I was told by my teacher once (very nicely) that she found some of the dialogue in my novel unconvincing. She couldn’t imagine my central characters – ten and eleven years of age – saying the things they did. As I read back through the dialogue, I realised she was right. Having a ten-year old son myself it should have been obvious, but I think I had been drawing from previous reading experiences rather than the world around me (I read too many Enid Blyton books in my youth). I had to tune back in and remind myself how children interact and behave in the modern world. I began to stalk them, secretly studying my own kids as they argued, as they played. I hid behind their bedroom doors when they had friends over. I lurked around at the park jotting down the words they used, the things they talked about, their tone etc. (No charges were laid).
Charles Dickens created some of the most memorable characters in fiction and most of them were based on real people. Dickens’ friend and biographer, John Forster, once said that Dickens made “characters real existences, not by describing them but by letting them describe themselves.”
I have started again using my observations, working to create characters that feel alive, that kids can identify with – there’s nothing more jarring in a novel than characters that don’t ring true. This applies to the most imaginary characters – meaning you recognise their emotions and believe their actions. The concept of the film ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is far from believable, yet we go along with it because the relationship between the two characters is driven by a real affection – it doesn’t feel artificial.
A friend once gave me a useful piece of advice to read through your story separately for each character. That way, you can gain a better grasp for their reactions, mannerisms, dialogue – are they true to the character?
Other pieces of advice I have in my notebook – highlighted with bright yellow stars – are:
– Draw from people you know, the world around you
– Understand what your character wants, what is stopping them, how they are going to get it
– Create one character from a range of people if necessary: the way one person speaks, the way another walks etc.
– Build your characters up both visually & verbally
– Ask yourself, what are their relationships, beliefs, habits, activities, strengths, weaknesses, vices, pet peeves
– Let your character grow naturally as you write
– Get your characters to describe each other
The better we get to know our characters the more alive they will become.
Do you have any different or interesting techniques to develop your characters?