Characters – believable or not…for that is the question?
“A character is a person in a narrative work of arts (such as a novel, play, television series or film). Derived from the ancient Greek word kharaktêr, the English word dates from the Restoration. Character, particularly when enacted by an actor in the theatre or cinema, involves “the illusion of being a human person. In literature, characters guide readers through their stories, helping them to understand plots and ponder themes”.
Snippet from Wikipedia
Characters – there are so many to choose from. My imagination knows no bounds when conjuring up another character for my novels. The good, the bad, the ugly! The pretty, the villain, the joker. The heartthrob, the strong woman, the victim; The vile, the historic, the vindictive…the list goes on and on, but what I have found over the years is this, that too much detail can have a detrimental effect.
We want to pull the reader in, help them absorb the story, love and hate the characters in equal measure, but having given talks on this in libraries, one point did emerge – too much detail and description ruins it for the reader as they’ve already formed their own picture, and if it contradicts their version too much, well, it’s like losing a favourite toy. L
Perfect example was the books now known as ‘Outlander’. When the Jamie character was being discussed and the actors who might play him were put forward, I remember the outcry for some of the possibilities! Having read the books, I had my own idea of what Jamie would look like, and I can honestly say, if Sam Heughan hadn’t been chosen, I’m not sure if I could have watched the series!
The process of considering whether or not a character can work within the story can be a long and winding road. I have put characters into a story, only to yank them out again the next day, deleting the scenes as I realise they won’t take the story forward. Deleting a character can be a truly horrid experience and one I rarely do as I ‘grieve’ that character
However, regardless of how I might feel about them, what has to work absolute is whether or not the character ‘fits’ into the story and works with their surroundings to make the story move along. Introducing a character that is blatantly pointless is a waste of time. Yet how many times have you read a book only to have characters popping up here and there, never to be seen again, or mentioned? Leaving the reader wondering who they are, why have they appeared and in some cases, I have been so distracted from the story, waiting for that character, only to finish the book disappointed when they didn’t reappear in some dramatic fashion!
Even background characters have to have a purpose. A conversation between the main character and a secondary or even third character has to have a point to bring out some clue or to reveal a secret, a flaw or background, to help the reader get to know the main character that little bit better and work out how it might play within the story. Every aspect of each character must be genuine and with intention.
This includes speech. If the story is set in Scotland for instance, if you are going to use Scottish dialogue, then don’t over- do it to such an extent it is laughable. Add a hint of difference, if it’s done properly, the reader will get it. Reading a book set in Scotland that has every other word ending with a load of ‘rrrrr’ is NOT Scottish! If set in the UK, the characters must speak in UK English.
“I’m calling the cops on you…” should really be “I’m telephoning the police” or some such variation.
“He offered her the jelly for her toast…” which is odd as ‘Jelly’ for UK is a wibbly wobbly desert and is what American’s call ‘Jell-O’, so it should be “He offered her the jam for her toast…”
Little things like these can completely ruin a good story and I’ve seen it too often.
Readers ask me how I chose the names of the characters in my books, and the answer is, ‘they chose me’. I have a story in my head, I know the main characters and I close my eyes and picture the person, how they look, sound, their personality, how they see the world, how they behave and the names just pop in there. On rare occasions I had to change them as there were too many starting with the same letter! And that is extremely difficult as once they are named, they become real to me, and change can be traumatic.
What can be difficult and I have not always noticed myself doing it, is using Christian names of people I know! But if the name ‘fits’ the character, then I don’t change it, but make sure the fictional character does not portray ANY traits of the factual! The only time I decided to use real names for ‘real’ factual characters within my first book, was for the dogs, I didn’t think Toby, Henry and Barnaby would mind!