7 prompts for writers #5: building characters

Keen-eyed readers of this blog will notice that this is the third post in my ‘7 prompts for writers…’ strand which is about characterisation. Some of you might be wondering why I keep coming back to this aspect of writing. My answer would be, because the vast majority of my writing is character-driven. To a certain extent, I believe, once I have my protagonists, the plot will take care of itself.

I urge you, therefore, to go back to my previous ‘7 prompts for writers’ posts on characterisation and voice. I want layered characters. I want voices which are various and interesting. As writers we might find characters by looking around us, since, let’s face it, characters are ‘merely’ people. People we decide to bring onto the page and then allow their stories to unravel.

There are two aspects to consider here. First, however close we may be to somebody, we cannot possibly know everything about them. There will be secret corners to them, and nooks which even they are unaware of. When I am creating characters, it is the nooks which they themselves are oblivious to, which interests me. Love an ‘unreliable narrator’ me! Secondly, once we as writer brings a person onto the page, they are immediately morphed from the person or people they are based on. Just as a portrait is subtly altered from the sitter, and the portrait creator is in there somewhere.

So, once we have a person to bring onto the page, how do we flesh them out? Luckily we have one person who is forever open for investigation and discovery: ourselves. Author Milan Kundera suggests: ‘The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented.’

We are back to excavating ourselves. But not the ‘self’ we live with every day, which we show to the world, to our friends, to our lovers. It’s the many selves which have not been realised, our potential selves… For me, given the genre I write in, this includes the potential towards violence, which I would normally run away from very fast.

How do we find our potential selves? My tip is to develop them through free writing in our writing journal. I am constantly advocating this, so you will find references to free writing littered throughout my blog posts. I will give another definition here. Write for three minutes without thinking about grammar, spelling, making sense. Don’t follow the lines. Get messy.

Natalie Goldberg in her seminal work Writing Down the Bones, says the aim is to ‘burn through to first thoughts … to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel’, to ‘explore the rugged edge of thought.’ This does take practice and may initially go against your writing instinct.

Warning: free writing and worming our ways into the nooks which we don’t normally look into and often keep well hidden (for good reason) can be upsetting and destabilising. Make sure you have emotional and psychological support. Look after your mental wellbeing.

I feel the need to give the warning, for I know it is required and true. On the other hand, read again Kundera: ‘my own unrealised possibilities’. How great is that to spend time with the many people we could have been. I could be the woman who first conquered Everest, in my writing. I could be less afraid, more care-free, in my writing. I could be anything, anyone, in my writing. And that’s why I think writing will be with me all my life, endlessly fascinating, endlessly enthralling.

What tips do you have for fleshing out characters?

 

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