When I was a kid we had a fox terrier called Scruff. He liked to watch wildlife shows on TV, but whenever an animal walked off the screen he would get up and trot round to the rear of the set to look for it. Scruff’s poor little doggy brain couldn’t cope with the idea that these creatures had no existence outside the box in the corner.
We humans know better of course, but why then do we find ourselves wondering about what happens to the characters in a book long after we’ve closed the covers? Why do we have a Scruff-like belief that they somehow might still exist after we’ve turned the final page?
Largely it’s down to the author’s ability to create a rounded, believable person. For the writer that starts with knowing the character inside out. What newspapers they would read, what music they’d listen too, how they’d react to everyday situations. You build a sort of dossier of information surrounding your fictional characters.
Once you have all this detail a common novice mistake is to try to put it all into the book. This results in great tracts of back story which do nothing to carry the plot forward and have the reader aching for something to actually happen. No, what you know about your characters is important, but it really isn’t part of the story. Instead it should be used to inform their actions, if it’s necessary to throw in a snippet of detail in order to explain a particular response fine, but the full biographical treatment is seldom required.
Knowing the background of your characters also helps with achieving consistency. You’ll often hear readers and cinema goers complain that an action seemed, ‘out of character’. If you know your protagonists well enough you’ll be able to avoid this or – if something seemingly out of character is required – you’ll have something in your dossier to justify it.
Understanding your character’s background then is important, but for them to be truly memorable you also have to make them human. The cold, steely-eyed hero is all very well, you can admire him but without an additional dimension he’s hard to like. To make a character really live you need traits like self-doubt, fear and passion. Things that the readers can identify with and relate to their own experience.
Which brings us to the most important part of creating characters – you might want to take notes. Any beginners’ guide to creative writing will tell you to ‘write what you know’ so much so that it’s become something of a cliché. You might interpret it as setting your story in a world you’re familiar with, be it sailing ships, wilderness treks or office politics. But what all of us know, better than anything else, is ourselves. If you’re to create characters that live in the reader’s mind you have to put something of you into them. To be honest that’s a bit scary because, cloaked in fiction though it may be, you’re revealing a little bit of your soul.
Without this extra dimension though, without this peek into the meaning of being human, all you’re creating are shadows and even Scruff knew they weren’t worth chasing.