Character Building

Over the past few weeks I’ve read a lot of early drafts for novels across a range of genres.

So it’s worth again mentioning that the great benefit of getting that first draft down, no matter its state, is that you can see what’s there and what to rework. Alas, many writers want their first draft to be as close to perfect as possible and continually tweak certain passages, which often results in a very patchy, confusing manuscript.

A first draft is, and should be, ugly. It cannot be perfect because it is not yet fully formed. Accept this and start working on what you can do to improve the next go-round.

All good writing – whether fiction or non-fiction – requires time and many drafts. Writing is about process. And as the writing (aka the storytelling) improves with each draft, so too should the author’s knowledge of their central character.

As the author it’s essential that you have a solid idea of who this person who carries your story is. Let her have her own voice and not be a mouthpiece for your own preoccupations.

Who were her parents? What is her indelible memory from childhood? What drives her? What are her dreams? Is she villain or victim? What are her defining physical traits? How does she move? What verbal tics might she have?

Write a one- to two-page profile for each of your main characters to get to know them better.

People are complicated and regularly contradict themselves. Use this – for humour, for plot – but above all to add depth.

You need to know your character and her back story better than anyone, but only a little of this should find its way to the page. And this is not necessarily about aping reality but creating a world where these people – your creations – have a place in it.

You start with the skeleton and start putting flesh on the bones with each successive draft.

Much has been written in recent years about whether a central character must be likeable or not. Well, it helps enormously as means to engage the reader, but it’s not essential if the writing is strong enough. As author, if you do like your main character you may also find the writing comes easier. On the other hand, if you do not like her (which is OK too), you must still be invested in her fate – because that’s precisely what you’re asking of the reader. And there’s the kicker – the reader has to care enough about your character or what happens to her to keep reading.

‘I don’t care if a reader hates one of my stories, just as long as he finishes the book.’ Roald Dahl