On the creation of character in the novel

Creating character in a novel has two aspects. Characterisation –  the embodiment of the character ( appearance, habits, the way they carry themselves and so on) – is the least complicated by far. It is relatively easy to come up with a convincing description of a character.  At the Faber Academy there is an exercise called ‘kidnap a character’ where students are asked to spend the morning following a character and noting down the fine details of their appearance, speech and behaviour.  This literary stalking always produces remarkable results – well realised characters that suggest all kinds of back story.  It is not difficult to do – simply by watching and making notes, then using specific detail, you can evoke a visual image that will remain in the reader’s mind.

Far more complex is the creation of interior character.  This is something that may take a whole draft of a novel to establish.  It is more complex, because human beings are infinitely complex and you are creating fictional human beings. For me, my characters always spend the first few months like bad cardboard cutouts, unconvincing and thin. But as time goes on, they thicken and realise themselves as you start to live with them and create them.  By the time they are finished – not that any character is ever finished – they will contain all the elements that make a significant character engaging.  Some of the most important elements include desire, contradiction, vulnerability, blind spots ( Arthur Miler said that the writer’s job is to ‘tear away the veils of denial’).  We must also identify with the character, as in. ‘see where they are coming from’, otherwise we will not be able to care about them. This doesn’t mean we have to like them – but we do have to understand why they are making the choices they make. A  real character is elusive and muti-faceted – as David Mamet says, a drama is a conversation between characters who are all arguably in the right.

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