Today I'm happy to have a guest on the blog, Mr Simon Bestwick, author of (among other things) the Black Mountain series, The Faceless and new novel Hell's Ditch.
Simon's post today is on writing strong characters in fiction.
Casting Couch: Some thoughts on characterisation [Thursday 3rd December]
Caveat: This is what has worked for me: it may, or may not, work for you. Every writer needs to find the methods that works for them.
Having said all that, here are a few pointers picked up by trial and error (mostly error) over the years on the subject of writing characters who come alive on the page.
1) Everyone’s A Star
In the movies, there are lead characters, supporting characters, bit players and spear-carriers. Life, however, isn’t like that.
Everyone’s the star of their own movie: the story is about them. You don’t exist to help or hinder someone else in achieving their goals; you have your own goals and you’re in pursuit of them. Each and every character has his or her own story, their own journey. What that is, and how that intersects with that of other characters, to help or to hinder them, is for you to determine. So how do you do that?
2) Play All The Parts
Every actor asks what their character wants, what they seek to achieve over the course of the story, whether they get it or not. Every action, every line of dialogue, is directed towards achieving that goal. That’s as true of creating characters on the page as it is of playing them on stage. The difference is that you have to play all the parts, not just one.
So when minor Character B helps major Character A to achieve her goal, how does that relate to his own? Does it help him achieve it? Or is there a conflict; does he delay his own progress because he can’t turn away from someone who needs help? Only you can answer that, either by planning or by winging it. I’m in the latter camp, but no one way is right or wrong; it’s a case of finding what suits you.
But if you can answer the question, ‘what do you want?’, for your characters, they’ll be easier to write and your scenes will be more alive.
3) The Casting Couch
I tend to work in a visual way; it’s easier to write a scene if I can picture it. With your characters, that means putting a face to the name.
One way of doing that is actors: the more films, TV or theatre productions you see, the more choices you have.
Another is people you know. That can be dicey, depending on what you write; an erotica writer I know would never do so, as she regards it as unethical and intrusive. If you write horror or crime, on the other hand, people often ask you to kill them off!
Hell’s Ditch, my latest novel, started life as a radio play. Helen was based on the actress who’d have played the part. Gevaudan, on the other hand, was more of a composite of Antonio Banderas in Desperado and the late metal singer Pete Steele; he isn’t quite one or the other, but where the two of them blur together, I can see him.
Another method is people-watching. Two of my short stories, ‘Dermot’ and ‘Night Templar’, were inspired by watching, respectively, a guy on a bus and a taxi driver getting out of his car. In each case, the character came first, then the story.
Know what they want and you have the inner man or woman. Know what they look like and you have the outer one. Put those together and your character starts coming to life.
4) Vital Statistics
List your various characters’ details: name, age, hair and eye colour, who they look like, and any biographical information that comes up as you write – likes and dislikes, favourite foods, what they like to drink. It’s much easier than downing tools to comb through what you’ve already written in search of one detail. You wouldn’t believe how often work’s ground to a halt while I tried to remember if X had blue eyes or green.
5) Tells and Tics
Poker relies on bluffing – not giving away excitement at a good hand, or trepidation at a weak one. Good players learn to spot their opponent’s ‘tell’; a mannerism they employ when they bluff. In the film Casino Royale, Le Chiffre’s is rubbing the corner of his eye.
We all have tells and tics – little things we do when we’re angry, afraid, amused, happy or sad. Some people wear their hearts on their sleeve; some hide their feelings completely. Most are somewhere in between. What does your character do?
We all have mannerisms, gestures, idiosyncracies of speech. Start paying attention to others and you’ll see – and hear – them. Do all this, and you’ll be on your way to creating characters who get off the casting couch – and into your readers’ heads.
Simon Bestwick is the author of Tide Of Souls, The Faceless and Black Mountain. His short fiction has appeared in Black Static and Best Horror Of The Year, and been collected in A Hazy Shade Of Winter, Pictures Of The Dark, Let’s Drink To The Dead and The Condemned. His new novel, Hell’s Ditch, is out now.