When I set out to write The Hawkweed Prophecy, I was struck by the idea of two girls switched at birth and the teenagers they’d become. I had never written a novel before. At this point, I had just finished the script for The Little Prince and had worked with a team, turning in drafts that had been debated and collaborated on. I wanted Hawkweed to be different; I wanted the chance to work on the project alone. So I began to write by myself with no deadline, no script fee, no notes. I had full freedom to describe what I wanted in detail without the limits that a script often provides. I could paint the picture, get into the characters’ heads and describe everything going on, their motivations, hopes, fears.
By the time I finished, I had fully fleshed out characters that relied on my skill as a writer and not the action or craft of the actor. It was entirely up to me to create a cast that readers would connect with. And as the second book in the series, The Hawkweed Legacy, is now on shelves, I wanted to share some of my tips with you so that you can come up with characters readers will connect with as well.
I recently came across my first attempt at a screenplay. Sealed in a creased and dusty envelope, it was tucked away at the back of the shelves in my office. With a slight feeling of trepidation, I opened it up and flicked through it. As I suspected, I did cringe. A lot. It was like reading an old diary – a glimpse into the mind of my much younger, less experienced self. To be honest, it wasn’t all bad. There were some moments to take pride in. But its greatest flaw was its lead character. She could do no wrong. She was simply too nice. Back then, I must have thought the way to an audience’s heart was through good behaviour, not honesty. I chose sentiment over truth. Several screenplays and two novels later, I now believe differently.
1) Give Them Flaws
Nobody is perfect. No one can relate to perfect. It’s our flaws that make us human, the mistakes we make because of these flaws that make us interesting, and our attempts to recognise them and overcome them that make us heroic. That’s not to say that characters can’t have great, winning qualities too. They just need to be three dimensional for a reader to really connect with them. So flaws, and quirks and foibles too. Focus in on the detail. Avoid the general, the ‘normal’. Readers will connect with characters that feel real.
2) Give Them Goals
This is more evident in certain genres – solving the crime, getting the girl, saving the world. But even in other areas of fiction, I like to think of characters wanting something and then seeing where their motivations take them. Often this leads to unforeseen circumstances and unexpected results. Characters can start of wanting one thing, and end up achieving something different. Sometimes characters, like us, think they know what they want but not what they need. Exploring motivation, tracking it, drives a plot forward and engages a reader.
3) Let Their Actions Speak Louder Than Their Words
I’m a screenwriter by trade so this gets embedded early on. People don’t often say exactly what they’re feeling. Often they don’t really know or understand what they’re feeling. They struggle to find their words, sometimes to find their voice at all. Or they say a lot to cover up what’s really going on inside. The writer has to be the psychologist. This doesn’t mean pages of internal monologue and navel gazing. I prefer to discover what a character is feeling through their actions and their interactions with others, rather than be told it directly. This requires participation from the reader but allows for a deeper connection to be formed.
4) Let Them Change
Characters develop over the course of a story and are changed by the events that they encounter. Think Scarlett O’Hara, Elizabeth Bennet, Pip, Mr Rochester. No miraculous transformations. Nothing too unconvincing. But any journey worth going on should have an effect on the traveller. If the character is affected, then the reader is more likely to be too. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. If you don’t want a character to change despite what you throw at him or her, then do this with purpose and understanding.
5) Let Them Surprise You and Themselves
Don’t let the characters be slaves to the plot. If they lead you on a detour, go with it. It means you have done your job creating them and they are fully grown. None of us know how we’ll react in a given situation. It’s the same for characters. As writers, we put characters in particular circumstances (often tricky ones) and see how they respond. Their reactions have consequences which trigger new actions and reactions and so the chain goes on.
Irena Brignull is a screenwriter, novelist and mum. Her screenwriting credits include the Oscar nominated movie, The Boxtrolls, starring Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning and Simon Pegg. (She was nominated for Best Screenplay for that one at the Annie Awards in 2014.) Her adaptation of The Little Prince, directed by Mark Osborne and starring Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, James Franco and Marion Cotillard, closed the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. She also adapted Skellig for Sky which starred Tim Roth, John Simm and Kelly MacDonald. Before all this, Brignull was a Script Executive at the BBC and then Head of Development at Dogstar Films where she was the script editor on Shakespeare in Love, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, I Capture the Castle and Bravo Two Zero to name a few. She lives with her family in London but was brought up outside the city in the beautiful Chiltern Hills. www.irenabrignull.com