Guilty secret: recently I’ve been spending my Saturday evenings watching a certain soapy show on BBC One. I won’t bother to tell you the title. Suffice it to say that it is set in the Casualty department of a hospital.
On occasion it is entertaining, even thought-provoking. On occasion, it’s an exercise in frustration.
As a former nurse, I find myself shouting at the screen: “Put up those side-rails!” “Take your hands out of your pockets!” “Oh, for goodness sake, give that patient some oxygen…” Well, such agitation is good for the cardio-vascular system. I tell myself. It’s generally well acted (special mention for the lovely Lee Mead), but the writing. Oh, my dear, the writing…
It’s not that the writing is bad, it’s just that it’s inconsistent, particularly in terms of the characterisations. The regulars have the potential to be very interesting and entertaining. Lofty is kind; Dylan is brusque; Charlie is… well, Charlie. And yet so often the writers seem to set aside such intrinsic traits and have them go in a completely opposite direction. In ten episodes they’ll establish that one nurse is cheery, big-hearted and supportive. Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, she becomes mean spirited, a gossip, and lazy. Or there’s the doctor who is selfish, indolent and flighty. Except when he’s not.
Now, I don’t have a problem with a hero revealing unexpected traits in the right circumstance. In fact, such revelations add depth and nuance to the character. But they should not fly in the teeth of everything that has been established thus far, not without a valid reason. The core values of the character must remain stable. If those values have been shattered by a specific event then it’s reasonable to expect them to remain shattered. They shouldn’t magically repair themselves in time for next week’s episode, only to appear shattered again three weeks later. In other words, we expect some continuity. In this particular series, we’ll see someone calmly face a gunman in one episode, and hide in a cupboard from an unarmed teenage girl in another.
Why? Because plot, that’s why.
There are many writers who are all about the plot. Their characters are pieces on a chessboard, only less three-dimensional. Their only purpose is to obey the author. I don’t have a problem with plot-first fiction. I enjoy a good mystery or a thriller, and these genres tend to be action first and character later. Much later. But in my opinion, such writing is completely missing the point.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. There are any number of writers who have grown rich writing potboilers with the same half-dozen, 2-dimensional characters in every story. A lot of people enjoy reading them. It’s all about the legal system in the South or the workings of a nuclear submarine that attract such readers. And yet — am I wrong? — I expect more. I expect my characters to have a little muscle and not be made of tissue paper. But I know what you’re thinking: That’s great, but how do I create such a fictional Charles Atlas?
Well, I’ll tell you.
If you’ve ever watched Inside the Actor’s Studio, you’ll notice that one question often asked is, “Do you create a character from the inside out or the outside in?”
In terms of acting, this means does the actor need to wear the prosthetics, dye the hair, and dress in the wardrobe, before he can connect with his character. For some, the character only becomes real when the actor sees himself wearing the skin, so to speak, of the character.
Other actors immerse themselves in the inner life of the character. They don’t worry about their appearance; certainly they don’t rely on it in order to get inside the skin of their creation. They feel connected to the character, and that’s what brings him or her to life. Other actors use a combination of the two approaches.
Like the actor, the writer should feel connected to her main characters. While there will be those walk-on roles (to keep it in thespian lingo) who do not need a lot of development, the main characters need to be as well rounded and flesh-and-blood as possible.
Writers can learn a lot about character-creation from actors. In many ways, the process is the same. We have to connect in some ways with the character in order to bring him to life. Some actors are masters of disguise, disappearing into their portrayal. Others… aren’t.
A good actor learns how to portray characters by people-watching. If he want to know how to play someone old, he’ll pay attention to how a grandparent, for instance, walks and talks. He’ll note their habits and quirks. All these observations will be fed into their creation. Actors use a combination of observation, personal experience, and imagination to develop a character.
Now, that’s not to say a writer has to play dress up and develop a stutter or a stoop in order to capture the core of their characters, unless that’s your idea of entertainment. But we’re writers, so imagination is, I hope, our default position. Observation is very helpful, though. Wander through your town and watch how people talk, interact, and move. Use your journal to capture the things that intrigue you.
A lot of writers will, like actors, say their character’s lines out loud. Unlike the actor, however, we can change the line if it isn’t working. Knowing how your hero speaks, being able to contrast that with the villain, can really put some meat on your character’s bones.
You may find it hard sometimes to get a proper feel for your hero or villain. You can’t figure out what they will do next. Here are some tips that might help:
Write at least part of the story from that elusive character’s point of view. This will help you get inside his or her head. Let him his speak and he’ll tell you his story. You’ll be amazed what you’ll learn.
Base the character on a specific person or a composite of them. Obviously, you don’t want to offend your mother-in-law, so you’ll need to disguise certain aspects of the character you’ve based on her. Make her younger or older; give her a different job; move her to another country; make her an alien from Alpha Centuri. Make her part your m-i-l and part your aunt Doris. Or ask yourself how she would behave if her life had developed differently. What if she’d gone to university? What if she’d back-packed around Europe? ‘What if’ questions are magical for the writer and essential for character-building.
Give your character a secret, preferably something that has little or nothing to do with the story. When he was filming one of his Pirates of the Caribbean movies with Geoffrey Rush, Johnny Depp came up with a secret for Rush’s character. He decided Barbarosa’s first name was Hector and that Barbarosa was embarrassed about it. The detail never was revealed on screen, but it fed into the way the two actors played their scenes together. Likewise, your secret for your characters may never be revealed. Maybe your hero used to wet the bed when he was a boy and he’s still mortified by the memory. Or perhaps the heroine was bullied in school. Maybe the villain leaves flowers on his mother’s grave every year on her birthday, but he’ll kill you if you find out… The thing is, these secrets are between you and the character. Shh… tell no one.
Use visual aids. If you are stimulated by visual stimuli, then use a photograph of someone you can envision as one of your characters. You can pull a picture from a magazine or one from your own collection. When you get stuck just look at the picture and see what they’re telling you.
Use audio aids. Some people react more strongly to audio stimuli. If you’re one of those, then use it to your advantage. Figure out whose voice your character is using. Be as specific as possible. If your heroine talks like your cousin Louise, then hear Louise’s voice every time your heroine speaks. Maybe a piece of music will connect you to the character. For instance, your hero’s favourite tune is Springsteen’s Born to Run. Play that record (sorry, CD) when you write that character.
Keep files. Some people will tell you to document things like the character’s age, where she went to school, the names of her pets, and so forth. If that works for you, then God speed. It never worked for me. I prefer to save a photo and a description of the voice / personality. For instance, “She looks like Amy Winehouse after a bad night, but she talks like Judi Dench’s Elizabeth I.” Now, that’s memorable.
Use quirks with caution. You know the sort of thing: the guy who stammers so you must have a “h-h-hello” on every page. Or the girl who is forever tossing her golden locks. These things work best if they’re kept to a minimum, and if they are very specific. Think Blofeld in Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love stroking his white pu… uh, cat. As with so much else, less is more. Some characteristics have become clichés. We make all our villains talk like Christopher Walken and tell ourselves we’ve come up with something unusual. Except everybody does it. If you want to base your villain on an actor, make it someone less obvious. Make it Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan. Make it Maggie Smith.
Quirks can never replace full-blooded characterisation. They merely act as an identifier for a character who might otherwise prove forgettable.
Instead of quirks, start with what actors call the spine of the character. Who he is at his core. What does he think about when he’s alone in bed at night?
Give each character at least one contradictory trait. It’ll make them more human and believable. The miser who feeds the birds, for instance. The hero who is scared of guns. The nun who has a crush on Graham Norton. Not only do these quirks make the character more memorable and distinctive for the reader, but they’ll become more fun for you to write. Note, these are traits that are embedded in the character, not something you just graft on at the bottom of page 300 or, in the case of BBC soaps, episode 928, merely to suit the plot.
The problem with turning your characters into pretzels and twisting them out of shape for the sake of the plot is it’s bad writing. It implies the writer doesn’t care enough about the work to follow the character. Maybe they lack experience or confidence. They demand the story go in a certain direction. If the only way to get there is to make a character behave completely contrary to everything that has been established thus far, then so be it. The subtext is the reader / view is too stupid to notice. Or, what’s just as bad, that what the reader / viewer thinks is irrelevant.
I don’t want you to think I’m singling out that BBC show. Most soaps treat their characters as, well, bubbles. They can be blown around with as much ease, and popped when they become troublesome. Nor do I want to imply this show is particularly bad. Many episodes are very well written, faithful to the characters, and address issues that go far beyond the usual Saturday night fare. Those are the reasons I watch it. Well, and Lee Mead…
If you want to know more about how actors create characters, this Guardian article from 2009 has a lot of interesting information: : The Guardian