creating characters

Characters from Head to Toe by Natasha Mac a’Bháird

Natasha Mac a’Bháird is a freelance writer and editor. Her latest novel, Laura’s Spooky Show, the third book in the Star Club series, is out in September 2019.

Characters – From Head to Page

When I signed off on my first novel, Missing Ellen, the sense of achievement at finally finishing it was tinged with sadness that I would no longer have those characters living inside my head. After all the time spent daydreaming, writing, rewriting and editing, they were so real to me I found it hard to let them go.

With my first Star Club book, Hannah in the Spotlight, came a whole new cast of characters, and the best thing about writing a series is not having to leave those characters behind. I get the chance to really develop them over time, seeing how they react to new situations and how the relationships between them change. I’ve chosen to write each book in the series from the point of view of a different member of Star Club, and that’s been an interesting challenge as well – making sure each voice is unique, and looking at a character from the inside out in one book and then as others see her in the next.

Laura is, in many ways, the character I identify with most. She’s a bookworm who spends as much time living in imaginary worlds – her own and other people’s – as she does in the real one. She is seized with ideas for stories and has days where she can hardly write fast enough to keep up with her thoughts – and days when they remain stubbornly elusive, completely refusing to be put down on paper.  So far, we have quite a lot in common. But Laura is a lot tougher than me. She knows her own mind, is grimly determined in the pursuit of what she wants, and is totally unconcerned about what people think of her. Maybe when I grow up, I can be a bit more like her.

And isn’t that the best thing about writing – the chance to live many lives instead of one? To be in someone else’s head, thinking about how they would feel, how they would react – and, sometimes, to do things you wish you were brave enough to do yourself.

What I love about writing too is when characters start to take on a life of their own. When I thought up the character of Ruby, I was mainly thinking of her as someone who was obsessed with ballet, fully focused on her training and supremely confident about making her dreams come true. But other aspects of her character took me by surprise. She became the anxious one of the group, the one who worries about getting into trouble, who panics at being expected to take on too much. I love that I never planned that side of her, she just evolved that way as the story went on.

Having come through some stressful situations in the first two books, the girls’ friendship remained firmly intact – but that all comes under threat in book three. I must admit I felt terribly cruel at some of the situations I was inflicting on them, especially Laura, who begins to feel that the whole world is against her.

Laura’s Spooky Show is my tenth book. Getting that first copy into my hands is every bit as exciting as the first one – and letting it go on its way out into the world is every bit as terrifying. I hope readers will identify with these characters and enjoy their adventures, but it’s out of my hands now. It’s time to pick up my pen again and see what happens next.

Write That Book – Week 3 - Creating Characters

shoestring trade pbk cover to use
shoestring trade pbk cover to use

My Latest Book (UK, Sept)

 So now we’ve reached week 3. The question is, have you been doing your homework? Good! If you've just joined us, it’s probably best to read weeks one and two before going any further.

In week 1 we dealt with motivation and starting to write, then we covered ideas and settings in week 2. This week we are dealing with characters. If you cannot write vivid, believable characters, then you cannot write good fiction, it’s as simple as that. Characters that linger in the mind long after you’ve read the last page make a book truly memorable. Think of Rachel Walsh in Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes, a highly flawed character, but a character readers identify with; or Bridget Jones in Helen Fielding’s wonderfully funny book (and film). Like her or loathe her, Bridget certainly continues to touch a universal nerve.

Creating believable characters is one of the most exciting and rewarding elements of being a writer. To write great characters you must know them as well as you know yourself. In her excellent book, From Pitch to Publication, agent Carole Blake says ‘To make the reader care for your characters and storyline, you must certainly care for them.’ And she's right.

So by now you have your general idea and your setting – next you need to create authentic and compelling characters. How? Read on.

Your characters must be three dimensional, and you, their creator must understand them and their motives for doing things, their passions, their fears, their dreams. Ponder real people’s motives. Why does your friend excuse her ex husband for regularly forgetting to ring his young daughter? Why does your sister think her husband is having an affair? Question why people do things all the time, make the world your laboratory.

Before you begin writing chapter one, here’s a practical tip that might work for you if you’re starting out. Get your notebook out and write character sketches for each of your main characters. Start off by giving them names. Choose these carefully. Try the phone book or a baby names book for ideas if your mind goes blank, but remember, the name must suit the character. Make the names interesting and memorable. No Mary or Jane Smiths please, unless you are making a point (maybe you want your character to feel anonymous – with apologies to any Marys or Janes out there!).

Here are the names I chose for my latest book, The Shoestring Club. I came up with the central book theme first – two sisters who run a second-hand designer shop, one sister going through some pretty awful things – losing her best friend, breaking up with her boyfriend, losing her job (we will talk about plotting next week); then I fixed on the setting, the second-hand designer clothes shop (Shoestring) in Monkstown, and the girls’ house in Dalkey.

Here are the main characters:

Julia Schuster (Jules, or Boolie) – she’s artistic and can be difficult

Pandora Schuster (never shortened) – she’s loyal and stubborn

Bird Schuster (their 70 year old granny) – strong and a little crazy

Arietty Pilgrim (their zoo keeper friend) – regal, clever, different

Lainey Anderson (Julia’s ex-best friend) – traditional dresser, but would like to be as quirky as Jules

Iris Schuster (Pandora’s 8 year old daughter) – sweet and bright

Remember – pick strong, memorable names that suit the character.

For more on naming characters in children’s books see here

One you have the names pinned down, build up a detailed character sketch or biography for each main character. You need to know everything. For example, their age and birthday (so few books have birthdays in them – I don’t think most writers think of giving their characters an actual birth date!). What type of person are they? Their height, hair colour, eye colour, size. Can they dance, play any instrument, sing? Do they have parents, siblings, friends?

What are their hopes, dreams, passions, disappointments? Do they have a dream job? Did they attend college/university? What did they study? What do they read, watch, listen to?

Here’s another tip: if you are finding it difficult to form a strong picture of what your character looks like, make her/him look like a real person but make modifications to suit. Give her/him the girl in the video shop’s curly hair, the milkman’s nose, the librarian’s smile. I wouldn’t suggest using friends or family for obvious reasons. Magazines are excellent for inspiration. If you see someone in the magazine you like the look of, tear the page out and keep the picture beside your character’s biography.

Continuity is another reason for keeping detailed character sketches (and this is vital if you are thinking of writing a series - this is called your 'Character Bible'). You don’t want your character’s eyes changing colour half way through the book; by keeping detailed physical notes, you can check back and get it right every time. Your editor will love you for it. Don’t have too many main characters. More than six and it gets confusing for the reader and for you.

And remember, your characters must be memorable. Make them BIG, larger than life. Make them feel things deeply. Don’t be afraid of making them too big, you can always tone them down at the editing stage (much more on editing later in the course).

In the Ask Amy Green books (age 10+), I have a character called Clover Wildgust. She’s brave, strong and completely wild; she has long white blonde hair and thinks more in terms of costume than fashion. She has a musician boyfriend, Brains, and she works in a teen magazine as the agony aunt. She’s a HUGE character and she’s also most of my readers’ favourite character. They identify with Amy but they want to be Clover.

Now get working on your own characters, because next week your characters will get the chance to tell their story as we move on to plot. And finally, some tips from another Irish writer, Cecelia Ahern.

If you have any questions or comments, please do post them below.

Happy writing!

Sarah X

 Writing Tips from Cecelia Ahern

(Read the full 10 tips from Amazon here)

1. Write about something you feel passionate about. You must write about something that evokes genuine emotions within yourself and not a piece of work you think other people want to read.

2. Listen to what your characters are telling you. If you're becoming bored with your story and are rushing by one part to get to another, then that means the reader will feel exactly the same. This means you're heading in the wrong direction in the book, you're taking the characters to a place that they don't want to go to. This is when you need to listen to your characters, I find that even though I'm trying to steer a story in one direction, the character is dragging me in another. When you listen to your characters it helps you stay away from going down the predictable route and you want to have your readers hanging on until the very last minute.

3. Always carry a pen and paper with you. You never know when an idea will jump into your head while you're out and about. I find that it's best to write while the idea is fresh in your mind as the words will flow more freely.

4. Keep a notebook of ideas. Even if you begin a story and it doesn't work, keep it for another time and it may work in the future when your mind has had the opportunity to think it over.

5. Give your work to somebody to read while you're writing. It's a good idea to choose someone who is open minded and willing to accept different ideas and not just one style of book. There's no point asking someone who loves only romances to read a book on crime. It's good to have a critical eye view your work, someone who is not attached to the story as you are.

More writing advice from Cecelia in Woman and Home here

Visit Cecelia’s website here