21st October, 2020
4 min read
Characters - How to Make Them Real
Characters - How to Make Them Real
Characters: the essential ingredients in any novelist’s imagined world. And whilst all writers naturally need characters to move and propel the plot along, to ‘act it out’ as it were, for the novelist who writes character rather than plot driven stories, those protagonists are even more crucial. In fact, they often arrive first in the writer’s mind, demanding a plot to be invented for them. At least that’s always been my experience. And naturally these characters have to be real, believable, their motivations credible, their decisions plausible. But how to do it? How to make our characters seem like people who the reader might really meet or come across, like or dislike, befriend or avoid?
Like a lot of writers, I am sure, I have a magpie like approach to my characters. I steal a bit from one person I have seen or once encountered, snitch something else from someone I possibly met over 20 or more years ago. No one character is ever entirely based on an ‘actual’ person – and I never exploit family or close friends - yet each has elements taken from reality. A woman with whom I might have had a brief conversation on a bus years ago. A man whose life story I half overheard in a café. An intransigent employer from decades back. An idiosyncratic, very remote and long-lost relation. All these could provide elements, drip feed into the creation of a character that finds his or her way into my novels.
Yet once they are there, actually inhabiting the pages, safely embedding themselves in a plot, they need to make another transition: they need to live forcefully and not so much stay on the page as leap off it. And that’s when I find I make use of my years as a drama teacher.
Any serious student or teacher of drama will be entirely familiar with the work of Konstantin Stanislavski. Russian theatre practitioner at the end of the 19th century, he worked extensively at the Moscow Arts Theatre and, most importantly, evolved a method and training in acting that has come to be known as the Stanislavski technique. And I find some of his ideas and practises so useful when transferred to the business of creating valid and convincing characters for novels. Stanislavski insisted that his actors empathise fully with the characters they were playing. That they should understand the motivation, the goals and the forces driving their choices and decisions. (this might seem very obvious to us nowadays, but was something of a revelation to the late 19th century theatre…)
The idea of emotion memory meant that his actors were encouraged to identify with the experiences in their own lives in order to find a connection with their characters. Only by finding the truth and reality of that emotion could the actors fully inhabit their roles. Surely the same has to be said of the characters that we create as writers. Even if we don’t like some of them – and no-one wants to write a novel full of bland, neutral human beings – we need to understand them. To see something of their point of view. Stanislavski’s phrase sense of truth often comes to mind when I am tussling with a character, wondering if she or he possesses this key quality. How can I put life into the imagined circumstance of my protagonist? Even when character A, for example, is speaking, what is character B thinking and how would he be responding – by silence or some small gesture? What would a director give that actor to do? Then there is Stanislavski’s insistence on observation. Writers are very nosy, on the whole – we tend to stare, watch and listen to other people constantly. An extension of this is to study physical movement, the smallest give-away in body tension, a particular gait, slouch or angle of head, for example. All these are key preparations for the actor and, I find, for the writer too. If you are able to see your characters, not just facially, but physically, the way they walk, stand, sit in a chair, you’re half way there to making them real. One exercise advanced by Stanislavski was to spend an entire day as the character being played. From first thing in that morning until last thing at night. Now this might be taking things to an extreme and hardly feasible for a writer with a day job or bewildered family in tow, but nevertheless, a slimmed down version of the idea can be very helpful.
The other day I tried it out for one of the characters in the novel I am now working on as I walked into town. Granted, the character, Stella, is a young woman and decades younger than me so visually we are poles apart. But the exercise was useful to me in resolving aspects of her character – imagining how she would react to a queue in a shop, to a sudden gush of rainwater from a passing car. Would she offer coins to the homeless man in the street or walk on by? By the time I was home I felt closer to knowing Stella and hopefully she will come more vividly to life on the page too. It’s one of the paradoxes for writers in creating characters – first, to make them entirely unique– then to spend time rendering them as normal and believable as possible!
See Jude's book here The Legacy of Mr Jarvis
And learn more about Jude here
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