Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How I get to know my characters

I write character-driven fiction. The make-believe people I invent are the most important aspect of the stories I make up. They are the ones that endure all the incidents and accidents I put them through - they make the story, rather than simply participate in it.

When I decide to start the first draft of a new book, I know I am undertaking a very difficult task - and it is impossible unless I get to know a few of the characters first. I need to meet and get to know them intimately, but not through writing necessarily. I 'think them up' rather than write them, and I need to invent them physically first.

This is where imagination and memory come in: I picture someone I have met who fits the physical qualities I need, such as a slender woman with long wavy brown hair. Then I give her an amalgam of qualities I might find in some other woman somewhere else, such as a tendency to turn a foot inward when nervous, or a voice that drops to a hoarse whisper when she is excited. I imagine her facial expressions, the way she turns her words, and how she prefers to dress. Before I can give her strengths and weaknesses, I need to be able to 'see' her form.

All this in my head. I rarely make notes, because I can remember a character I am in the process of inventing very well. It takes me weeks, so what I forget or omit is possibly not that important. I need at least four of these characters before I write anything. I need to imagine them interacting: fighting, working or making love.

What is important? Age is - a character needs to fulfill a number of age-appropriate tasks in a story. Build is - I need to fit what a character looks like into my mind's eye, so their height, weight and general shape is important. Temperament and energy level are - this affects how characters move, and what action choices they make, so I need to see their activity in my head. And of course, personality is - even with inconsistencies compatible with being human and fallible, there are some things some people would do eagerly that others would never consider.

When I have a person in my head, I need a good name.  This is a vital aspect of a character, and once I give one of my people a name I rarely change it, because it is such an intrinsic part of who that character is to me, and how I would like to convey his or her make up accurately to my readers. The credibility of a character sometimes comes down to how well a reader takes on the name of that person, and how it fits in with all that person does and says in a novel.

When I get to know the major characters, I can build a story around them and the plot basics I have written about. Oh yes - I do write a story outline, and do concentrate on the plot, so I do have to invent people that will cooperate with what I need them to do. I sometimes need to enlist the help of an extra character to do something particularly peculiar, if the task is simply something my protagonists would never dream of doing.

How important are characters to you? Have you ever given up on a novel because you did not care what happened to the protagonist? Have you ever been so fascinated by a character that you wished they were real?


  1. Rosanne, as you have discovered, characters are EVERYTHING in writing fiction. Yes, I have [figuratively speaking] tossed a book against the wall because I did not give a hoot about the characters and, yes, conversely, some authors' story people are so real they live.
    For my own books, I need to know a character's background and life so far before I can start writing and developing a plot from what has brought them to this place.
    Great post. Interesting how other authors develop their stories.

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