Creating live characters

How do we make our characters live and breathe on the page? Talking about characters. Guess where I went today? I went to hear a talk by one of my favourite writers of children’s fiction – Jacqueline Wilson, at Manchester’s Central Library. After her talk, during the few minutes of question time, do you know what most of the questions were about? The characters in her books. Where did they come from? How did they feature in the various plots? The parts they played. What was this author’s favourite character? Of course, that feisty and memorable girl – Tracy Beaker. So it struck me that as an aspiring writer of children’s fiction – my stories must be character-driven because this is what children mainly identity with.

So, it seems simple enough, but how do we do it? How can I make my characters jump off the page, live and breathe – and not end up as flat and dull as cardboard cutouts? From many years of having attended the Swanwick School for writers the advice to ‘show not tell ‘ has been given more frequently than the number of rainy days in a British week. But this is easier said than done. How often do we end up telling readers what a character either thinks or does – rather than showing it through their actions and behaviours? I am so guilty of this: hence the sentence ‘Lucy was upset’ (telling) rather than ‘Lucy struggled to hold back her tears’ (thus showing that she was upset). As I write this I am reminding myself to go through my text to search out those ‘telling’ phrases and sentences.

What else brings our characters to life? Well, it seems to me that if our characters are to become human – they must have traits that are similar to ourselves and that readers can identify with – selfishness, kindness, being short-tempered, lacking in confidence, dominance and so on. Also, it strikes me that as we are all different, our characters must also be different – otherwise, where else would the story conflict emanate from?

At this year’s Swanwick I was treated to a fabulous session on the psychology of characterisation. What an eye-opener! Of course, it seems so obvious that the differing beliefs and basic needs of our characters, within their settings, must act as drivers of the story plot. So how well is my story (and yours) character driven? Do I have a range of characters that are different enough to create conflict? Further, do my characters reflect the society in which we all live? I am told that in children’s fiction, cultural diversity, as well as disability, should also feature, yet in a natural way, not contrived.

So I have listed all of my characters, noted their characteristics, and tried to ask the vital question: what is the purpose of each character? How is each of them adding and contributing to the plot? Does the story need them? If so, how and why?

Back to the firework analogy I started this series of blogs with – how are my characters setting off their bangers, creating a noise that holds readers? Are they creating enough of a colourful display – shape, tone, shade?

And all of this using only words on paper? We writers have a hard job to do, don’t we. Good luck.

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