t presume that your character will not know about their secret, though – they could very well know it – they may hide it away as the dark core of their story, or they may simply not need to tell it now. One way or another, this secret will enable you to know more about your character (especially a protagonist), than the reader.

Whenever you start a new story, I recommend you return to those pages in Writing Skills. Check through the list of ‘How Characters Grow’ and try to get under the skin and inside the head of your character, as you debate these questions. Then choose one thing from the list in Exercise Two and freewrite until your character gives up those secrets and passes them to you.

The Shaman Mystery Series by Nina Milton is out from Midnight Ink Books and available at Amazon and Waterstones online. A blogpost about Freewriting can be found here and Nina’s first blog about Part Two of Writing Skills can be found here

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3 comments for “The Secret Life of Characters

  1. Jo Davies
    8 October 2015 at 7:37 pm

    When I first started reading the post I thought it was about character design for visual arts! It’s an insightful and very interesting set of observations and exercises. All of that is relevant to anyone in the world of visual communication who wants to explore and understand the character they are creating or casting within their images.Thanks!

    • ninahare
      9 October 2015 at 8:39 am

      I often read the visual arts blogposts and find them so inspirational for my writing, too.

  2. 8 October 2015 at 7:55 pm

    This post was so helpful Nina. Thanks for sharing insights from your writing process. I just started Part 2 of Writing Skills and I’m excited to start creating characters.

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