Sometimes, characters are like balloons. We inflate them with enough of ourselves to give them life. It gets exciting when they start choosing for themselves what they’d like from you, either copying aspects of you or rejecting you outright, taking a different view.
JK Rowling famously said that the character Harry Potter strolled into her head, fully formed. This is an extreme example of the life that characters we create take on, and often it’s not so easy. Today I had a go at an exercise for character development. I’ve been writing a short story to enter into a competition, and it features a male character who is deeply unpleasant. It’s important to the story that he is deeply unpleasant, but I have been having a tough time writing from his point of view – everything I write either feels like a caricature or that his heart’s not really in it (I like to think this is because I am not an unpleasant person, so find it hard to pretend to be one!).
Using The five minute writer by Margaret Geraghty for guidance, I did an exercise in which you imagine your character in a mundane, everyday scenario that has nothing to do with the story, and see what happens. Maybe your character is in the bath and he gets out unexpectedly to write a letter to a Great Aunt you didn’t realise he had. Or maybe your character is in the supermarket and she avoids a certain aisle, giving you a clue to a phobia she has or a memory she finds painful.
I took my character and sent him to visit his parents. I think at the back of my mind I was trying to figure out why he’d grown into such a jerk. It turns out that he has spent his life trying to capture his father’s attention. His father is regularly horrible to his mother, and because he sees many of the same traits in his girlfriend as his mother, he repeats his father’s behaviour, without even realising that’s what he’s doing. He does have a woman he respects in his life – his Aunt Maddy, who is an adventure travel writer (a random extra bit of information I wasn’t expecting and won’t necessarily use!)
The effect of getting all this information was to make me feel sorry for my character, and I was tempted to change the story to give him a chance for redemption. Since it’s a short story that’s not really feasible in the space I have – but if I ever extend it, I can definitely see the possibilities for redemption, whereas before all I wanted to do was drop him down a well! Crucially, I feel more confident about the way I’m portraying him, so it was definitely worthwhile to do. If you’re having trouble pinning down a character, give this a go!