Whose story is it anyway?

On Saturday I taught a workshop on character and viewpoint for a large and lively bunch of writers as part of a course run by Spread the Word. I thought I’d try to distill down what I said – sometimes I don’t quite know what I think about a topic until I’ve said it. Character is a good place to start talking about writing, as you can’t have a story until you have someone for that story to happen to.

Character is obviously a huge topic and there are many ways of approaching it, from question sheets to hot-seating to character mapping. I’ve alway shied away from that, as I prefer the organic approach, where it feels like you’re getting to know the character as you write them. However, I’ve come to realise one key fact, which is this:

  1. For your readers, the character is what you show them. Save the Cat is a whole book based on this principle. There isn’t time to show us everything about a character, but we make judgements based on everything from name to mannerisms to clothing. And above all, based on what they do. So there’s nothing wrong with considering and planning what you show to the readers.

We also talked a lot about what makes a character ‘likeable’. It isn’t that they’re perfect – the opposite in fact. If you ask people their favourite characters (in books, TV, or film), you’ll find that:

2. We like people who are flawed, who have struggles, who have to make difficult choices and nearly always do the right thing. This is one major reason why Darryl is my favourite character in The Walking Dead – he has every reason to be a bad guy, but he isn’t.

3. We don’t like people who are irredeemable (redeeming virtues go a long long way), who are too passive, or who are not aware of their own faults.

4. People will forgive a lot if someone had a bad childhood. ‘Had a bad childhood’ is the trope that keeps on giving.

We then discussed character arcs and the concept of change and growth. In my opinion, you don’t have to know every little detail about your character, like what colour of socks they have on, but you do need to know their greatest desire and their greatest fear. Put them between that stick and that carrot and voila – you have a character that needs to do something.

5. To go all Yoda about it, desire plus (or minus) fear equals motivation. Motivation leads to action. It should never be the other way round, that your plot leads the characters around. If you can’t answer the question ‘why are they doing this?’ – even if it’s a crazed killer – then something is wrong. Motives lead to action. Action is a series of choices. Therefore, the character we see is a sum of the choices we make, and the information you give us about them.

6. In a novel, you control everything that we see about the person. We don’t see them stroll on screen or recognise the actor from somewhere else, so it’s completely up to you the author.

7. It’s worth knowing early on if you want to write a series, and develop complex, multi-layered, interesting characters that we want to spend many books with.

8. We also discussed the importance of knowing whose story it is, even if you have multiple viewpoints and several different plots stands. Who is the person at the heart of events, who changes the most, and who we’re going to follow?

9. Everyone says to show not tell, BUT there’s nothing wrong with sometimes just saying ‘He was tall’. You can also show him bumping his head, or have another character comment on their height. But sometimes telling is just fine.

10. Physical description matters way less than you might think. Everyone pictures the character differently anyway.

I think that was the gist of it – I’ll do a round-up of the viewpoint bit another time. In the meantime enjoy this picture of Darryl and join me in wishing he would wash his hair. Just once.

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