Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

How to breathe real life into fiction

Sherlock Holmes (r) and Dr. John B. Watson. Fr...                             Image via Wikipedia
The only difference between authors and the characters they create is that the authors are alive. They create characters so cleverly sometimes, that readers become attracted to them; want more, read everything they can get that concerns them. Authors have been known to create series with followers and fans demanding more.

We all know names of famous characters, whose lives and habits, friends and foes, we understand better than we know our own relatives, sometimes. Sherlock Holmes, Jo Marchant, Miss Marple, Alice, Gandalf, James Bond, Harry Potter... we can even picture them in our mind's eye.

When they create such memorable and imaginable characters, authors are breathing life into what they write: they make it all realistic, even if it is fantasy or science fiction. Their characters eat, sleep, speak, make friends and enemies. They garden, cook, read... and we know exactly how they do it, what they like, what they are ignorant of, how they think.

The best way to make fiction come alive is to give characters senses: smell, touch, sight, hearing and taste. It is even better, however, to give them strong emotions: vehement disgust at something rather ordinary, for example, would be very memorable. A reader can relate to idiosyncrasies because we all have a few of our own. I have created characters who love yellow crockery; who write letters to their dead relatives; who never wear wristwatches; who use only yellow pencils to write with; who avoid their own reflections in shop windows; and who place their books spine-inwards on their shelves. Why?
Alice in Wonderland
I give my characters memorable little quirks because it says something about me, the author. Writing coaches say we must know our characters intimately: but that is not enough. Not nearly so - making characters memorable enough for a reader to want to read the next in a series means they need quirks and idiosyncrasies. They need odd habits and peculiar rituals or observances.

Next time you are creating the dramatis personae of a new piece of writing, try to work something 'not quite normal' into the make-up of one or two of your characters. You will be breathing life into your fiction, drawing in your readers, who will raise eyebrows at your inventiveness... and remember you for longer.

I like writing about characters in fiction. For more, see a post I wrote in September.
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  1. Good post.

    Too often I see characters who are flat and cardboard. Or maddenly perfect, too humble and too goody-goody.

    My current non-favorite is the female character who loses all sense when there is a male nearby. Some people call them 'quivering bunnies' or TSTL = too stupid to live.

    OTOH - Jean Davis has a blog all about the characters she's cut from her novels. They are all quirky and funny. Some writers have the nack for it, some don't.

  2. So true, Kat. I just take to people in real life who have some harmless flaw. It makes them vulnerably loveable... so I try to create similar creatures for my books.

  3. Rosanne, how many of these quirks are things you've observed in real people? And how many come from your imagination? When you see one do you write it down, and then flip through your notes when you're creating a character? So curious how it works.

  4. When I create a character, it is usually an amalgamation: a concoction of attributes I see in live people around me. The speech and mannerisms of one, and the physical appearance of another.

    The quirkiness of a schoolfriend I used to have, mixed in with the beautiful eyes and great voice of a cousin, for example. The quirks I find nearly always exist in someone I know... sometimes they exist in me. I am the one with the yellow crockery. The truth is out!

    I had a friend who only ever wrote with yellow pencils, bought in huge cheap packs from China.

    And I had a friend with an eccentric aunt who would write notes to her dead mother.

    There are heaps of others. They might come out bit by bit in my books. I don't give ALL characters in a book funny characteristics, or it will feel like a very mad affair!

  5. Good post, Rosanne. It's these little things that make a character come alive. I gave one of the characters, in the soon to be released Streets on a Map, a passion for photographing sunsets and waterfalls, which is something I tend to do.