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What’s the worst thing anyone could say about my book? Probably ‘The characters are two-dimensional’ or ‘I didn’t believe in the characters.’ The people in my stories are real to me and it’s important that they’re real to readers too. Who wants to spend time with an unconvincing cardboard cut-out of a character?
Here are five tips for making characters seem like real, living, breathing people.
1. Steal from real life! Think about the people you know well. How do they speak? How do they behave? When you know someone well, you have a special insight into how their mind works. I’m not suggesting you base whole characters on your nearest and dearest, but bits and pieces you pick up from them can be very useful. I had a boyfriend once who got his own way by behaving as if something had already been agreed when it hadn’t – for example, if he wanted to go to a particular classical music concert and I wasn’t too keen, he would leave it a few days and then say, ‘Shall I get seats in the stalls or the circle?’ and I’d say which I preferred, and only when it was too late would I wonder, ‘Hmm, did I actually agree to go in the first place?!’ Hector in The Sweetest Poison has this rather unappealing trait!
2. Go for the particular rather than the generic. I really did have an elderly downstairs neighbour who complained about ‘you young people and your soft-soled shoes.’ (She felt we were preventing her from keeping track of our movements...) I gave Helen’s neighbour in Edinburgh this line and I think it makes this character seem particular in her oddity, and therefore more real.
3. Don’t make anyone 100% good. As well as being unbelievable, that’s just plain boring. (I don’t think the opposite applies, though; there’s a character in The Sweetest Poison – I won’t say which one – who is basically a psycho with no redeeming features, but my agent told me not to be concerned about this. A psycho is a psycho is a psycho!)
4. In real life, we learn about the people we meet gradually, as small details about their past come to light. It should be the same with characters in a story. Little references to things that happened in the past make a character seem real, but avoid an ‘info dump’ – inserting a big chunk of backstory as a quick and easy way of telling the reader about a character’s past. This is contrived and unconvincing.
5. Finally, the best source of material for making a character believable is the one person you know inside out: yourself! The emotions you feel, the thoughts you have, the things you do – you have the ultimate insider’s view of it all and (you are a writer, after all!) the imagination to apply it to people very different from yourself. Ask yourself ‘If I were that person, how would I feel, what would I say, what would I do if...?’
Most importantly, enjoy building your characters and getting inside their heads. It’s one of the best parts of being a writer, I think – being able to ‘be’ anyone at all.
When she was eight years old, Helen Clack was bullied so mercilessly that she was driven to a desperate act. Now she is being targeted once more, but this time her tormentor’s identity is shrouded in doubt.
When her life starts to disintegrate, she flees home to the wilds of north-east Scotland, and to the one man she knows can help her – Hector Forbes, the dubiously charismatic Laird of Pitfourie, with whom she has been hopelessly in love ever since those hellish days in the school playground, when he was her protector, her rescuer, her eleven-year-old hero.
But is Hector really someone she can trust?
And can anyone protect her from the terrible secret she’s keeping?
And then into her misery had come the letter.
The first letter he’d ever written her, with her name, ‘Helen Clack’, and her address in his neat sloping writing. Inside, a single sheet of writing paper. And his words, telling her how sorry he was about Dad, how much he’d liked him, that he wished he could have been at the funeral. That he hoped she was all right. That it was something, that Dad hadn’t had to suffer through a long illness, that his death had been so sudden, at home at the Parks rather than in an anonymous hospital ward.
And then the words that she’d never forget as long as she lived: I’ve been thinking a lot about you –’
Well, you and your mother. But still.
She’d carried the letter around for days. Suzanne had found her staring at it, and snatched it away and read it, and then perched on the kitchen table and said, ‘So. Have you replied?’
And when Helen had said she hadn’t, Suzanne had offered to help.
‘They don’t think like us. They don’t spend – how many days have you been mooning over this? – six days analysing and pulling apart and putting back together every little thing we say. You have to treat them like they’re simpler forms of life. Stimulus–response.’
‘Hector’s not a “simpler form of life”. That’s the whole problem.’
Amazon.com link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07RCLNP1L
Amazon.co.uk link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07RCLNP1L
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