Do you create a character or does a character create themselves? Thirteen years ago, I was walking over the Norfolk marshes with my husband, an archaeologist. He remarked that prehistoric people had seen marshland as sacred: because it’s neither land nor sea, but something in-between, they saw it as a link to the afterlife. As he spoke, I imagined a woman walking towards me out of the mist. She had a pleasant, open face and brown shoulder-length hair. She was wearing a muddy anorak and there was a purposefulness in her stride and where her feet were taking her. She was obviously going somewhere important but I didn’t know where.
That was my first encounter with Dr Ruth Galloway, the protagonist of my mystery series set in Norfolk. No other character has appeared to me in quite such a dramatic way. Yet creating people is one of the most important jobs for an author, perhaps the most important. Without Ruth there would be no books; all the action – crime-related and otherwise – comes from her being who she is. Character is plot, I tell my creative writing students, and plot is character.
So how do we create complex characters? Sometimes your protagonist does materialise in front of you but, in most cases, you will have to do the alchemy yourself. And you will have to do it over and over again because you don’t just need a protagonist, you need an antagonist and all the characters in-between. A friend used to work for the long-running TV series Midsummer Murders (top tip: don’t go to an English village, especially if there’s a fete on) and she was told that, at the end of an episode, there needed to be four people still standing who could have committed the murder. That’s a lot of lives to fabricate. So here are some things to consider:
Determine their Names
When you christen your character think why they are called that. Is it a family name? A saint’s name? Who decided on it? Do they like their name or do they always use another? Do their parents insist on calling them James when they prefer Jim? In a crime novel, this could be a sneaky clue, because who would link jovial Jimmy to sinister Uncle James, mentioned only in chapter one? But, even if it’s not crucial to the plot, a name is instant backstory. A student told me that he and his brothers were all named after kings because their mother thought it meant they would be successful in life. Another was named after a football ground, presumably for the same reason. My real name is Domenica de Rosa which tells you that my family were Italian and Catholic, also that they had run out of inspiration after three daughters and so called me after a day of the week. Instant backstory.
Remember you have to live with them
Jane Austen famously said that, in Emma, she was creating a heroine ‘whom no-one but myself would much like’. I think ‘but myself’ is significant. 90,000 words is a long time to spend with someone you dislike. Remember, also, that readers don’t have to like your characters but they do have to feel something for them. If you follow your character’s feet, you are following their life’s journey and so are the readers. Tension comes from caring if someone lives or dies. If readers don’t have any connection to your characters, your books will have no suspense, no matter how clever the plotting.
Beware the German Funk Trap
I’m indebted to screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce for this phrase. In short: never give your character interests instead of personality traits. Throwing a lot of quirky hobbies at a silhouette does not mean that it becomes a human being. For instance, where a character’s feet takes them in a story is in itself a unique quality. Musical taste is another unique quality. Could you sustain an interest in German funk for thirteen books? Choose a quality that you can relate to. I made Ruth a Bruce Springsteen fan for a reason. I never have to look up one of his lyrics because they are all written on my heart.
Remember their backstory
Kazuo Ishiguro said, ‘Many of our deepest motives come, not from an adult logic of how things work in the world, but out of something that is frozen from childhood.’ Make sure that you know what happened to your characters before you met them. It doesn’t matter if you never use this backstory, your book will be richer for the knowledge.
Do the math(s)
Who would have thought that writing books required so much maths? I feel like I’m always subtracting a person’s birth date from their death date and coming up with -3. Make sure that your character is old enough to do the things necessary for the plot: marry, have children, drive a car etc. If you’re planning a series, it’s worth thinking about the age your protagonist will be at the start. This is not to say that you shouldn’t write about older characters. I’ve just written a book (The Postscript Murders) where many of the cast are over eighty. These people have lived a long time, they have lots of backstory.
Follow the feet
I didn’t know where Ruth was going so I had to follow her. When you have given your character a name, look down at their feet. Are they wearing stilettos or trainers? How far have they walked that day? They are going somewhere. Follow the feet.
ELLY GRIFFITHS is the author of the Ruth Galloway and Brighton mystery series and the stand-alone novels The Stranger Diaries and The Postscript Murders. She is a recipient of the Edgar Award for Best Novel, the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and the CWA Dagger in the Library Award. She lives in Brighton, England.