Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Characters becoming...

Today I came across this passage in the book I’m reading at the moment (Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden):


Many actors spend years doing exactly what Molly had dismissed: they pretend to be other people. They select voices and movements that might plausibly suit a particularly character, and they assume these voices and movements in the same way as they might put on a costume, a wig or a cardboard crown. It isn’t convincing.


I’ve always thought that novel writing is quite a lot like acting and this quote confirms it for me. I know that some novel writers (and those who write books about how to write novels) advocate making lists of exactly the kind of thing Molly rejects - what does your character eat for breakfast, does he have a quirky smile, is there a little catch-phrase he uses a lot? We are encouraged to know our characters inside out. But I think that this technique is actually trying to construct your characters rather than to know them, and from the outside in rather than the inside out which is the way I prefer to build characters.


For me, just as the personalities of real people are formed – at least in part – by the events and circumstances of their life, so fictional characters make themselves known through the events I make them live through. And yes, the events do come first. So does that make my novels ‘plot driven’? Yes, though I would hope that that doesn’t mean any sacrifice of psychological depth. I think – for me - the plot, the story, the narrative, whatever you want to call it arises out of a particular kind of character with a particular set of personality traits and flaws and the job of the author is to find them so as to make the plot work on a psychological level.


How do other writers out there ‘do’ characterisation. Do you make lists, think of somebody you know, consciously work out what kind of person would do the kind of thing that happens in your book or try, by tapping into the subconscious, to write ‘from the inside out’?

11 comments:

David Isaak said...

"We are encouraged to know our characters inside out. But I think that this technique is actually trying to construct your characters rather than to know them..."

Perfectly put, and I couldn't agree more.

I gather that Dickens used to "act out" his characters, and I can understand the urge.

Frances said...

I start out with only the vaguest idea of what my characters will be like, and they seem to develop of their own accord as they go along. I really enjoy this, as the process is full of surprises. I never set out to do it this way; it's just the way it happened (but it's probably just as well, as I'm far to lazy to make all those lists about birthdays and hobbies and colours of grandmother's eyes. Life is just too short).

Tim Stretton said...

I'm with Frances on this one. My characters develop as the story unfolds, particularly the secondary ones. I'll have a broad idea of the major characters before I start, but often they change as I go along. And that has to be good - if my characters don't surprise me, they're unlikely to surprise the reader.

Beyond the sketchiest details, I very rarely know what my characters even look like. Am I alone in that?

Alis said...

Hi all - isn't it strange - all this advice in 'how to' books and yet no published author I've ever spoken to on this subject ever constructs their characters in that way.

Tim - as far as appearance is concerned, I almost never know until I'm obliged by the circumstances of a particular scene to give some indication but I don't think I ever describe people without some degree of necessity arising.

I can feel another post on this subject coming on...

Tim Stretton said...

A reader once mentioned to me that I never described my characters. It had never occurred to me before.

Now I put in a bare minimum but it's an area where less is more. The reader's imagination will provide as much, or as little, detail as required.

I sometimes vary this where heroines are concerned. My protagonist will almost always be male and invariably superficial where woman are concerned - so he will dwell on the appearance of his potential amour.

Aliya Whiteley said...

All my character are me, so that makes life easy. Rude me, nice me, frustrated me, happy me, me having a fat day, me having a sexy day...

Aliya Whiteley said...

I've just realised that I have days when, in my heart, I'm a man. Cool!

Alis said...

Ian McEwan said, after writing Engleby, that he felt that the main character must be one of his own alternative personalities. Maybe that's one of the things that distinguishes novelists from other people - we all have a greater number of alternative personalities... or possibly we're just a lot less stable than other people...

Frances Garrood said...

I think you may be right, Alis, but I really hope there isn't any Engleby in Ian McEwan. I absolutely hated that book (and usually like McEwan)! I wonder whether there was a naughty streak in Beatrix Potter (as in Peter Rabbit)...

Akasha Savage said...

My stories all start with the 'event' (the plot), once I have that firmly placed in my mind I then move on to discovering my people. I do not make lists, in any shape or form. My characters develop as I am writing. But once they have come alive, they don't leave me alone, and often start to take over the story, leading it down a completely different road from the one I was taking.
Alis, as too my wip, I am on my fourth, and hopefully final draft, I am going all out so I can send it to MNW at the beginning of next year....feeling a little bit scared now!!

Alis said...

Hi Frances - I disliked the character of Engleby massively but thought the book was absolutely brilliant - partly because, despite the central character's intense unlikeability, McEwan sucked me in. But Beatrix Potter - never like her!!

Hi Akasha - great to hear that your wip is in the last stages - go for it!