Last week I shared some handy tools and techniques for planning a novel and because I’m literally currently doing this, I thought I’d follow up with the next step: planning characters.
Most of my books have a small ensemble ‘cast’ but I tend to start with the most ‘active’ voice and build that character first, the other characters are formed almost as ‘answers’ to that first character.
In Don’t Close Your Eyes, which features twins with equal billing and points of view, I started with one character (Robin) and then built the others using her as a starting point. The reason for this was simply that Robin came to me almost fully formed, so I had a running start. It’s not always that easy!
In Try Not to Breathe, I started with Amy. Although in the present day she is definitely not the most active, Amy’s point of view opens the book. And because the central question of the novel is ‘what happened to Amy?’ it was vital that she really came alive for the reader straight away.Readers have to care about what happens to a character, and you can’t care about someone you know nothing about.
But I don’t use anything remotely cutting edge to plan my characters…
I use Pinterest a lot when I’m writing, dumping pictures of locations and aides memoire onto boards for each book. (Here is the dumping ground for Try Not to Breathe.) But I find it especially helpful for characters, I pin hairstyles they would have, cars they would drive, celebrities they look a little like. Here’s Robin’s board and if you’ve read Don’t Close Your Eyes, I think you’ll recognise the influences.
I often have an imaginary picture of the rooms my characters spend most of their times. In Try Not to Breathe, I could picture Amy’s house without any help. And I knew instinctively what Alex’s living room and kitchen would look like. But it’s important to me that I can plot all of their movements in their homes, that their spaces feel authentic and make sense in terms of who they are, where they live, how they live and even more boring things like how much money they have.
Amy was a working class girl from a small Kent town, if she’d lived in a mansion or even a 1930s semi, it wouldn’t have rung true. She lived in a little terraced house, which her mum and step-dad loved and were very proud of, but which she – as a 15-year-old – felt stifled by.
To help find the right places with the right proportions, I turn to Rightmove. I’m also the kind of sad sack who enjoys looking at other people’s houses for hours at a time so this is definitely a perk of the job.
I always do a playlist for each work in progress, especially because I tend to write novels that are partly based in recent-but-past eras. Try Not to Breathe involved A LOT of Britpop. But some characters are particularly infused with the music they love. Teenage-era Robin and Callum from Don’t Close Your Eyes connect through music and Robin herself is a musician, so I listened to Robin’s playlist over and over during the writing and editing process. Sometimes the right song will remind you of the essence of the character, and pull you back on point when you’re drifting.
I recently put together a creative writing workshop for secondary school pupils and part of it was about building character. It made me stop and think about how I actually do this. I realised that I tend to start with a rough idea of them and then kind of interrogate myself about them. I ask questions:
- What does she want?
- What is she scared of?
- What does she enjoy?
- What is her personality like?
- What’s most interesting about her?
- What’s her biggest secret?
A wise man once said…
If in doubt, turn to Kurt Vonnegut. He said it’s essential to “give the reader at least one character he or she can root for … [and that] every character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water”.
You really get to know your characters best through writing them, seeing how they respond to all the terrible/wonderful (delete depending on genre!) situations you throw them into. But it helps to have a sense of who they are as people at the start of their journey because only then can you really show them developing.