Saturday, 19 March 2016

What makes an interesting character in fiction? - by Pauline Francis

A thousand thanks to Pauline Francis who has heroically stepped in at very short notice, after unavoidable circumstances created a sudden gap in the schedule.

There’s so much easily accessible material written about this subject - but I’m letting you have a peep at my efforts to create interesting characters.

I think that it’s easier with the first novel to get the character right. Most of us have a character – or know the sort of character – we’d like to write about. In my case it was Lady Jane Grey (the nine day queen).  I knew that she was badly used by the powerful men around her and this somehow chimed with my experience of an overbearing father in my teens... but I didn’t want to write about a real person. I wanted to create my own character. Isn’t that what writers do?

But I couldn’t give up the idea. Jane had all the attributes of an interesting character: a strong woman up against powerful men, having to fight for what she wanted, cruelly treated and with plenty of enemies. I still stood on the brink. Would a real character be a constraint? History tends to set its characters in stone. We only have the bare bones (or the real bones!). How could I create a character that was as fully rounded as one created from scratch?

Then it struck me.

Jane may have lived in the sixteenth century, but could she really be any different from a teenager today, except in speech and dress? How would I feel if somebody looked back at me in a few hundred years’ time and said I couldn’t be interesting because I’d lived so long ago? Once I’d got rid of that stumbling block, it was easy. I forgot that Jane was real. She was a young girl with hope, dreams and fears. I like to think that Jane is the best of my real characters. If I’m honest, I just wish I’d given her a memorable or funny habit, perhaps one that she only revealed to somebody close to her. I did invent another narrator for this novel (Raven Queen) – Ned –and I had huge fun with his creation. I was going to follow the rules here. He was going to be Jane’s opposite -  extrovert and witty. He is, in fact, gentle and conscientious. Yet all readers love him. So perhaps it’s good to go with the creative flow rather than the rules.

One last word about historical characters. Why not turn a situation on its head?

We all know from history that Kings had mistresses, who bore sons who sometimes claimed the throne. But what was it like to be a pretender? Don’t we automatically assume that he’s part of a diabolical plot to win power? I decided to make the fictional Francis (in Traitor’s Kiss) a good person. He doesn’t actually stake his claim as Henry the V111’s son – but he could have. So he’s still a threat – and clever Princess Elizabeth knows this. Francis becomes one of her victims – she leaves him in a madhouse called Bedlam, just in case he decides to make trouble for her – and this strengthens the harsh side of her character.

I’m going to be honest here. In my second novel, A World Away, I created my central character, Nadie, a Native American girl captured by English colonists. She doesn’t really know her path in life (except to find the English boy she loves) and I think this weakens her voice. I’d love to go back and change her because it’s an interesting novel in all other ways. The other central character, Tom, is well-liked by readers, especially because he has to fight against his stammer as well as his enemies.
How can you bring out greater strength in already good characters?

Condense time: In Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick, the story of murder and revenge is made gripping because the action takes place in a small log cabin over a few days. Or use another character as the ‘elephant in the room’ as Marcus does – in this case, the body of the narrator’s father on the kitchen table. It is that dead father who sends a chill down our spine. He is the interesting character. If the story had been narrated by his son in the future, away from that log cabin, it would have lessened the tension. 

Or use a slight twist that nobody expects: one of my characters goes to France during the revolution wanting to be an anatomist – perfect for a time rich in beheadings. Create a strong side-kick: watch a box-set of the BBC series Merlin if you want a master class in how to do this (Merlin is the servant side-kick to Prince Arthur, using modern vocabulary... wonderful!),

This is an endless subject and I know I’ve only touched on one or two areas and that there are hundreds of you out there who have created wonderful characters - too many to mention...


Lynne Benton said...

Fascinating post, Pauline. So interesting to speculate on how a story would have developed had the main character been just a little different. Very thought-provoking.

Nikki Sheehan said...

Thanks, Lynne. So interesting to hear how other people do it. I love the anatomy/ beheading thing. Will have to read it now!

Rosemary Hayes said...

Well done, Pauline. Really interesting to speculate on how a character might have been strengthened by giving him or her a habit or phobia or some such to add depth.

Stroppy Author said...

I loved Raven Queen, but haven't read Traitor's Kiss yet - but I'm accelerating it up my 'to read' list now!

Ann Turnbull said...

I'd like to put in a word for A World Away, which is a story I loved! Possibly the blacksmith boy was a more interesting character - I can't remember now - but the whole thing worked for this reader.

This is an endlessly fascinating subject. Thank you for an interesting post, Pauline.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Great post and I'm in awe that you managed to put it together so quickly!!

JPetersen said...

You tell very interesting stories about your characters, thank you!