Basic Rules of Characterisation
So, in our story about Santa’s sleigh problems, we have Santa, Rudolph, and Rudolph’s wife, Erma!
Now how do you create characters for them? There are no hard and fast rules, but be wary of simply writing the story as it comes into your head without setting the characters. If you do this, the most likely outcome is that all the characters will sound like the same person, or sub-personalities of the same person. For instance:
“Wow! I got an egg for my birthday. Thanks Erma. I really love you. It’s exactly what a male reindeer wants!”
“It’s okay Rudolph. Wow! I really love you too. I’m glad it’s what you wanted.”
Can you see some things wrong with this conversation?
- The both say, “Wow!” In reality, two people rarely use the same expressions as each other. Erma, being female, is probably younger than her partner (I am being politically correct here!), so she might say, “Dude!” instead.
- ‘Rudolph’ is a name of 2 syllables, unlike ‘Erma.’ If they have been living together for years, she would probably have shortened it to save time. ‘Rudy’ is more likely.
- She is female, he is male. Males don’t say, “I love you” as much as females. Males usually cover their emotions so he is more likely to say something like, “You’re sweet,” or, “So nice of you.”
- And men tend to say as little as possible in emotional conversations. So Rudy probably wouldn’t expand by saying, “It’s exactly what I want.”
- Males tend to be less expressive of their emotions at all times, so there will be less exclamation marks in their conversation.
Now let’s try the conversation again:
“Wow! I got an egg for my birthday. Thanks Erma.”
“It’s okay Dude! I really love you too. I’m glad it’s what you wanted?”
See how the dynamics have completely changed. Now we begin to see their characters emerge. I deliberately left in the word ‘too’ in Erma’s reply because it accidentally adds something Erma might add on purpose; if she wanted to be sarcastic and elicit a further response from Rudolph. Also note that I added a question mark at the end of her reply. She might be uncertain whether she had satisfied him; women are more sensitive to the emotional state of partners so they are constantly probing to find out what it is. They also like to engage in conversation more than men so add cues in this way.
So you have seen how factors like gender, age, race etc. need to be taken into account in conversations between characters. And ALWAYS been vigilant for signs of them sounding the same. If you are unsure, swap the speech round. Pretend that Rudolph is saying Erma’s lines. If it sounds false, then you need to rework it.
But those are only the basic rules. The reader will want to see character development.
What is character development?
When writing any novel, there are certain elements always seem to enhance a book’s appeal. One is that the main character should always be changed by their adventure or learn a lesson from it. In this way, the reader sees that the character grows and the reader can grow with them. Great examples are:
Harry potter becoming more worldly as his adventures progress
Frodo Baggins learning that pity can be a good thing and in general becoming so wise that the Elven folk invite him to go over the sea and into the West with them at the end.
Luke Skywalker growing from a farm boy to a worldly Jedi knight.
As in real life, this is a long process so don’t make it happen in the first few pages. Plan what things will change them and plan the scenes to show this. But in order to do this, you will need a sense of the person’s core character.
The Character’s Core
It may seem a little odd to you but I will come to the character’s physical appearance last. The core of the character is what we are concerned with here. The trap that many writers fall into is to make the main character in their own image. In other words, the main character seems just like the writer. It’s very easy to do, and in fact, almost impossible to avoid completely. You need to develop a good deal of depth for the main character (MC), so it’s natural to draw on your own traits and experiences.
But we all have sub-personalities. We all have a side that gets angry very easily or is prone to love too easily. As we grow, we learn to control these ‘sides’ of ourself. However, writing is a great opportunity to let these people back out into the open again. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I love writing so much!
For instance, my main character in the Ordo Lupus books 1,2 and 3 is an ex-secret agent with the rare gift of being able to see Evil before it happens. He is also incredibly unlucky, but because of his talent is always able to survive and even turn these events to his advantage. I based these characteristics on myself. Although such moods or events are rare in my life, they do seem to happen. Readers seem to recognise these traits in themselves and many have written to me saying how much they identify with the MC.
If you use this technique, you will find endless inspiration in your own life without giving too much away about yourself. If you are writing about somebody in a bad situation, writing about it as a sub-personality will also keep you more sane that writing about your whole self! This technique works equally well if you are writing about somebody of the opposite gender to yourself.
For secondary characters, you could use sub-personalities of your self but I like to use 2 other techniques.
The first method is to think of somebody you know well or have known well in the past. It needs to be somebody with whom you have laughed and cried with, or at least had an argument. Base your character on them, and use the same physical attributes if you like. If you are really bold, you can tell your friend you are doing this as a compliment. But ALWAYS change the name! Don’t embarrass somebody. Also be aware that if your friend knows that the character dies horribly or does something terrible, they may not like it.
The second is to use somebody famous; maybe an actor or actress. This can work very well if the actor/actress is very well loved and has done great emotional scenes in movies or on stage. I have used this technique to good effect in one of my books.
I left this until last because in many ways it is the least important factor. But a physical appearance can reinforce a trait and become an effective cue for the reader.
For instance, dark hair or dark eyes can often suggest a malevolent personality. It’s probably a Western prejudice but nevertheless it exists. If you make a baddy blonde, good-looking and blue eyed, be prepared to make him or her really bad to compensate. Two examples that work well are Bond’s adversary (played by Xavier Bardem) in Skyfall and the priest assassin in Angels and Demons.
My MC in the Ordo Lupus books 1,2 and 3 has eyes of a different colour. This not only suggests a weakness but also a strangeness and rare gift of sight.
In general, you should always give a weakness or fault to a main character. Without this, it will be harder for the reader to identify with them. In our case, le’t say that Rudolph’s nose only shines brightly when he has had too much to eat and he is happy. So at the moment it is not shining, which means that he cannot guide the sleigh properly. See how you already feel sorry for him? Or at least, I do!
Lastly, I always keep a separate word file filled with a list of characters’ physical and psychological traits. Not being able to find out whether you gave a character blue eyes or brown at the beginning, and having to hunt to find out can be very frustrating.
So to recap:
- Take gender, age, race, sexuality, culture etc. into account when writing dialogue
- Use sub-personalities of yourself for the main character(s)
- Use friends for lesser characters
- Use actors or famous people for lesser or minor characters
In the next tutorials we will look at:
5. Varying the pace
If you want to ask me anything, or have an opinion to express on these tutorials, don’t hesitate to leave a comment: