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  • Writer's pictureClaire Allan

On creating characters

When writing a novel, some writers come up with a great plot first. Me? It's always the 'voice' which comes to me first.

I know this sounds a bit 'out there' but I find that characters have a habit of landing in my head and generally bringing an opening line with them.

I'd absolutely love it if they brought a CV of all their attributes, quirks and motivations with them but very rarely do they arrive fully formed and it's down to me to sculpt these faceless voices into believable characters.

Surely it's easy - it's just making thing up, right?

Before I started writing novels a part of me thought it must be relatively easy. It really is (in a nutshell) just making things up - but what I didn't realise before I became a writer was just how much I had to make up.

Which brings me to...

If you know your lead character writing the book is easier. So it's always a useful exercise to do a couple of writing exercises, perhaps free writing, in the voice you want to use.

What I also find useful (and I learned this from blogger and author Chuck Wendig) is to create a file on your protagonist.

So not only do I know what they physically look like, where they live, where they work, I also like to know what their quirks are. What sets their teeth on edge? What's their favourite alcoholic drink? What car do they drive? What era do they most relate to? What clothes do they wear?

With each piece of information a fuller, more rounded character comes to life. Instead of a name and a hair colour, I'll know perhaps that my protagonist can only drink tea out of a china cup, finds the smell of lavender sickly sweet, and once ended up in A&E after an ill-thought out night drinking Pernod on a beach in Wales.

All these little nuggets tell me a lot of how a character thinks, how they learn and what their motivations might be. It's definitely easier to write a character who you know extremely well.

(As an aside Jessica Redland, a fellow Boldwood books author whose most recent series - the Hedgehog Hollow books - is currently taking the Kindle charts by storm suggests keeping a ' bible' for your books. This is particularly useful if you are writing a series - it's a place to keep all those little biographical details of your characters together for ease of reference. You can do this in a fancy notebook, a battered jotter, or - my personal favourite - as a character file on Scrivener, which is my go to writing software.)

There's a but, isn't there?

Of course there is! You see you have to also retain a little space for your character to surprise you. It's a bit akin to learning to drive - you can know all the rules, all the right things to do but it's not until you are behind the steering wheel that you learn the real ins and outs.

The more you write your characters, the more you will be able to tune into their reactions and actions.

Something you plotted at the very start may become very uncharacter-like.

This might sound like a writing nightmare - but it's one of my favourite writing experiences because I know when it happens my characters are fully rounded.

Everyone's a bit Darth Vadar when you think about it.

This is one of the biggest lessons I have learned through my writing career. People very rarely fall completely into the baddie or goodie column.

One of the key themes I like to explore in my thrillers is how everyone and I mean EVERYONE is capable of doing something very, very bad. In the right (or wrong) circumstances even the most level-headed, compassionate and decent of people can be pushed to kill. It could be to protect their child, to protect themselves, as a reaction to years of trauma, as a breakdown related to extreme grief etc etc

When I'm writing my bad guys (or gals) I like to dive into their motivations and their pain. I like to show that pain, and even incite some sympathy from the reader.

Similarly, some quite shitty people can have moments of decency. They can find inner compassion, mercy and can even redeem themselves and heal.

People are shades of grey, and a mixture of bad and good. Just like Darth Vadar - underneath his murderous megalomaniac persona is a child who started off as a Jedi Knight.

Keep your characters 3D, real and honest.

Holding out for a hero

Moving on to love interests, let's keep it real too. Yes, we all love a romantic lead. I have fallen in love with more than a few of my fictional leading men. I think I could be quite happy with Noah from the Ivy Lane books.

There is little which is as much fun as creating a handsome, tender, funny and talented guy who will woo your heroine. I can make sure he never leaves the toilet seat up, washes his own dirty socks and knows how to use a hoover. I can make him a wonderful and generous lover.

I can even make him look like Michael Buble if I want.

BUT, the key to writing a romantic lead is to think less Disney Prince and more Mr Darcy. A man who is too perfect will probably, eventually, be a complete pain in the arse. Also, where is the tension if your hero arrives bare chested, rose between his teeth and Dyson set to high?

Readers want to read about the slow burn, the URST (unresolved sexual tension) and then ultimately reach a very satisfying, erm, climax.

But it's still absolutely okay to have him look like Michael Buble. Who I met once.


My latest book, Ask No Questions is now available in Ebook and Audio, and to pre-order in paperback.

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Jul 05, 2021

Thank you for the nod to my approach in there! Great post and I'm so jealous that you've met the Buble. Fab photo!

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