Thursday, 14 January 2010

What a Character

The other day I was walking past a shop when I noticed a middle-aged version of my Mother in the window reflection. It all happened in a moment’s glance but the hurt lingered on. I was that reflection. Yes, I look older than I think I look but it’s more than that. The facial expression, my way of walking, everything visual is out of kilter with my perception of me. My friends know the visual aspect of my character better than I do, although they don't know my inner me. A character is made up of complicated layers. I have fears and hopes that others will never know about, but there’s also stuff in my mind that even I’m not aware of. I don’t really know my character very well, do I? I suspect that an editor would reject me as being one-dimensional.

I try to create well-rounded, three-dimensional characters in my writing. I indulge in people-watching. I make notes in my notebook. I jot down strange mannerisms, unusual items of clothing, snippets of speech, all useful in building up a character but they are only a tiny fraction of a complete 3D description. Looking through my old creative writing notes I am reminded of what Malcolm Bradbury said about the power to create and develop character being at the heart of all fictional writing. It was our first lesson. There is no story if there are no characters and I still have the exercise we did to help us to create juicy, well-rounded, three-dimensional ones. Maybe it will help me to better identify the character behind my window reflection.

It’s called ‘Interview your character’.
After name and age I'm supposed to ask my character what she looks like.
I guess I’m a bit shaky on that one.

What is my character’s personality?
Now I’m really struggling.

Best character trait?

Biggest fault?

Favourite food?
Not sure. Maybe chips, or cheese, or chocolate.

At last a question I can answer. Cats and dogs.

Cruelty and clotted cream.

Secret desires?
If I answered that then they wouldn’t be and I can't think of any anyway.

How am I doing? Not too well I suspect. The next lot are the more in-depth questions.

My character is cleaning out the cupboards. What does she find easy/hard to throw away?

My character is remembering her childhood bedroom. How is it decorated?
I can’t remember a thing about it.

What does my character have in her fridge?
Not sure. Butter, milk, maybe cheese.

My character has been invited out to dinner. What will she wear? What sort of restaurant would she go to?
What to wear? Trousers or skirt? Should we go Italian or Indian or maybe the pub? So far I can identify myself as indecisive with a bad memory.

Does my character keep her socks in pairs? Are they in a drawer or a cupboard?
That’s easy. They’re in a pile in the washing basket so I can add disorganised to my list of characteristics.

I’m afraid I haven’t discovered anything significant about the me that lurks behind my window reflection, and yet these questions work for fictional characters. If you’re a writer and you’ve never tried it then I urge you to do so. Any questions will do. The important thing is to talk to your character, sit them in a chair or take them down the garden and give them a good grilling.

It’s strange how you can do that with a fictional character but you can never map out a complete three-dimensional picture of a real person, not your best friend, your partner or even yourself. In other words, I don’t know that middle-age woman in the window reflection half as well as I know Kat who lives in my head and on my computer screen each time I add a daily 500 words to her life.


  1. I, too, walk around with a notepad and am happy to be sitting in a coffee shop and observe people. If I hear snippets of conversation, I'll write it down for use someday.

    I used to be a journalist so it's second nature to interview people, BUT interviewing myself? Hmm. Not that easy.

    But I will take your exercise and see what happens.


  2. Awesome! I like this idea... I might print out the list of questions and stick it inside the journal I carry around... :)

    Glad to be following!

  3. Funny, I just saw my mom when I passed the mirror this morning.
    Nice questions. I hadn't thought of using them as I have been interviewing my WIP characters on my blog In the Chair-http://theinterviewedcharacter(at)blogspot(dot)com/
    I just talk to them. If you have a chance maybe you can visit them.

  4. Hi Marisa, I'm sure our snippets will come in handy one day and if they don't... you can't beat a bit of innocent evesdropping.

    Hi Eisley, hope the list helps.

    Hi The Voice, yes my mirror is every bit as bad as windows but at least I'm ready for the shock.

  5. Ha! Photos are the same. I'm sometimes horrified that my mum has elbowed me out of photos...

    I don't think I could answer those interview questions, but I don't think I could ask them of my characters either. Not to begin with, anyway. I just don't know these things before I start.... I get to know them as I go along, just like 'real' people (though of course they are COMPLETELY real!) :-)

  6. Of course they're real, Gillian, all our characters are real. Thanks for calling by ;-)

  7. Do you try out the actions of your characters? Sometimes I get up and do what I imagine them doing, so that the writing feels more realistic. Good post Ros, makes us all think about our characters again.

  8. How superficial can you get! Answering those questions would produce a mindless character for a mindless teenagers'magazine. Joanna.

  9. Thanks Miriam. No I've never tried out their actions. I might just give it a try.

    Hi Joanna. Thanks for your comment. We each have different ways of developing our characters. Interviewing is just one of them. It doesn't work for everybody. When it does work it is a powerful method. The writer will find themselves writing things they never knew they were about to write. It's similar to the outcomes of therapeutic writing which I'll be talking about in my blog next week.