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Alec Guinness as Le Carre's Smiley

There comes a point in the fiction writing process when, if you’re on the right track, your characters begin to take on their own lives. It is as if they demand a hand in their own destiny. Of course you can’t just leave them to it – there’s a God complex to satisfy for one thing, to say nothing of a slavish devotion to the twists and turns of the plot you’ve sweated over. But whose plot is it anyway, yours or theirs? The deeper your understanding of key characters, and the further into their lives and motivations you immerse yourself, the more likely the plot will develop to accommodate them, and be more convincing as a result.

As we meet John Le Carré’s  cerebral, yet unassuming spymaster George Smiley, the physical description hints at a far deeper representation of character.   

“His overcoat, which had a hint of widowhood about it, was of that black, loose weave which is designed to retain moisture. Either the sleeves were too long or his arms too short for, as with Roach, when he wore his mackintosh, the cuffs all but concealed his fingers.”

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – John Le Carré

So here’s a few suggestions – no more than starters – which I’ve used (and use) in writing workshops and in my own writing to begin the process of drawing characters off the page. 

1.           The searching interview
Try interviewing your characters – interrogate them if needs be. This isn’t a Friday Night chat show love-in. What wouldn’t your character want to answer? What would give you a deeper insight to their world, their motivations? Think about their answers, what would they hide? Put them under pressure – it can also help as a tool to find the character’s voice.

For any interview it makes sense to do your research, if your character isn’t yet developed to the extent where this is useful. Try the following exercise.

2.           Empty your pockets please…
The character Jacqui first appeared in The Debt, an unpublished short story, but the work that went into her creation paid dividends when she dropped into my novel Frank’s Wild Years. By then I knew her well enough for her to walk easily into the story and once there, she began to develop as one of the novel’s prime movers. In short, she became the catalyst for the main storyline.

I made a list of items Jacqui carried with her. In the initial exercise I counted 10. Here are three to give the gist.

A pen: what type of pen? A 50p biro with a bitten lid; something a little more upmarket perhaps, a corporate freebie, a stubby blue betting shop job, a souvenir from a seaside town. A high-end personalised Parker or a Mont Blanc fountain pen makes a difference. For the record, Jacqui’s pen’s a freebie from the local Chinese takeaway.  

A purse/wallet: a classic crime fiction device, every author from Conan-Doyle to Dexter has taken apart the contents of a wallet to let the audience in on a few well-chosen secrets and develop the resulting plotlines.  How much cash is there? A train ticket to where…? Who’s in the photo? An unclaimed betting slip – for a race run yesterday.

Keys: how many? What are they for? Are there car keys? What does she drive? It’s a bunch – maybe with some kind of fob, a lucky charm? Who gave her the lucky charm?

In Jacqui’s development, I gave a fair amount of thought to the conflict between the public and the private person. So much of this is unseen for most of the novel, but I’d planted a couple of character traits that I fully intended to deliver on as the story progressed. The reader might not know the motivation for her actions, but I always did.

3.           Character Sketch
Once you’ve got to know the character, it’s worth writing a paragraph that sums up their backstory and motivations. Keep it tight and be disciplined.

Jacqui is a woman in her mid-fifties. She has owned and run a launderette in a run-down part of South London since 1966, lives in a flat over the shop. She borrowed half the money to start the launderette from a small time local villain Dave Price…

And so on.

In the world of genre fiction, a protagonist, sidekick, antagonist, victim, witness who read as though they’ve shipped in from central casting can stifle even the most well-crafted of plots. Of course, there are some characters who seem to come fully formed, complete, but preparing the ground is never wasted.

Frank's Wild Years is published by Caffeine Nights - Autumn 2011. 



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