How do you construct a character?
I often get asked how I construct a character.
I begin by basing my character on someone I know or have known.
When I say this at public presentations, some people quickly respond by letting me know they feel left out of that umbrella, “But I write fantasy, and my characters are badgers and dragons”.
It doesn’t matter, I tell them. If your reader is able to relate to the tics and idiosyncrasies of the character you are writing, even anthropomorphic creatures will live and breathe on the page. We need to experience their personalities.
Write from experience of what – and who – you know. Experience can always be translated into relatable content. Always.
For instance: if I’m writing about a giant I will start by bringing to mind one friend of mine who is nearly seven feet tall. This person constantly bangs his head on doorframes, has trouble buying clothes that fit off the rack, is always hungry and has an insatiable appetite for food. His grocery bills are high, and he must have his clothing tailor-made. He has confided in me how hard it is to go outside and disappear into a crowd because he towers over most people. And people stare at him because he is so tall. It invariably makes him self-conscious, and he often wishes he were smaller, less conspicuous. He has a pronounced nose, a sizeable Adam’s apple and very big feet. Two of my feet, one butted against the other are not as long as his feet. He has a high-pitched laugh for one so tall, bad posture and suffers from arthritis. And if I was writing about a half-giant in an urban fantasy setting, I could use the fact that my friend has to push the front seat right against the back seat to fit into a car.
Do you see how easy it is for you to visualize my giant? Now for the personality of this giant, I might borrow things from another friend of mine. This particular friend speaks in cockney dialect, has no filter, says what he pleases; is very intelligent, very combative and very opinionated. He greets you with “Alright?” and ends conversations with “Ta.” He is also artistically inclined, hates seafood and has, according to his own accounts, never been sober a night in his adult life.
My fictional characters begin as actual people. Some of those actual people I have loved, many I have liked, a few I have battled, and many more were casual acquaintances who gave me an intimate peek into their lives. When I marry the physicality and certain character traits of one person, with the personality of another, the relationship is consummated; a new character emerges.
Then, when I place my character in one of the situations I’ve imagined, and when that character begins to interact with other characters I have written into the emerging story, I understand the dynamics of the situation I am building. I come to “know” which characters will have a positive chemistry and which characters will create friction.
However, there’s no exact formula to crafting a scene. Sometimes a character arrives before the “set” is built and sometimes the set awaits the arrival of the actors. But often, the setting fully manifests at the same time that the characters are being realized, and they moved around in my mind like actors on a stage.
Many a time, scenes seem to write themselves, because whether or not I’m physically putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I am already living attentively with my characters, bringing them into my life in order to bring them out on the pages of my work.
It’s essential to be open to life experience, and to want to become attentive to how people around you behave – and imagine how they may behave in a range of situations. Go out into the world and submerge yourself in life’s rhythms and its adventures. Listen, observe and – most of all – interact attentively with different people from a range of backgrounds in a range of situations. Be open to what it is that makes each person you meet distinctive. Is it the way they speak? Is it their movements? Their cultural background or their habits? Then come back to your laptop and try again to write your characters to life …and see what happens.
Kaja Blackley is the author of Maggie MacCormack and the Witches’ Wheel now on sale at: maggiemaccormack.com