Writing a character

How many times have you picked up a book, and put it down again because the characters are wooden and lack dimension? Sadly, too often. The dialogue’s the same, the speech patterns are the same, there’s no depth to them, they’re unrealistic, and they become boring.

I get asked a lot how I manage to make my characters realistic, and the truth is I base them on real people.

Some authors will write an in-depth character sheet for each character. They’ll go as far as writing a history for them, and creating family trees. I don’t. Or not for a standalone novel, anyway. I’ll write a basic sheet so Bob doesn’t have blue eyes in one chapter and brown in another, and I’ll jot down their flaws, but I don’t delve too deep into their past, because to be perfectly honest, it’s irrelevant.

When writing Seven Dirty Words, I knew it would be more than one book so I did make notes about Paige’s previous encounters with men, and TDS’s ex, but only because I knew they would be mentioned or featured in Four Letter Words as well. For short stories and novellas like the City Nights collection and A Different Kind of Therapy, I barely made notes at all because the stories were so quick, all I needed to really know where what the characters looked like, and how they spoke.

Speech patterns are essential when creating characters. Nobody speaks the same way, and if your characters are from different areas of the country / world, then you will need to make sure their dialogue features dialect and accents. I find it easier to set my novels in the South West, or the East Midlands because these are accents and dialects that I’m familiar with. In Later, the character of Marcel is French. When I wrote his dialogue, I started to think with a French accent, and I made sure I included some French words, and I’ve been assured it does come across well.

However, I broke these rules when I set the C.V. Leigh novel The Change, entirely in Scotland. The Kincaid brothers are Scottish, but the dialogue doesn’t feature Scottish phrases and dialect until a very minor character is introduced. This is simply because it would have been difficult to read if every time they said ‘didn’t’, I wrote ‘dinnae’. There is one scene, which includes a local in a pub, where the drunk character’s dialogue features Scottish dialect for authenticity.

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Another important area of character creation is looks. As with speech, nobody looks the same.  But, they can look similar. If characters are related, it’s a good idea to make sure they have the same colour eyes, or the same shaped nose, or the same hair type. Of course, it is possible for two complete strangers to have the same coloured eyes. But, remember that some colours are quite rare. For example, it’s unlikely that you’ll have an entire group of unrelated people who have red hair and green eyes, which is a look that a lot of authors seem to go for (including me).

How deep you go into description will depend entirely on your writing style. Some people use a lot of description and spent a lot of time telling the reader how their characters look, while others may go an entire book without mentioning hair or eye colour. And telling someone that a character has brown hair and blue eyes is a bit flat. Remember the rule of showing, not telling. I know from experience, because this is a flaw of mine!

Speaking of flaws…

We all have them. We all have an area of our body that we don’t like, and it’s important your characters do too. Some readers have commented on how Paige in The Words Series is plain looking or not particularly beautiful. The truth is, she is meant to be. But, it’s written in first person and she lacks confidence. She looks in the mirror and doesn’t see someone who is curvy and beautiful, she sees a snubbed nose, thick arms and thick thighs, covered in bruises from rugby and martial arts. In The Black Door, Imogen comes across as angry and standoffish. She’s not a horrible person, but she is a single mum approaching 40, who feels like she is constantly competing against younger, prettier women. Her husband has just left her for someone a lot younger than she is, and the office she works in is full of young, pretty 20-something-year-olds. She has very little self-worth.

Of course, their love interests see past these flaws, but I always feel it’s important the reader sees characters how they see themselves, especially in the beginning.

He pressed his lips against mine, and any irritation was drowned out by pure lust. “Take the job,” he said against me. “Fuck Tremaine. It’s not him I want.”.png

As I mentioned earlier, I do tend to base my characters on real people. Not the entire person, but snippets. They might look vaguely like someone I know, but have someone else’s hang-ups and another person’s speech patterns. I also (subconsciously) tend to inject some of myself into them.

It’s important to make sure that the characters are alive. Without them, there’s no story. Take your time to people-watch – a favourite hobby of many authors. Look at how people walk, look at their facial expressions. Listen to dialects and accents, and speech patterns. Take note of what people dislike about themselves, and then put it all together. You may end up writing a best-selling novel.

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