Knowing your Characters (Part 1)

Cambridge punting, Chelsea flower show,world war 2 airman,group at cafe, Cambridge North Station.
The Picture Board for inspiration when writing (photo credit PC)

Inspired by the idea of the interior decorator’s best friend, the Mood Board, I began to beg, borrow and steal magazines and leaflets from my family and friends.

Well, actually, I didn’t steal them because you never know when you might need that friend or family member so better to not risk offence.

I didn’t really borrow them either because my intent would not have been to return them intact.

Beg? Yes, definitely, pleading for more and more as it became an addiction. Turning every page I was looking for a winner, and often I was lucky – so many pictures that brought my characters to life.

When I wrote my first book, The Railway Carriage Child, I had images of every character in my mind, waiting to take their place on the page. It was easy. They were people from my childhood that I knew well. I could describe from memory the way a school friend’s hair curled or the satin shoes I wore as a three year old bridesmaid.

This time it’s a very different experience. As I write my first novel, I have characters in my mind but they are very blurry.

In some ways it’s like directing a play. All the scenes need to fit together. I know where each character should be at any given time.

Hero cannot be enjoying basking on a Pacific island when Heroine needs a lift back to town after a minor scrape in her car.

Lovely middle-aged couple, rekindling their earlier love-affair, must go out to dinner. They cannot linger in a passionate embrace on the sofa on the very night that Mr Baddie, the Burglar, raids their home, leading to a whole other chain of events.

So, we follow these characters through the scenes but we need them to be distinct. To make them real to the reader, they must first be real to me, the writer.

I must be their costume designer, their make-up artist and their psychologist.

Would elegant Lady Jane wear her skirt that short?

Would timid little Fleur choose that bold lipstick?

Would city-slick banker Barry really break down in tears at that particular piece of news?

I need to know each of them, to understand how they have grown and developed to this point, and how they will respond and be affected as the story unfolds.

So, to my genius idea, the Board.

In the material I had gathered, lay a glut of pretty young girls, (heroine sorted); a few handsome young men, (enough to choose a hero); but where was the balding headmaster, the spotty boy from the local college, the elderly lady who didn’t apply magic cream?

These do not, it seems, appear in advertising material or mainstream magazine features.

I quickly realised that all my characters had some minor flaws. The hero bit his nails at the most inappropriate moments. The heroine and her best friend were not above discussing the torment of period pains.

It was only now that I realised that the board would not fully meet my needs. I will still stick up the pictures and name them, so I can do a quick eye-check for hair length, approximate bra size, length of calf muscles etc, but it’s back to the trusty note pad, I’m afraid, for expressions and mannerisms and character traits.

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  1. Yes, it would be good to claim to have been well prepared but as I am 33000 words into the novel it is more i case of hindsight rather than forward planning. I have only just realised how much time I spend going back to check a character’s features that I may have mentioned earlier


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